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?