10 Steps for Editing Your Own Writing
You’ve done it. You’ve finally, triumphantly, typed out “The End.” Congratulations! Now comes the hard part: revision.
Revising is often more laborious than the writing process itself, but it’s essential — assuming, that is, that you want your writing to get published. Whether you write nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, you must evaluate your own writing and transform it from something that is complete but nothing more to something that is completely compelling. The process will involve multiple task-specific passes (not necessarily in the order presented) intended to achieve various goals. Let’s get you started:
Oops — hold on. Not yet. You deserve a break. Step away from the computer. Give yourself a few days to let your win sink in. Pursue another writing project, perhaps, or catch up on the rest of your life, before circling back and manipulating your manuscript.
One exception: If you have not written a synopsis or an abstract, do it now, before you revise your work. If, after reading the manuscript, you realize that you didn’t write out what you set out to write, decide whether the precis is precisely what you wanted, or whether the finished product is the real deal.
2. Hands Off
Read the entire manuscript without changing anything — or, at the most, make notes about major fixes or other key corrections for later attention. Shift from your writer mode to your reader setting. Remember, you tackled this writing project because nobody else would (or you thought you could do it better, or at least differently), so now it’s time to read it from cover page to conclusion (because you followed my advice from a previous post to not do that until you were finished, right?).
Some people recommend printing your piece out in hard copy because they claim that you notice the details more when you read your work in print, but that’s impractical for a 100,000-word novel, and some people are more comfortable with on-screen reading than others, so take or leave that advice.
3. Parts of Speech
Focus, one type at a time, on the parts of speech: Notice nouns, and choose more precise terms and employ elegant variation. Is one of your characters a pirate? Refer to them as a corsair, a buccaneer, or an adventurer now and then. Use a dictionary with synonyms listed, or a thesaurus or a synonym finder.
Veer from your verbs, finding opportunities to use more vivid, compelling action words. Resist the urge to go overboard, especially with variations of “he said” (which you should minimize in dialogue as much as possible anyway by using narrative to identify the speaker), but don’t let your characters get away with walking — have them stroll, strut, stalk, amble, caper, or mince instead. Search for forms of “to be” (is, are, was, were) and strive for more active sentence construction: “She looked in and saw that he was idly handling the device” becomes “She peered in to find him fiddling with the gadget.”
Attack adjectives and adverbs. Don’t omit them without justification, but do make sure they’re not a crutch for your unwillingness to enhance descriptive language in other ways. Instead of referring to a hazy sky, describe how it reminds the character of when she used to play around the house as a child wearing a veil. Rather than mentioning a slowly flowing river as such, tell the reader about how it doesn’t seem in a particular hurry to get anywhere.
Are you sure you know the precise meaning of every word you use? As you read, be alert for terms — whether newly acquired or long since adopted — that may not express what you think they do, and look them up to confirm or deny your suspicion.
4. Sentence Structure
Are your sentences particularly complicated and convoluted, or notably short and stubby? Don’t strive for a strictly limited word range, but minimize outliers: Sentences with a word count you can tabulate on the fingers of one hand should have a punctuating purpose. Sentences that last an entire paragraph need to be snipped into palatable pieces.
Are your sentences generally active? Passive sentences are used by great writers, but you and they both know that too many sentences structured that way produce an enervating effect. Also, parenthetical phrases are better inserted mid-sentence than tacked on at the end; save the last position for the impact. The same goes for paragraphs — which, by the way, should be cloven in two if they’re more than ten or twelve lines in a Word document — half of that for Web-bound words.
And unless you’re consciously incorporating iambic pentameter, beware of sentence rhythms that may subconsciously sap readers’ energy. Too much alliteration (guilty) or assonance can weary the most dedicated reader. You’re writing prose or poetry, not constructing an obstacle or dog-agility course.
5. Deemphasize Emphasis
Do you use “scare quotes”? Frighten them away. Italics? Too many are an eyesore — and weaken the cumulative impact. Exclamation points? Omit unless OMGs are also part of the package — an exclamation point can be a crutch that takes the place of high-impact prose.
6. Tone and Voice
Eloquent literature has been laden with slang, and serious nonfiction writing can be laced with humor. But honestly appraise your writing for its personality. If you’re writing a how-to, you can be conversational, but don’t throw away your authority with your austerity. If you’re writing period fiction, be alert for anachronisms.
Do a word check. Are you concerned that perhaps you use a particular word too often? Do a search, and if you find it liberally sprinkled throughout your manuscript, cull it so that it appears with reasonable frequency.
You may find as you read for some other purpose that a major structural flaw exists: In fiction, you may decide to add an adventure or subtract a subplot or alter the sequence of plot elements — or at least the order in which they appear if you shift from one plot thread to one or more others. Your nonfiction piece may cry out for a major reorganization. You might decide to insert instructions or develop details, or discard a digression.
Don’t hesitate to undertake significant revisions like these. Yes, you’ve spent a lot of time getting your manuscript to where it is now, but that doesn’t mean it’s where it should be. Go with your instincts.
Now is the time you really search inside yourself about whether your hero’s name really fits them, or whether they kick back with one too many sidekicks or could really use a new nemesis. Or maybe a place name seems out of place, or the term for a talisman is too tortuous. Are your chapter titles or subheadings really working for you, or are you trying too hard to line them up with some grammatical gimmick?
9. Recite Makes Right
Just when you think you’ve finally nailed it, read it one more time — aloud. A recitation lets you listen to the rhythm of your writing and catch any clunky or laboriously long sentences you missed or words you omitted.
10. Editor’s Notes
Now, it’s time to send your manuscript out into the world, but unless you’re self-publishing in print or online, an editor is in its future — and, likely, so is a revision on your part based on the editor’s comments. But you’re also likely to get focused requests for rewrites, so though you may feel by now that you never want to read it again, take heart that you have some direction.