The Writer as Editor: More Tools to Use

Adding the finishing touches to his hairstyle

There are some great quotes out there about editors and editing. For example:

“Read your own compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Samuel Johnson

“What I have crossed out, I didn’t like. What I haven’t crossed out, I’m dissatisfied with.” Cecil B. DeMille

“From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.” Winston Churchill

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” Shannon Hale

And my favorite:

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Dr. Seuss

SO, how to edit your own writing? Well, we already talked about three helpful tools in my post last week. Now, let’s take a look at three more:

1. Pull The Threads. How often have you finished a book and realized you’re not sure that a character’s story/faith/emotional arcs are all you want them to be? Here’s a great way to check that out: Copy and past that character’s scenes into a document, then read them beginning to end. When you read just those scenes, you’ll have a clear idea of whether or not you’ve accomplished what you wanted. What’s more, you’ll be able to pinpoint where to make any changes or revisions.

2. Use Your Ears! When we write, we see the story unfold in our heads, playing out on the screen of our minds. But once the story is on the page, and once you’ve had a little time away from it, it’s time to get outside your head and…listen. Listen to your story. Close your eyes, and just…listen. Whether you have someone read the book to you, utilize one of the many text-to-speech programs available, or read it out loud yourself (in which case, don’t close your eyes!), hearing your story can help you catch an amazing number of issues. It’s well known among editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders that the eye reads what it expects to read on the page. Which makes it easy to miss when words are misspelled or misused. But hearing your story, or reading it aloud yourself, helps you catch such things as:

  • Missing words
  • Wrong words (e.g., you rather than your; through rather than though)
  • Pacing issues
  • Dialogue issues
  • Confusing sentences
  • Spell-check missteps (years ago I was editing a manuscript on comparative religions, and spell-check changed every Mormon and Mormonism to moron and moronism)
  • Narrative and character voice

3. Tighten Up! When you’re editing it’s the perfect time to remember that old adage, “Less is more.” Unless you’re writing about a character who uses ten words when five will do, use the editing process to tighten your prose. Some things to watch for:

Superlatives. They’re there, hiding in your manuscript. And you need to blast ‘em into extinction: very, extremely, super, really, just, and so on. So make your writing super tight with the extremely easy step of just cutting out all those really useless superlatives.

Empty phrases. A few to watch for: started to, in order to, began to, prepared to. Not He grabbed her pen in order to stop her from adding another superlative but He grabbed her pen to stop her from adding another superlative. Not She started to write but She wrote.

That. You’d be amazed how many thats creep into our writing. Most can be eliminated (e.g., not She told him that he was too wordy but She told him he was too wordy)

–ly Adverbs. More often than not, these are weak writing. See if you can replace them. (e.g., not He walked quickly to cash his royalty check but He hurried to cash his royalty check; not She hummed happily as she edited but just She hummed as she edited, since not many folks hum unless they’re happy.

Ups and Downs. Not The writer stood up at his signing, but The writer stood at his signing. Remember, unless you’re in the military, you don’t stand down. Not The editor sat down to work but The editor sat to work.

Speaker Attributions. Only use ‘em when you need ‘em for clarity. And when you need to use them, go with he said/she said. Those tend to be invisible to the reader’s eye.

Redundant Expressions. Watch for expressions where you can drop one or two of the words and the meaning of the expression doesn’t change (e.g., not Commute back and forth to the library, but Commute to the library.)

Okay, let’s close today’s blog as we opened it, with a quote or two about editing:

 “Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, Sir.” Emily Dickinson

 “It is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” Robert Southey

20 Responses to The Writer as Editor: More Tools to Use

  1. Rick Barry February 13, 2013 at 3:46 am #

    This is a great checklist to keep handy. In my own work, “that” is a like a weed in the garden: even though I dig ’em out, I’m often surprised to find others have survived. Ditto with “just.” Is it possible gremlins are booting up my computer at night to sprinkle these tares among the wheat?

  2. DavidDrury (@DavidDrury) February 13, 2013 at 3:48 am #

    Thanks for this, Karen.
    Always need more tools!

  3. Ron Estrada February 13, 2013 at 3:49 am #

    I need to print this list. It’s funny that these sort of things drive me nuts whenever I read an office e-mail, but somehow end up on my manuscript. Must be grammar gremlins. Thanks again for the great help, Karen.

  4. V.V. Denman February 13, 2013 at 5:21 am #

    Thanks for the advice. You’ve added a few items to my “Words to Cut” list. It’s almost longer than the manuscript.

  5. Diana Harkness February 13, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    Great list and exactly what I use. I also use Autocrit to look for repetitive phrases and words. Some repetitions are required for emphasis; some are superfluous. Sometimes I use repetitive words that would be appropriate in speech, but I find they make the writing less interesting. I can rewrite any sentence differently. My only question is how do I know when the manuscript is perfect and ready to submit? I’ve already prematurely, but in good faith, submitted it twice. How long to must I continue to set it aside, only to come back and rewrite introducing better sentences, paragraphs, and scenes, but more errors. There must be an end . . .

  6. Meghan Carver February 13, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Thanks, Karen. Printing this and keeping it handy.

  7. Lisa February 13, 2013 at 8:02 am #

    So helpful, thank you!

  8. Jeanne T February 13, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Karen, these are great tips. I find that “just” and “that” have a way of sneaking into my scenes. As I revise my current story, I look for “weasel” words in the scene, make a list and then go back and either delete or change. “That” can almost always be deleted. I like to read out loud too, but I’ve never tried having a text-to-speech program read it for me. I need to try that.

    Thanks for sharing these tips. What a helpful post!

  9. Leia Brown February 13, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    This is definitely a post to print out. I work as a copy editor, and I find that while errors and wordiness stand out to me in other people’s writing, I read right over them in my own – sometimes even when I am reading out loud. So, I’ve found two ways to combat that. I put the manuscript down for a few weeks and come back to edit it once my fervor for it has cooled. Or better yet, I give the thing to someone else to edit!

  10. Rebecca Barlow Jordan February 13, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    Great reminders, Karen! Thanks for this list. I find those critters hiding in my manuscripts more times than I like to admit!And I love the quotes.

    • Jan Thompson February 13, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

      Well said. I agree. Hard to remove words I like, like like… 🙂

  11. Pat Lee February 13, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    Thanks for the reminders. My critique partners edit like they are killing snakes. Three of us have contract offers. This advice works.

  12. Paul February 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Very good information (I think I need to edit this)

  13. Carole Lehr Johnson February 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    Karen, great post with great tips. I will save this for future reference. Thanks!

  14. Peter DeHaan February 15, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    I’m a big fan of text-to-speech software(I use TextAloud). It helps me catch errors and typos I would otherwise miss. As a bonus, there’s a male voice and a female, so I switch back and forth to keep things interesting.


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