Editing. The word strikes fear and dread into writers. Where do you start? How much do you tinker before hiring a pro? How can you know when you’re finished rewriting?
While these questions and more can make the process feel daunting, revision doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks. No matter where you are in your writing life, you can learn to self-edit. Let’s look at easy-to-use self-editing techniques.
Check the Library
If you don’t already own a copy, get the classic, Elements of Style by Strunk & White. In this slim volume, you’ll find grammatical rules (lie and lay, anyone?), tips on usage and advice for writing in a clear and straightforward fashion. Another great resource is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. If you can never remember the correct its or it’s, lay or lie, these handy guides will help. Many other resource books, from thesauri to dictionaries, are available in print or digital form. To give your writing professional polish, keep them handy and refer to them often.
Fix Your Verbs
Become aware of how you use verbs and “ing” words. Verbs are action words—the engine that keeps the writing car running. You might write an excellent description, character or setting, but without energetic verbs, the car isn’t going very far. Also called active verbs, they literally depict the action of a sentence. Contrast action with passive verbs—a state of being rather than an action. Typically, writers pair passive verbs (is, are, was, were) with an “ing” word. Nothing wrong with that, but replacing the “was ing” with one simple but active verb can tighten and add power to a sentence. Example: Ned was walking down the street. Good enough, right? But if we omit the “was” and use the simple past tense of walking—walked—the sentence is shorter and more direct. Look through your drafts and see how many of these was “ings” you might transform into a more straightforward version.
Take it further: replace the past tense verb (walk) with a specific, active verb. How is the person walking? Is he late? Does he dawdle? He might race, rush, run, amble, sashay, or poke along. Ned was walking down the street becomes Ned sprinted down the street.
Drain the Swamp
Avoid the “Vague Swamp!” This technique will help you write with clarity and precision by weeding out generalities. Most swampy words are modifiers—adjectives and adverbs that describe their nouns. Intensifiers: really, very, great, lots, many, giant, huge. Diminishers: little, small, some, a few, a bit. Vague: thing, stuff, problem, situation. Locate and replace with precise terms to help readers know exactly what you mean. And while we’re talking about modifiers, check your draft for overuse. With too many modifiers, readers can feel weighted down. Only give readers details they need to know.
Go Straight at It
When we write with the vague swamp, we often end up using bigger and more words than necessary. For instance: The little old man darted behind the maritime fabrication facility and ignited his smoking materials. This sentence contains several multi-syllabic words. If we “go straight at it:” He darted behind the old shipyard and lit a cigarette. Also note how stilted these big words make the tone. Readers prefer a more intimate casual style.
Pull Stage Directions
Search your draft for stage directions—descriptions of a character’s actions that aren’t important to the story.
She woke as the alarm beeped. She shoved her feet into her slippers and trudged downstairs to make coffee. Holding the steaming mug, she headed for the bathroom. Thank goodness it was Friday. She showered, wrapped herself in a towel and wiped the fog off the mirror. In the bedroom, she picked out her favorite Casual Friday outfit. Was there time enough for one more cup before she had to leave for work? Not really. Her shoes echoed on the stairs as she gathered her purse and lunch bag. One last sip and she locked the front door.
Going straight at it, the revision might be: She woke up late, gulped down her coffee, and remembered–TGIF. She threw on her favorite Casual Friday outfit and flew out the door.
We’ve only scratched the self-editing surface here—tips abound in resource books or from other writers. Eventually, you’ll draft the way you revise, saving time and connecting with readers in a more complete and satisfying way. That’s the best part of self-editing.