Editing Tips I Learned the Hard Way

Red PenMy writing goals this year include quite a bit of editing, since I have several novels and short stories written but not yet ready for query or publication. Having wrestled with manuscripts in the past, I’m sharing a few editing tips I’ve learned. The hard way.

Don’t edit words you’re going to throw out. I’ve made the mistake of going chapter by chapter in an early manuscript and polishing my words to a shine. And then, in the third or fourth pass, I look at a passage or a chapter and think, “What the heck is this doing for the story?” I suddenly realize that these words don’t move the story along and need to go. It’s hard to throw away pages and pages that you’ve written, but even harder to throw away those hours you spend editing the pages until they glistened like Christmas.

Of course, you should still throw them away if they don’t add to the story. But editing experts suggest you first read a draft and look for plot holes, character issues, story structure, etc. — deleting unnecessary sentences, paragraphs, passages, and chapters — and then move to the sentence-by-sentence editing. 

Know your weaknesses. Through the marvelous Deep EDITS system taught by writing coach Margie Lawson, I learned that I tend to skimp on setting. If I’d written The Lord of the Rings (a particularly descriptive novel), my setting passages might have been: “Hobbit. Green Shire. Underground home.” ACTION!  That’s not enough, y’all. Since I now know this weakness, I check each scene for at least enough setting to orient the reader and character descriptions when a new person arrives in the story.

I’m also given to overuse of certain words and phrases, like “just,” “that,” and “I wondered.” So I hunt those down and mercilessly prune.

Early on, I missed these personal shortcomings. But through deep editing, listening to quality beta readers and critique partners, and reading up on common manuscript issues, I’ve discovered and accepted my weaknesses. Now I can be on the lookout as I edit.

Read it aloud. Without a doubt, this is one of the best editing tips I’ve ever received. I ignored it at first, though, wondering how much of a difference there could be between reading in your head and through your mouth.

When I finally tried it, I was amazed at the difference. Reading and hearing the words at the same time, a writer can catch problems not otherwise revealed.

At the very least, you should read your dialogue aloud to check for authenticity, rhythm, and flow. It can reveal such issues as stilted dialogue, losing track of who’s saying what, and unrealistic phrasing (like characters calling each other by name every other paragraph, when no one does that in real life). I always read the dialogue now, but I try to read the whole manuscript aloud at some point.

Believe it: Every word matters. I just finished reading the last of the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy by Maggie Steifvater. Some people ask if learning a lot about writing ruins the read for you (like knowing how sausage is made makes you less likely to eat it). I don’t find that at all. Indeed, I’m in awe of how beautifully and seamlessly Maggie’s writing lifts off the page and captures my attention. Now and then, I do pause long enough to say, “Well done, Maggie.” But mostly, I’m sucked into the story so deep my gut twists every time a main character emotes. Why is her writing so compelling? Why is any excellent writing so compelling?

It’s the attention to every sentence, every phrase, every word. Choosing this word instead of that one changes the rhythm, the cadence, the mood. Describing a character one way instead of another reveals something about the narrator. Ensuring that every sentence pulls its weight removes the burden from the reader and allows her to get caught up in the story itself.

Dig deep. Work hard. Every word matters.

ROW80 Update

Every inch of progress matters as well — whether it’s personal development or professional goals. Our lives should be journeys of improving ourselves and the world around us.

I don’t know how much good I did the world this last week — I don’t think I harmed anything — but I definitely made some progress on my ROW80 writing goals.

1. Read 12 books. This week I read Happy Wives Club by Fawn Weaver (nonfiction) and Forever by Maggie Stiefvater (fiction). Check.

2. Complete two drafts of short stories. I edited two short stories this week and wrote one scene for another. Check.

3. Take care of ROW80 sponsor responsibilities. So happy to take on this delightful role again! Indeed, I checked in on my people and saw some great goals and enthusiasm for this Round of Words in 80 Days. I also drafted my sponsor post. Check.

4. Edit at least once through Good & Guilty, young adult mystery. Edited (at that bigger-issue level) 118 pages, my goal being to cover at least 30 pages each day. Check.

So what editing tips do you have? What have you learned from others or learned the hard way? And how was your week?

32 thoughts on “Editing Tips I Learned the Hard Way

  1. I loved Maggie’s Shiver trilogy. I agree she’s definitely a talent. This week, I finally read Bared to You by Sylvia Day. In those first pages, I was transported from writer to reader. That doesn’t always totally happen anymore. Got to love it when it does,
    You reminded me, I need to get back to my Margie packets. It always seems like my editing is more productive when I’m reading from her packets.
    Your 80 days have started off really well. Good for you, Julie. 🙂

    1. Isn’t Sylvia Day the keynote speaker for RWA 2014? I’ll be there, so I’m eager to hear her. 🙂

      I agree about Margie’s stuff. Her teaching really helped me. Thanks for the fabulous encouragement!

  2. Oh can I relate to the lack of scenery and your very humorous analogy to how the Hobbit would have read if you’d written it BEFORE you became conscious of this need. I tell people writing for me is like painting–I start with a charcoal drawing that turns into a cartoon, then a childish looking paint by numbers, then only through layers and layers of shadowing and shading and impressionistic additions of color is a story worth looking at. At least that’s me. Not everyone can “paint” like PBS’s Bob Ross.

    Good luck with ROW!

  3. Great tips. #1 is the step I always have remind myself of. I’ll be digging out Margie’s Deep Editing packets again, hopefully this round 🙂

    Great progress this week Julie!

  4. Go, Julie! Great list of tips! It’s so hard not to change bits as I see them, but that’s great advice to wait to polish until you’ve done most of the cutting.

    1. I still edit some stuff that gets thrown out, but I try now to hold off on the edit/polish until I’m in a much later draft. Best wishes with it, Diana!

      Can’t wait for your books to come out. 🙂

  5. Julie, I understand about the necessity for sucking a reader in, but how do you manage to maintain your distance enough to maintain the analysis? Once I get sucked into something, I gleefully leap down the rabbit hole without looking back. (I really need to quit doing that…!)

    1. For myself, I need time between when I write the draft and when I review it. A good, long while (though I know deadlines don’t always allow that). Then I need to read the novel through in a week or less, so I’m working my way through just like a reader would. Also, once I’ve been through it a few times, I have to get a beta reader…because at that point, I’m in the forest and can’t see the trees. That’s becoming my approach, but I think each writer should figure out what method/sequence works best for them.

      And leaping down the rabbit hole sounds really fun! I think that’s exactly what first drafts are for, letting your imagination fly and seeing what marvelous things you concoct that way. I just take a different tactic with editing.

      Best wishes, Lara!

  6. I found reading aloud helps so much in rhythm and flow. Many times the tongue will trip over the rough spots where the mind seems to glide. Great tips.

  7. Congrats on getting off to such a great start, Julie. I’ve heard a lot lately about The Happy Wives’ Club. I might have to add it to my ever-growing list of books to read. Great editing tips too, by the way. Thanks for sharing. Have a great week!

  8. Oh I HAVE to read aloud constantly to make sure it makes sense and sounds right and to catch grammar/spelling errors. And I’m with you on the setting issue. I don’t crave that when I’m reading. It’s not what pulls me in. When I was reading The Thorn Birds, I would skip large chunks of book that were all about Drogheda, the ranch the family owned. I’d be like, “They’re on a ranch, I get it! It’s hot, it’s dirty. Get to the forbidden love and blackmail parts!” LOL

    1. I read like that too, Jess. The problem is when all of my scenes are somewhere, sometime, and the reader is disoriented. I’ve even read my own scenes and thought, “Wait, where are we?” LOL. I definitely don’t become a describe-every-detail scenery writer, but I do check for enough now.

      (I did actually scan some of Lord of the Rings, but don’t tell the uber-fans. 😉 )

  9. #1 is my biggest bane… I didn’t realize it until you noted it in this post, but, yep! I really need to work on that. Thanks, Julie.

    And nice to see how you’re rocking your ROW80 goals there. Awesome! I’ll even forgive you for scanning some of the LotR. 😉 (Even as an uber-fan, I skimmed some of it… like most of The Two Towers.)

    1. Thanks, Eden! It’s especially frustrating to have whole chapters all edited and polished and pretty, and suddenly realize they must go. To me, it’s analogous to breaking off the engagement after making all the wedding preparations, spending all the money, and standing at the altar…versus realizing this isn’t the guy after all the day after he gives you the ring. Neither feels great, but I’d sure rather do #2.

      Happy writing! And thanks for your encouragement.

  10. What a fab list of editing tips, Julie! And I had to learn the hard way the same lesson about polishing stuff that I’d have to throw out later…. I have pet words/phrases/character gestures that I have to search for in edits, too. My characters raise their eyebrows and sigh a lot, LOL. 😉

    Great goals, Julie, and way to get going on them!

    1. Ah, our pets words/phrases/character gestures! Some of them are almost like Gollum and his pet ring (“My precious!”). I’ll never forget when Catie Rhodes read something I’d written and commented, “These characters sure do tingle a lot.” I guffawed (yes, guffawed!) about that one; she was so right about my overuse in that story of “tingle.” I thanked her and immediately remedied the characters’ electricity issues.

      Have a great week, Kathy!

  11. It suddenly occurred to me last year I was editing bits that should be thrown out so now after getting spelling etc sorted so I can read the blasted thing I print out and read through before doing anything else – hoping will save me time:) I agree with the reading aloud – essential to pick up those confusing/akward combination of words:) all the best

    1. I should have mentioned that, Alberta! Print the whole thing out and read it from there. For a while I hated the idea of wasting paper and ink, so I kept trying to edit everything on screen. But reading from the page is different for me; I see more stuff. Great suggestion!


  12. For me, editing is all about knowing when to stop. I can edit until the day is long, and at some point, you have to let it go. No piece is perfect. So edit (multiple eyes) thoroughly and then confidently hit Publish. Funny, I posted this week about my weaknesses (All That Just). Every manuscript seems to point out a new weakness–but that also means I worked out the previous manuscript’s weakness. Great post!

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