Yes, you can become a better writer. Learn how to self-edit your work.
Every writer worries about their writing. It won’t be as good as my last piece, people will hate it, everyone will finally see I’m a fraud. The same is true for seasoned and aspiring authors. We are afraid to be vulnerable, to bear our souls. We are afraid of our own inadequacies, to be human. What makes writing good or bad? Will they like it?
Let me start by saying this: Editing, like writing, is subjective. Yes, there are rules in place to keep us all honest, but what makes writing good is more than simply prose—it’s the writer’s ability to effectively communicate. Self-editing is the process of editing your own work.
There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat
With more than 171,146 words used in the English language, there is more than one way to write a sentence. However, upon reflection, one delivery stands out above the rest. Why? It was the most clearly articulated; the best delivery in tone or voice; the most original. This is what good editing does: It forces us to rethink our choices in terms of punctuation, word choice, delivery, and sentence structure. Yes, it also helps when we spell the words right, but good editing is much more than that.
Self-editing begins after you have words on the paper. We write first, and edit later. Thus, we’ve created a structure for ourselves to write, and to advance our writing through an editing process to become better writing. If you’ve read my blog post on the draft process I take manuscripts through, then you know we self-edit on our second draft (I use a four draft system).
How to Self-Edit
I like to use a checklist when I self-edit. It helps me put on my editor’s cap and show no mercy. We are going to chop the manuscript until it’s hanging on by a thread. That’s the first rule of editing:
Say what you want to say in as few words as possible. Brevity makes your writing stronger.
As you begin to read through your manuscript to self-edit, you’ll realize you’ve said the same thing five times and in just as many ways. Swing your axe! CHOP, CHOP! Remember the first rule of editing. Brevity makes your writing stronger. (Once in a while it is quite powerful to repeat yourself as I just did. But more often than not, CHOP!)
Those first few chops may feel as though you’ve nicked your soul along with the manuscript. It’s only a flesh wound, I promise. As writers (and yes, if you’re reading this you are a writer), we are often too attached to our words and sentences. Enjoy your choice words and clever sentences while you write rough draft. Then let them go. They served you well. You and your writing are the better for it. CHOP!
Write for Your Reader
Your rough drafts are for you. Say everything you want to say, then edit it for your reader. Refer to your Big Picture Book Concept* and edit your manuscript for them. Does your writing engage and include your Ideal Reader? Is your argument clear? Are you providing your reader with what they need when they need it?
Part of the self-editing process is making your writing literary—clear, creative, beautiful, easy to read. The other part of the self-editing process is ensuring your writing is marketable—solve the problems you promised to solve; give your reader something of value.
Look for ways to create stronger sentences.
Each time you read through your manuscript as you self-edit, you will be looking for something different. In this next pass, look for ways to create stronger sentences. Sometimes this is a simple as rearranging the word order. You’ll dissect each and every word. Is this the best (most descriptive) word here? Is there a better way to say this? Is this word even necessary?
Here are a few edits to look for:
- Remove the word ‘that.’ It’s almost always unnecessary. Unsure? Read the sentence without the word ‘that.’ Does is still make sense? CHOP!
- Try to get rid of words ending with -ly. These are adverbs (they describe verbs) and they tend to take away from your writing rather than add to it.
- Look out for the prepositions (of, in, to, for, on, by, etc.). Prepositions are not bad, but they tend to make sentences longer. Can you reword the sentence and eliminate them? CHOP!
- You probably don’t need to use the words ‘really’ and ‘very.’ Want to make a stronger impact? Look up a synonym for the word your describing with ‘really,’ and ‘very.’
- That reminds me. Use a thesaurus! Here’s an online thesaurus I use.
- Use contractions: Replace ‘I am’ with ‘I’m.’ Switch out ‘I will’ for ‘I’ll.’ It makes your work easier to read and it makes you sound like a human!
- Cut long sentences in two.
- Restructure sentences when you see lots of words ending in -ing. Rather than, “We were hoping to…” use the past tense, “We hoped to.” This helps eliminate unnecessary words and makes your writing clearer.
Editing, like writing, is something you’ll get better at each time you do it. If you’re self-publishing or working on your book proposal, you’ll need the help of a professional. But before you send your manuscript off, do yourself a favor and self-edit as much as you possibly can.
Allison K William’s Book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book is a great resource if you’re interested in learning more. Her book is targeted toward fiction and memoir, but the second half is equally as useful for writers of nonfiction.
*The Big Picture Book Concept is the overview of your developed book idea: Who it’s for, what it’s about, and why it matters (and much more). I help students work through this in my course, Discover Your Book’s Gold: How to Research, Test & Validate Your Book Idea BEFORE You Start Writing.