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Minor Details:
A Few Self-Editing Rules


Lori Lake
By Lori L. Lake

When I write first drafts, I can't take the time to focus on the "Rules." If I did, I would never get a draft on the page. So I just write, making mistakes in grand fashion and knowing that I'll need to go back later and look over everything to apply any rules and fix mistakes.

I keep a list of things to examine and edit, but I save applying them for when the draft is done and ready for editing and revision. Four of the most common are below.

Which vs. That
Both writers and editors often puzzle over whether to use "that" or "which." I've had first editors go over my work and strike one and insert the other. Then the line editor came along and switched half of them back! Who's right?

Nowadays, you'll see a mix of uses, and how can you tell which is correct? Try using this rule: Use "that" when the phrase or clause or information that follows is essential to the understanding of the sentence. For instance:

Once she reached the harbor, he told Polly to search for the boat that was the biggest and named "The Pearl."
The description following "that" is essential for Polly if she is to find the boat in the busy harbor. Without the extra information, Polly wouldn't know one boat from another.

When used in conjunction with a phrase, "which" is a much less essential word. Use "which" when the extra information is not critical.
With squinted eyes, Polly scanned all the boats in the harbor until she found "The Pearl," which was the biggest.
In this case, Polly's eyes are searching the harbor until she finds the boat she is looking for, but the size of the boat is just additional description and not critical to the understanding of the sentence. You could cut "which was the biggest" right out of the sentence without misguiding your reader. In the first sentence above, without the information following "that," the protagonist would be up a creek with no proverbial paddle. In the second sentence, the information following "which" could be omitted.

It's vs. Its
"It's" forms the contraction for "it is" or "it has." That is the only form "it's" ever takes. If you want to indicate that the Porsche belongs to Maria, you write:
It's Maria's Porsche, and she had a flat tire.

Regarding the tire and the air it "possesses":

When it blew, the tire lost all of its air.
The possessive form of the word "it" doesn't ever have an apostrophe—just as his and her are possessive forms without an apostrophe (and whose, ours, yours, theirs). And if Maria drives her Porsche through a red light and smashes into another car, then you'd write:
Its crash was ear-splitting.
Any time—every time—you use "it's" in a sentence, if you can substitute "it is" for "it's" and the meaning doesn't change, then you know you've got it right. For instance, in the sentence above, you'd never say: "It is crash was ear-splitting." You would use "its."

As vs. Like
Use "as" when comparing phrases and clauses that contain a verb.
"Patty bakes with a family recipe as her mother did and her grandmother before her."
Use "like" when comparing nouns and pronouns.
"Patty bakes like a professional."
Who vs. Whom
I generally remember this one by reminding myself that "who" will most often be the subject in any sentence, and "whom" is most often used as the object of the sentence rather than the subject. If you can substitute "he" or "she" for the "who," then you're on the right track. Alternatively, "her" or "him" would be substituted for "whom."    
  • Who found the new rules helpful?
       She found the new rules helpful.
  • She asked who would be going to the store.
       He would be going to the store.
  • She was the one whom we sought.
       We sought her.
To be honest, I often go by ear (which prompted the poem in the sidebar). If a sentence sounds okay, I generally use "who";
if it sounds awkward, and if I can tell that the word is used as the object of the sentence rather than the subject, then I use "whom."
Dear Lori Lake

I think that I shall no more use
Those words which can my mind confuse
Or muddle my befuddled muse.
When in a tome I'm forced to choose
Between them, I shall always lose.

"What are those words? " I hear you say.
Why, girl, they are:

For even though I'm told I'm bright
I never seem to get them right!

And then, Ms. Lake, you say, "Don't fear.
They're tricky, but just use your ear,"
Now what could make a thing more clear?
And so I shall embrace this tool—
I'll use my ear and screw the rule.

Watch out, ma'dam, a monster's here
Who'll use not rules but trust her ear
And if she makes a big mistake,
She'll blame it all on Lori Lake!
2005 Sage Amante

Lie vs. Lay
Some people completely avoid using the verbs "lie" and "lay" because they are so confusing. One quick rule of thumb is that things tend to "lay" while people tend to "lie," however, that's not conclusive. The only way to be sure you have it right is to pay attention to the intent of the word and its tense.

Lie vs. Lay - A Chart
Action Present Past Participle - A Form of Have
To recline lie, lying lay has/have/had lain
To put or place
(verb followed by an object)
lay, laying laid has/have/had laid
To tell a falsehood lie, lying lied has/have/had lied

Present Tense Examples:
  • I never lie down on the job.
  • I am lying down even if the boss does fire me.
  • Hens lay eggs.
  • The hen is laying eggs each day.
  • I never lie about my age.
  • I'm not lying when I say that she is a big fat liar.
Past Tense Examples:
  • Even though I was supposed to be working, I went ahead and lay down for a nap.
  • The hen laid a brown egg.
  • She lied when she said she never slept around.
Participial Examples:
  • I have lain down for a nap every time the boss went out on a call.
  • The hens have laid two dozen eggs today.
  • She has lied about her fidelity to every single girlfriend.
When in doubt, there are many ways to use alternative words in your sentences other than "lay" or "lie" such as:
  • I took a nap.
  • The hens provided plenty of eggs.
  • I set the eggs on the table.
  • I stretched out on the bed.
For Further Reference

There are a number of books out that help writers revise and edit their own work. My favorite is Renni Brown & Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.

Others include:

Line By Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing - Claire Kehrwald Cook

Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction - David Michael Kaplan

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction - Michael Seidman
2005 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments. ********************************************************************************
Lori L. Lake is the author of the novels Have Gun We'll Travel, Gun Shy, Under The Gun, Different Dress, and Ricochet In Time; editor of the anthology The Milk of Human Kindness: Lesbian Authors Write About Mothers and Daughters; and author of the book of short stories, Stepping Out.

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