How to Edit Your Writing

Spring and writing. They have a lot in common. The start and stop of the season, the anticipation, the feeling of going back and forth. It’s a transitional season; just when you think it’s arrived—a big snowfall sends you scurrying for your shovel.

I’m reading a superb book about rewriting, The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell. It’s specifically about self-editing fiction and in addition to great tips, it also provides a peek inside the relationship between editor Max Perkins and writer F. Scott Fitzgerald as they worked on The Great Gatsby. A glimpse of this remarkable working relationship is also reassuring that even the greatest books and authors go through a similar process to arrive at the “far shore of accomplishment”—the finished book!  

Don’t start rereading and rewriting until you finish your first draft. As writer Jane Smiley says, “The first draft is always perfect because it does its job, it exists.”  

Then, put it away for at least a few days before you return to it. This break gives you fresh eyes on something you’ve been immersed in for months! Fresh eyes will be better able to accomplish both macro and micro editing. This is an ideal time to read it aloud. You’ll be surprised at what you notice when you hear the book. Rewriting is not a quick once-over. It’s an important stage to assess and improve your work. 

At the macro stage, you’ll be on the lookout for sections or possibly even chapters that don’t fit and need to be moved to a different chapter or even removed. What you discard may end up on the cutting room floor, or it may be the start of your next book. This is also the stage where you will also decide if you need additional research to support your arguments.  

At the micro level, you’re looking at word use or more likely, misuse. You’ll be removing unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, replacing weak verbs, such as “got,” and removing any lingering clichés. You’ll also deal with what Lorri Neilsen Glenn, author and mentor at the University of King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction, refers to as “writing tics.” We all have some. One of mine, for instance, is the word that. “Ditch that,” Glenn writes. “Do a search; you’ll be surprised how few are necessary. The time that it took to filet the fish = The time it took to filet the fish.” 

You may find you go through your book several times, editing and rewriting. Don’t be discouraged, rewriting is part of the process!

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