An Editor’s 10 Top Tips for Editing & Improving Your Own Writing By: Marlene Blessing 11/09/2013
You’ve written your heart out and it’s all on the page. Now it’s time to cut, shape, and polish that gem. First, you’ll need to have a great set of tools to help you do the work:
My Favorite Editing Tools—I use these guides again and again:
· Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) for spelling;
· Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne
Truss for punctuation (she’ll make you laugh as you learn);
·The quirky illustrated version of The Elements of Style by Strunk& White and artist Maira Kalman—for usage and style (and even more fun); and
·The tasty The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon (because you never thought you’d find vampires in a grammar guide).
It’s also valuable to have a thesaurus (for diction), Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 18th ed. (for eloquent quotes), and an atlas. Plus, online searches are today’s speediest research tools—just be sure you’re getting your information from a reliable source.
Now, my 10 top tips for editing your own writing:
1. Cut the Frills: Don’t let your own fancy “wordifying” get in the way of a good story. Highlight every uber-literary word, phrase, and sentence in your document. Examine each, one at a time—honesty required!—and delete or revise any that is there more to trot out your erudition than to connect your reader to the story. As Stephen King wrote: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little
scribbler's heart, kill your darlings.”
2. Do a“Sensory Audit”: For every descriptive passage, check to see if you’ve given the reader something to see, smell, taste, touch, hear. Engage at least 2 senses each time to ensure that you’re transporting your reader to a place and time in the most concrete way you can.
3. Order, Please!: Create an orderly progression for your reader, even if you plan to
zigzag in time in your story. You want your reader to stay on your yellow brick road. Do as many “save-as” versions of your digital document as you need to try out different possibilities. Reword if necessary to improve your new transitions.
4. Begin Well: What if Dickens had opened A Tale of Two Cities with “In that period of time, it was considered to be the best and worst of times, . . .” instead of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, . . .” Be direct whenever possible and grab the reader by the collar with your first sentence.
5. Weed Out Redundancies: We all have favorite words and verbal tics. Do a “Search”
in your document to discover how many times you used, say, the word“opportunity”
in an essay on social equality. This is when your thesaurus and dictionary are your best friends. Find as many strong substitutions as you can and replace your repeats with them.
6. Be Active: You don’t need to nuke every passive verb construction in your
writing. Just make sure that you choose active constructions as often as possible to avoid stiffness, formality, and wordiness: “Our group decided . . .” not “It was decided by our group . . .”
7. On Whose Authority?: Get your facts straight. Knowledge adds power to your story,whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. A famous poet once advised me: “You must know that a bird’s bones are hollow.” I fact-checked his bit of wisdom and learned that (a) not all bird bones are hollow; (b) the birds with the greatest number of hollow bones were those that soared on thermals; and (c) flightless birds such as penguins don’t have any hollow bones. Now I can write about birds.
8. Voice Check:Would your story improve if your narrator were more casual in tone, witty, tender, imperious, bitter, philosophical, childlike, uncertain, etc.? Even in essays, where you are the narrator, you’ll fine-tune your voice to create the kind of appeal you intend (call to action, sympathy, provocation, laughter, etc.). Word choice is a key aspect of your voice check. Read your piece out loud to yourself and see if you stumble over a logjam of words and a rushing river of ideas. Then try to clear the path.
9. Metaphorically Speaking: A good metaphor gives the reader a hit of verbal java. Too many verbal fireworks might make your reader dizzy, but a few original dazzlers in your writing will lift their spirits.
10. The Final Polish: Back to your tools! Check spelling, grammar, word usage,punctuation, capitalization, paragraph breaks, and any other nit you can think of. You have the tools. Now have some fun polishing your writing to a fine shine!