5 Things NOT to Skip While Editing

Rewriting is what distinguishes amateurs from professionals. It’s what brings your work to life. When you write a rough draft, you may pour yourself into it, but the rough draft is really just for getting the story down; the key to making it great is revision.

Now, there’s no substitute for a professional editor; even great authors work with professional editors, and when professional editors write books, they usually hire other editors to edit them. There’s a limit to how effective you can be when you’re editing your own work. That said, a lot of authors can’t afford professional editing, and even if you’re going to have an editor go over your work, you want your manuscript to be as good as it can be before you send it off to the publisher. So here are five things to keep in mind as you sit down to edit and revise your writing.

First, use the right words.

Mark Twain once said that the difference between using the right word and almost the right word was the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. I once read that a hero was “bemused” by a heroine, and I couldn’t figure out what he found puzzling about her. Then, as the author continued to use the word bemused, I realized that she meant to say amused, which, of course, has a totally different meaning. If you’re not sure about a word’s meaning, look it up! Using a word incorrectly can pull a reader out of the story. That’s bad; maybe that reader will put your book down and never pick it up again. And even if you’re sure of a word’s meaning, you should ask yourself whether it’s the very best word you can use to get your point across. Is there a more specific word you could use? Don’t write step if you mean stomp.

Second—and this is especially important in fiction writing—show, don’t tell.

That’s advice you’ve probably heard a hundred times if you’ve ever attended a writing workshop or a creative writing class, but it’s easy to forget when you’re in a rush to get the first draft onto the page. As you read through your manuscript, look for any sentences that tell the reader what a character is feeling instead of showing it. If you see a lot of linking verbs, such as the various forms of to be and words like seem or feel, that’s a good sign that you may be telling when you should be showing. For example, if you’ve written “She was cold,” you might consider changing that to something like “She shivered.” It’s almost always better to let a character’s actions show what he or she is feeling instead of using an adjective.

Third, vary sentence structure.

If you use the same sentence structure over and over again, readers get bored. For example, imagine you have a character who just got home from work after being laid off. You might write, “He parked the car. He thought about how he was going to tell his wife. He got out. He walked up the front steps. He opened the door.” Of course, that’s pretty dull. You need to make things more interesting: “He put the car in park and sat there for a moment. How was he going to tell his wife? Finally, he got out of the car, made his way up the front steps, and opened the door.”

Fourth, in your efforts to vary sentence structure, make sure you don’t accidentally use misplaced modifiers or introduce impossible simultaneous actions.

Here’s an example of a misplaced modifier: “Walking up the steps, the front door opened.” Grammatically, this sentence says that the front door was walking up the steps. That’s obviously not the case, so you need to revise to say what you mean more precisely: “As John walked up the steps, the front door opened.” Simultaneous actions also sometimes creep in when you use verbs that end in –ing. For example, in an effort to vary sentence structure, you might write something like, “Opening the car door, John walked up the front steps.” The problem with that sentence is that it implies John simultaneously opens the door and walks up the steps, which is unlikely.

Fifth, cut out any scenes that don’t advance the story.

Or, if you’re writing nonfiction, any paragraphs that don’t directly support the chapter’s topic. Do readers need to see John get out of the car and walk up those steps? Maybe they do; the scene tells us something about John’s personality and his relationship to his wife. But if you’ve already established that relationship earlier in the story, maybe you would be better off jumping ahead to their conversation. Each new scene needs to push the plot forward or provide the reader with new information that’s important to the story. Sometimes, it can be hard to cut out a scene you’ve spent time on even though you know you should. Be ruthless. As William Faulkner is supposed to have said, we all have to be willing to kill our little darlings.

There are whole books on the topics of editing and revising (and I recommend that you find a good one and purchase it), but I hope you find these five tips helpful. Remember that just about anyone can write a bad book; it takes someone who is willing to revise to write a good one.

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