How to make editing less daunting

Reading time: About 3 minute

Are you afraid of self-editing? Here’s how to make editing less daunting. Instead of vaguely aspiring to make your text perfect, pass through it many times looking for specific problems….

One of my clients used to find writing horrifying, frightful and nerve-racking. But as a student working on her PhD she knew she needed to get over her crippling writer’s block quickly, in order to write her thesis. That’s when she hired me.

And recover she did. Woo hooo! She even enjoys writing now, an outcome she’d never dared to dream of. But suddenly a new problem has emerged. She hates editing.

Doesn’t it sound like the game Whac-a-Mole? We dispatch one mole/problem with the forceful blow of a mallet only to have another one pop up in a different spot.

My client’s problem? Editing feels overwhelming and oppressive. Worse, she can spend several hours on one paragraph and still not know when it’s “done.”

Writers often assume that if we do our writing and editing slowly enough our work will approach excellence. This is a bit like assuming a car mechanic who spends four hours on our car is going to do a much better job than the one who spends 30 minutes.

But what if the one who spends 30 minutes knows exactly which seal to change, or wire to repair or cable to replace? Knowledge counts, in cars and editing.

That’s why I suggested the “pass through” method to my client. Instead of just editing once, I advise passing through your draft many times, looking for and repairing specific problems. Here’s a list that might work for you, as well:

Sentence length: The best place to start editing is with checking your sentence length. Ideally, your average should be somewhere between 14 and 18 words. But note my use of the word average. It’s perfectly okay — desirable, even — to have some 38- and 41-word sentences. But these need to be balanced by some super short ones. I mean one to seven word ones. (Like that last sentence.) You can read more about sentence length variety here. Also remember that your very first sentence should almost always be short. Don’t intimidate your readers by making them feel they need a machete to hack their way into your story! Welcome them with a short, easy-to-read sentence.

Pronouns: Many people have problems with pronouns (he, she, it, they) and noun markers (this, that and these.) They put them too far from the words they’re replacing. This is a problem you can grow out of or be trained out of. But if you struggle with antecedents (see point 4 in this post)  make a point of passing through your draft once, double checking all pronouns and noun markers. Just use your search key (command + F) to look for them one at a time.

Complex words: Whenever I can replace a $2 word (utilize) with a 25 cent one (use) I do. You should, too. Pass through your draft once looking for unnecessarily complicated words. Then, replace them with their simpler cousins. There’s a good list here.

Unnecessary words: Some writers make use of far more words than they need. (See?) I always regard words in a story as if they were items in a backpack I was expected to carry up a mountain. If they aren’t necessary, I chuck them out. Spend one pass doing exactly that.

Transitions: I’ve written recently about the words, phrases and stylistic devices that help direct readers through our writing. Many writers — particularly new ones — don’t use nearly enough of them. As you pass through your draft another time, look specifically for spots where you can add connectors or bridges. It never hurts to give your readers the impression that you’re leading them — almost by the hand — through your story. Malcolm Gladwell does a particularly good job of this in his writing.

Cliches: I find my crappy first draft is inevitably riddled with clichés. That’s okay. I remove them on a pass through. These days I’m smart enough to recognize them as they’re flowing from my fingertips. (So I always insert a note — cliché! — reminding me to remove it later.) If you can’t avoid a cliché then I suggest you tweak it with something slightly different, or expand upon it in such detail that it no longer resembles a cliché.

Passive: Many writers don’t know the passive voice when they trip over it. If that describes you, read this excellent primer by Constance Hale. Basically, a sentence is passive when it hides the actor of the verb, but, really, read Hale’s article. She’s a superb writer and grammarian. When you finally understand the passive, review your writing and ensure you have a valid reason every time you’ve used the passive. If you still have a hard time IDing it, use the Hemingway App to find it for you. That fantastic piece of software will highlight it in green.

Rhythm: Spend one pass reading aloud — yes, aloud — even if you work in an open area office (you can whisper) and check the rhythm of your prose. If it sounds clunky then rework it until it sounds better. Even corporate prose needs to be rhythmical. Bet you never thought that studying poetry would ever be even vaguely useful, did you?

Editing the same draft eight times (as outlined above) may sound like a lot of work. But most of these edits, or “passes” as I like to call them, are actually pretty easy. Go through these steps and I guarantee you’ll improve your writing, perhaps dramatically.

What do you look for when you self-edit? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by November 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the non-fiction book, Blog Inc by Joy Deangdeelert Cho. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.