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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:

“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.

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…

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.

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12 thoughts on “How to Edit Your Writing – 5 Ways to Prune and Polish Your Words”

  1. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for your comments, George and Ziggy! Yes — stepping back from our writing and reading it objectively is one of the best ways to edit our own writing.

    My problem with self-editing is that I don’t like to waste time. So, when I delete entire paragraphs or pages of work…I feel like I wasted the time I sepnt writing it.
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..Writing for Online Magazines – How to Find Work on the Web =-.

  2. I always try to leave a piece of work as long as possible before I go back and edit it. The trick is not to hack the hell out of it and to realise that nothing is “written in stone”.
    .-= Ziggy Kinsella´s last blog post ..Guest Blog: The book promo by Samantha Anderson =-.

  3. If point number three wasn’t listed, I was going to suggest it. It is an amazing experience to go back and look at something I wrote months ago. The prose I thought was clear and spot-on is riddled with little errors. It’s an odd experience and it feels like someone else wrote it. This results in the personal aspect disappearing and it makes it much easier to slash and cut as needed.

    Jason, Laurie, great stuff here

    .-= George Angus´s last blog post ..Classic Tumblemoose: Green Eggs and Spam =-.

  4. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen


    But, I think your sample population isn’t representative of writers as a whole. That is, your clients recognize their writing needs to be tightened. Those writers represent a “my writing needs external editing so I will hire a book doctor” group….

    So yes, most of the writers you encounter can’t edit. Just like most of the people a doctor sees are ill, or most of the people a mortgage loan officer sees need money to buy a house.

    I think a book doctor or freelance editor can really help writers — don’t get me wrong.

    And, I agree that many good writers look back on their work and hate it. Me, I’m embarrassed to read my old posts! I avoid it at all costs.

    Now I must stop procrastinating…I have an ebook to write, and it’s a bit of a bear…. 🙂
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..How to Edit Your Writing – 5 Self-Editing Tips =-.

  5. @Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    > Maybe it’s more accurate to say that some writers can edit their writing better than others?

    Well, of course that’s true. There’s always variation in any skill across a population of people. A few will be naturally really good, a few really horrible, and most will be in a big group in the middle.

    What prompted me to tweet “most writers can’t edit,” which in turn led to me writing this article in the first place, was my observation as a freelance editor that the people in that big group in the middle clearly have poor to non-existent self editing skills.

    In the past year, I’ve read, analyzed, and critiqued about 1.3 million words worth of fiction from my clients (yes, being a stats geek, I keep track of everything). I don’t know about you, but I consider that a representative sample. 🙂

    In that sample, maybe two manuscripts came to me with clean writing that flowed smoothly. Four or five were in the painfully-bad category.

    The rest, more than 20, were in that big lump in the middle. Rough, but salvageable. All those writers need to do is set those manuscripts aside for a while, spend some quality time building up their skills, then go take another pass over their stories. I hope the tips in this article will help them do that.

    And if I might add, I think that good writers are doomed to hate their own work. That’s a natural consequence of what good writers do: continually improve their skills. We may be proud of our own work, but we’re doomed to hate it just the same.

    I came to this conclusion recently while looking over proofs of a novel I’ve got coming out this summer. I wrote it in 2006. I’m better now than I was then. And as I looked over the proofs, I couldn’t help but see the myriad places where, in my eyes, the writing sucks. I know I could write it so much better now. I wrote it the best I could at the time I wrote it, but after another three and a half years of skill-building, I can now see all the problems I couldn’t see then.

    It kills me that I can’t call the publisher and say “Wait, please! Give me a month to line edit the crap out of it! Trust me, it needs it!”

    So if you hate your old work because you think it sucks, take that as a very good sign. It means you’re a better writer than you used to be.
    .-= Jason Black´s last blog post ..Three steps to a breakout story =-.

  6. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    I learned more about editing from one editor at Reader’s Digest than 50 editors combined! She would call me up and review the weak links in my writing line by line, and leave it up to me to revise and tweak. Those phone calls were painful, but the writing practice was invaluable.

    Good writers can and do edit their own work. They may need an outside perspective to help them see their work objectively, but I think most writers can edit themselves effectively.

    Of course, it depends on the writer’s experience, skill set, objectivity level, and ability to see his work dispassionately….maybe it’s more accurate to say that some writers can edit their writing better than others?
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..How to Edit Your Writing – 5 Self-Editing Tips =-.

  7. Thanks for that – sadly we seem to be hitting our heads against brick walls sometimes when trying to tell writers that GOOD editing is essential.

    Found this quote yesterday:

    “Only bad writers think their book is really good”

    So true!

    and I roared with laughter at myself the other day. Happened to look in one of my books, opened a page at random … “He dropped his feet to the floor” I thought my character was limping a bit lately LOl (see, even experienced authors make boo-boos! My editor laughed too, can’t think how she missed it!)
    Not quite as bad as “his eyes roamed round the room” or “his eyes rested on her breasts.”
    and if you can’t see what is wrong with those two phrases – take Jason’s advice and find out!

  8. I love that the first tip is to educate yourself. Self-teaching is so crucial to learning how to do anything, yet so under valued.

    Helpful post!
    .-= Leslie A. Joy´s last blog post ..To Be Productive and Fix Your Habits, You Must First Realize What’s Blocking You =-.

  9. Thanks for this post. I was a horrible editor once. But for the last few years I’ve been a freelance editor by necessity. Learning to edit has made me a far better writer.

    Here’s some things that have helped me.

    1. I read the Chicago Manual cover to cover—twice. And I enjoyed it. Learn to fall in love with grammar.

    2. I read aloud, and slowly, using a piece a paper to block out everything but one line at a time.

    3. I use the voice function on my word processor to read aloud to me and follow along on the screen, making edits as I go.

    I’m sure there are many more tricks to be shared. Happy editing!