Edit What You Write Else Trash It

If you want folks to read what you write, it must be edited. If you don't wish to do so, you may as well trash it. Readers will do it for you, if you don't, particularly agents and publishers.

Ideally, hire a professional editor. Or at least ask a friend who's good at this sort of thing to work it over. However this person must be a critical sort who knows something of the task.

Why Go This Heavy?

First, we are all blind to our own work. We tend to fall in love with what we create. And therefore overlook the flaws.

Second, good readers, which writers usually are, generally make lousy editors. Why? They tend to skip small or commonly used words. From context, they'll follow "to," "two," or "too," even when used incorrectly.

But Editing Cost Bucks!

That's so. But so do errors! Each is a stumbling point for a reader. (Or an agent!) Each annoys. Given sufficient annoyance, your work is laid aside, unfinished. Anything further with your name on it is likely to be ignored.

This is the way things are. There's nothing personal about it. In fact this is how you deal with what others write. And there's no way to say in advance what errors cause the most stumbling. Or how many stumbles are required to bring rejection. Such things depend entirely upon the reader.

Is There Any Alternative?

One, maybe. Edit your own copy. But pay heed here to two key points.

First, you will overlook some things another would easily catch, because of your familiarity with your work.

Second, it may take as long to thoroughly edit your work as it did to write it. Shortcuts don't exist. Do it right or get an editor.

What follows are notes about the way in which I edit my work. It relates to goofs I'm most likely to make. Feel free to ignore whatever. And add your own comments. But in some way, build a comprehensive list of tasks to be accomplished one by one in editing your work.

Grab A Sharp Carving Knife

First, reset the screen or margin widths you have been using. Narrower or wider. Either way, as you read, you'll see the words somewhat differently. Make further changes in width throughout the editing process. Changing the font and font size, gives your work a surprisingly different look. The goal here is to "trick" yourself into viewing your work from a fresh point of view.

What you are hunting for throughout the editing process is anything at all that can be cut. Do this right, and you'll find lots of unneeded words, maybe even bunches of them. Things like, "In my opinion," are the target, unless your character consistently uses this phrase. (Even so, it may not be needed.)

Look for entire sentences, even paragraphs, that can be deleted without weakening the tale. You'll end up cutting some stuff you cherish, but the story will be stronger.

Prose that can be simplified for easier reading is more difficult to find. Consider ...

"A little further along the road, he came to the small white house set well back from the street, then began counting. If the information he'd received was correct, the house he needed was on his right, the fourth one down from this one."


"To his right, he saw the small white house. The one he needed was four doors down."

This example is simplistic. All is a function of what your characters must do and how best to communicate what the reader must know. If the fact this fellow had been told to look for the small white house matters, then include it. But the second form above is fine, if the reader already knows the information was picked up earlier.

Cutting the fat and flab from your copy is the task that matters most, the one most difficult to do.

Find The Right Word

Do a search on each of a set of words you have collected. Here are those I frequently misuse or mistype. As you search, you will find yourself considering surrounding copy from yet another point of view. This gives opportunity to note things missed in a top-bottom read.

    if/is: I often type the wrong word; this may not be a problem for you.
    there/their: This is an easy mistake to make, difficult to find from reading.
    's/s': I routinely get this wrong.
    affect/effect: I've worn out two dictionaries checking this.

The above are typical hang ups for me. Create a list of words you get tangled in.

More About Doing Right

Checking verb agreement is a complex task. And there's no simple way to go about it. What you're looking for is "(long phrase that amounts to 'They') ... is..." Or "It ... are." Such blunders are tough to spot.

Search on "not." Oddly enough, many readers skip over this word, and thus misunderstand the sentence. Which may mean the next one makes no sense at all. Consider rewriting without the word, or at least go for "don't," "can't," etc.

Read the following and leave out the word, "not." "You can not begin your climb at the top. We all know this." What you're saying is that we all know we can start climbing at the top. Nonsense, and thus confusing to the reader. Try: "Starting your climb from the top makes little sense." Or: "You can't begin your climb from the top."

Search on "will." While, "You will be surprised," is okay, "Be ready for a surprise." is stronger.

Search on " of ." Note the space before and after the word so as to find only the word itself. It often points to a wordy phrase. "He's the kind of fellow who likes to smile." Try: "He's a fellow who likes to smile." Or: "He likes to smile."

Search on "that." It is seldom needed. Delete all occurrences not absolutely required.

Search on "very," and "some." These are weak words. They, and similar words, are usually not helpful, and thus should be deleted.

But as in all, exceptions abound. "Things can go very wrong, very quickly," works well at the end of a paragraph to slow the reader a tad so the first sentence in the next paragraph hits harder. However, the best form is: "Things can go wrong, quickly."

In general, adverbs are overused and tend to obscure, rather than clarify. Search on "ly ." and make changes as needed. Note the ending space to pick up only words ending this way.

Errors In Punctuation

Like flab, these are difficult to find. If you tend to make the mistake of putting a period at the end of a sentence outside the quote ("... was angry".), the easy fix is to search on ". and replace with ."

But for the most part, errors in punctuation don't have such a simple pattern. So you'll need to hunt for them as you look for other things. One I commonly make is to overlook a closing quote. Again, make a list of things you need to look for in your work.

Yes, You Must Print It And Read With Care

Your work looks entirely different when printed. You'll find an amazing number of blunders completely overlooked. If you fail to take this step, you'll have another chance, if it is published.

The Acid Test

Read your work into a tape recorder. Results may startle you. In this mode, you're also hearing the words. The audio channels send information to the brain differently than do visual channels. These additional channels add a new set of filters and a different "appearance" to your work.

And, of course, listen to what was recorded. This puts the focus on the audio channels. You will again be surprised at what you find.


First, there is no intent at completeness in the above. For example, there is no mention of adjectives, often abused or overused. It's an overview of the procedure I use. Consider the sorts of things in your work you tend to overlook, then create your own checklist.

Editing is a tedious task to me. I don't like it. And I'm always impatient to see the end of it. So my attitudes while editing are not as positive as is my norm. I find it a struggle to make sure they leave no mark in the copy.

Throughout the editing process, take care not to erase or even mute the vitality in the original writing. One can easily cast aside a lot of special flavors best left as written. Let the original work shine through. If you mess with it too much, you can wreck it.

When Is It Finished?

When you can read with care from beginning to end and find no more than 20 to 30 errors, you have probably gone as far as you can go. Further efforts tend to subdue the original vitality.

However, don't be fooled. There are still many errors overlooked simply because it is your work. Only a professional editor can point to such goofs.

Your Best Bet

Pay an editor. He or she can do a much better job than you can yourself. And in doing so, save you a ton of time.

An editor comes at the task with fresh eyes and a better knowledge of errors typically overlooked. But if bucks are short, you can improve your own work enormously with a plan of your own, similar to the above.

Bob McElwain




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