How to Edit Your Writing – 5 Ways to Prune and Polish Your Words

manuscript makeover elizabeth lyonWhy do you need to know how to edit your writing? Because editing will improve your writing more than anything else (even chocolate, coffee, cigarettes, and wine). 

“Most writers can’t edit,” says freelance book editor Jason Black. Does that mean most editors can’t write? No matter…if you want to learn how to edit your writing, you’ll be interested in this guest post on self-editing from Black himself!

Before his tips, a quip:

Do you wish you were a more confident writer?

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“If you end a sentence or paragraph with an unanswered question, readers must go on to find the answer.” ~ Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Makeover.

I love it! Unanswered questions are like breadcrumbs scattered throughout your pages…they keep your readers slightly sated yet hungry for more. To learn more from editor and writer Elizabeth Lyon, read Manuscript Makeover.

And, check out these five editing tips from Jason Black…

How to Edit Your Writing – 5 Ways to Prune and Polish Your Words

So you want to learn to self-edit. Good for you.  Agents and editors can smell an unedited first draft before they’ve even finished reading your query letter.  But know what you’re in for.  Self-editing is probably the hardest thing any writer can learn to do.  It’s a skill-set adjacent – but not identical – to your writing skills.  Doing it well requires a brutal dispassion towards your own writing that few authors can muster.  Here are four tips to help get you there.

1. Educate yourself.  Seriously.  Editing anything, whether it’s your own writing or someone else’s, demands a different eye towards the material than writing does.  So get some books and get cracking.  If you have trouble writing smooth sentences, a book like Claire Kehrwald Cook’s Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing might be just what you need.  If you’re working on larger scale issues, try Elizabeth Lyon’s wonderful Manuscript Makeover.  There are many books out there on self-editing and revision. Find some that work for you, and get cracking.

2. Practice editing other writers.  You know that old joke about the surgeon who took out his own appendix? Well, I’ll bet when he had to do that, he was glad it wasn’t his first appendix surgery.  Same here.  Frequent websites like WritersCafe.org where you can critique other people’s material, practicing both your own skills as well as the brutal dispassion you’ll need when you do start editing your own manuscripts.

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3. Wait.  Take your time, and don’t rush.  No book, no magic practice exercise, nothing can make you an expert editor – or even a competent one – overnight.  It takes time.  Put your manuscript in a drawer, or hide the file deep in a sub-sub-sub-folder on your hard drive, for a year.  Seriously.  A whole year.  You need a year of practicing on others to build up your editorial eye, and you need a year of distance from your own work so you’ll be able to see your writing mistakes when you come back to it.

4. Learn “show, don’t tell.” If I could teach my clients anything, it would be this one thing.  Show your readers the important subtext of your stories, through actions, dialogue, et cetera.  Don’t just tell them about it. This is the absolute most important skill you need as a writer or an editor: the ability to differentiate between show-writing and tell-writing.  Every other writing rule I know, whether it’s about dialogue tags, unnecessary adverbs, backstory, or whatever it may be, is always just a specific application of the underlying philosophy of “show, don’t tell.”

5. Get editing help. Most people learn best by example, and what better example could you personally learn from than your own work?  If you’re willing to trade some money on developing these skills in exchange for getting there a bit faster – or if you find you just can’t muster the brutal dispassion necessary to savage your own work – you can hire a freelance editor to analyze or edit your work for you.  However (and this is a big ‘however’), I absolutely do not recommend doing this unless you’re treating it as a personalized writing seminar.  Treat your freelance editor like a writing coach, not like a ghost writer. Their job is not to create quality for you, but merely to show you where quality is.

Self-editing is hard work, but if you put your mind to it you can learn it – and your writing will improve.

If you have any thoughts or questions on editing, writing, or editing versus writing, please comment below…

Do you want to write easier and faster?

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Jason Black is a freelance editor, a.k.a. “Book Doctor,” living in the Pacific Northwest. He writes a monthly column for AuthorMagazine.org and blogs about practical techniques for character development in fiction at his website, PlotToPunctuation.com.

Writer's Market 2020: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published
Writer's Market 2020: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published - Want to get your books and articles published? Want to get paid to write? Writer's Market 2020 will guide you through the process with thousands of publishing opportunities for writers, including listings for book publishers, consumer and trade magazines, contests and awards and literary agents—as well as new playwriting and screenwriting sections.


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