By Joshua Essoe

Now that November (National Novel Writing Month) is over, a writer’s “first draft done” mind often turns to editing. The Hit List is a series of 4 articles focusing on editing by a full-time freelance editor, continuing advice, insight and that editorial perspective.


Hit List_1What cursed names do you reserve for your editor? We know you have them. We know you give them to us. And we don’t care. We actually kind of like it.

When you work with an editor for the first time, you’ll start to shed preconceived notions about the shape your story is in. Getting that MS back bleeding and red can be a shock. But, I swear, we only do it in self-defense.

I want to help you and your MS avoid some of that unnecessary blood loss. I see a lot of things I wish I didn’t. Every editor does. So here, dear readers, are a few things on my hit list.



  1. What is industry standard formatting?

This is the standard manuscript formatting, or SMF, that will generally be accepted anywhere you want to submit. It is the formatting standard by which I work as well. If a market, or agent, or editor needs something that differs from this, then it will be in their submission guidelines. Always go with the specifics they require and make sure to check. If they don’t specify, feel safe going with SMF.

Specs for SMF: (in Word) 12 point New Courier, spaced “exactly 25 point” (not double spaced!) with widow control off, one inch margins all the way around, half inch first-line indent, half-inch header and footer, zero indentation and spacing, titles on seventh line down, and name/title/pg# in the right-side header.

For even more specific info, read the formatting page on my website.

  1. Mixing up a and the.

I see this more than a little. And I can see you shaking your head already. You totally don’t do that, that’s dumb. Well, not so fast, Speedy. I see it a lot for a reason.

These words imply very different things. Only use “the” when referring to something or someone that has already been introduced to your story, and “a” for something new to the story.

For example, when introducing a new element like a big, slashy red pen, upon the first mention of that red pen, it is always, “a” red pen, not “the” red pen. “The” references a specific red pen, and since the red pen has never appeared nor been mentioned in your story thus far, the characters couldn’t possibly know to which red pen you were referring when you said “the red pen.” In this instance, it would be “a red pen.”

Thereafter, since the red pen has now been introduced, and your readers and your characters know about it, it would be “the red pen.”


  1. Action sequences.

Action is usually the most difficult for writers to become proficient in. Time and again, the manuscripts I work on will have the heaviest line editing concentrated in action scenes. I start hacking harder when characters do, so here are some rules of thumb.

Less is more. Use fewer words. More words merely gunk up the flow and muddy clarity. Action should be sharp and fast, your words should suit that.

Use only the actions that are necessary to show what is going on and no more. If there is no reason to include an extra dodge, sway, swing, leap, scream or twist, then don’t. Or charges or roars. Especially not charges or roars. Each movement should build off the last and serve to increase the stakes and the tension until the climax and resolution. If it doesn’t–cut it.

Save your big, dynamic action verbs like “slam,” or “jolt” . . . or “roar” . . . for action scenes. You can only use each a finite number of times before they loses potency, so save these words for when they fit the scene and when they’ll have the most impact.

Anything that slows the tempo doesn’t belong. Tempo is the level of activity within a scene via dialogue, action or a combination of the two. Together with rhythm (the way scenes interact with one another), tempo dictates the pacing of your story.

Pay close attention to that pacing too. Is your story filled with action scene after action scene after action scene? The whole point of an action scene is to get the blood moving, create tension, make readers fear for your characters. It’s easy to make your readers numb by overdoing it. If your tension is getting stale, it may be because you’re hitting the same emotional beat too many times. Too many action beats–but this can be applied to any kind of scene, any emotional beat.

When that’s happening, you have to use an opposing beat. So change it up and throw in some romance or mystery. Or mysterious romance. Give readers a rest so they can step back and appreciate your action again. To put it another way, if you love bacon (and you do), and so all you eat is bacon (and you might), you’re going to grow tired of bacon . . . this is a bad example.

For more, go to Hide and Create, the podcast I co-host, and listen to the episode we did on action scenes.

If you can, pick up some books from masters at writing action and study what they do: Stephen King, R.A. Salvatore, Dan Abnett, and Joel Rosenberg are pretty freakin’ masterful.

With that, I close my hit list to you. Next time I’ll be back to take out double spaces, that/which, and passive voice, so for now I leave you to your own devices. But I’ve got my eye on you. My big, bright, baleful, red eye. Go ahead, call me all the bad names you want. I’m here for you.


JoshuaEssoe_AuthorPicJoshua Essoe is a full-time, freelance editor. He’s done work for best-seller David Farland, including the multi-award winning novel, Nightingale, Dean Lorey, lead writer of Arrested Development, best-seller, James Artimus Owen, and numerous Writers of the Future authors and winners, as well as many top-notch independents. He is currently the finishing editor at Urban Fantasy Magazine.

Together with tie-in writer Jordan Ellinger, indie success-story, Michael J. Sullivan, and traditionally published author and NY Times best-seller, Debbie Viguie, he records the weekly writing podcast Hide and Create. You can find his interview episode here.

When not editing . . . ha ha, a joke. He was a 2014 finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, and lives with his wife, and three horrible cats near UCLA.