Top 3 tips for editing your own writing

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Many writers hate editing. Not me. The heavy lifting is done. You’ve unearthed that thing that lay buried inside your dreams, ideas and visions, and now it’s in a workable form. Editing is little more than brushing away the excess, cleaning, patching, and polishing. So why do so many of us get stuck?

Here are my top three tips for editing your writing — practices that have helped me in my career as a writer.

Walk away

When you sit down to write, what initially comes out won’t be perfect. You may love it or you may hate it, but in either case, you aren’t objective about it, and how could you be? You’re still too close to its genesis. That’s why I always tell new writers in my classes that the most valuable tool in editing is the simplest:

Get up, walk away, and let your writing sit for a while. 

You can’t do a decent edit unless you back off, lose your intensity, and gain objectivity. And it’s best if you walk away for at least 48 hours. The rhythms of what you’ve written die down a bit inside your head, enough for you to not fall into them as you read your work.

Recently I had a column due that I wanted to cut by 10% (see Stephen King’s 10% Rule for edits). I was stuck at just over 1100 words and couldn’t budge, though I kept pecking away at it for hours. I put it aside Tuesday night and didn’t return until Thursday morning. By then my head was clear, the problems were obvious, and I whittled it down to 995 words easily.

Read it aloud

Sometimes we complicate things by writing too much. You’re a writer, so of course playing around with words is something you delight in. But when too many words wrap a simple concept or image, you lose clarity and focus.

When writing is read aloud, the flaws become apparent. So do unnecessary elements. What looks good on paper often doesn’t work as spoken language. That’s key. Readers who hear words in their head are more likely to follow a conversational train of thought than an elaborate one filled with clauses and asides.

While reading your work aloud, if you hit spots where you stumble, can’t find the right pacing, or are bored by what you’re saying, that section needs to be edited, reworked, or removed.

Less is more

I’m a beiiever in the “let it flow” first draft (which I’ll do a post on shortly). No judgments, no going back and rewriting as you write, just move forward and put it down. Everything. Even if it’s stupid, off-subject, or embarrassing. This draft is for you and you alone. Blue sky thinking.

However, on the second draft, you should end up with fewer words than you began with. Again, Stephen King’s 10% Rule. If you have to add words for clarity, for character development, for plot structure, then words need to be removed elsewhere.

This may be the hardest part of editing. We’ve all heard the phrase “kill your darlings,” but it often seems more like maiming them. A good edit isn’t an amputation. It’s taking off a down coat in the summer. You don’t need that excess padding, so lay it aside.

There’s no need to spell everything out. Too much is too cumbersome. Leave room for your reader’s own involvement.

If you can’t do it yourself, find someone you trust and ask them for a good firm edit. Once you’ve worked with a first-rate editor, you’ll see how much better you sound with the non-essentials pared away. You may not even notice what’s missing, because it’ll still be your words, only less of them.

The ability to accept editorial advice and constructive criticism is one of the secrets to success as a writer. Those who can, change and grow. Those who can’t are more likely to get stuck and be discouraged.

These are not your darlings. They’re simply your words. You have many more where they came from.

One thought on “Top 3 tips for editing your own writing

  1. A well-written article on writing well…these are excellent reminders of the “how” of editing; I am new at it but finding I love to do it–thanks! 🙂

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