Ten Editing Tricks that Will Make Your Writing Better

Original photo by N. Ivanov

Editing is a crucial part of writing. I know a lot of people hate it, but editing is a chance (or, in most case, a few chances) to make your work better. Working with a great editor can be as invaluable as working with the right agent, but before you get that manuscript into someone else’s hands, you should do everything in your power to make it as good as possible. Unfortunately, editing your own work is tricky because you have things almost memorized, you know where the story is going and often fail to see plot holes, and because there are things you normally do that, because you’ve done them for a while, you tend to ignore or forget about. To help with that, I’m giving you ten tricks that will come in handy when editing yourself. Some might work better than others for you and some you might already be doing, but I suggest trying them all.

Read your work out loud

This is a classic trick that I’ve found works wonders. Dialogue never sounds the same in your head as it does in the real world. Characters should have different voices, and that means their rhythm and phrasing should be unique within your narrative. Also, reading stuff out loud throws awkward phrasing at your face and whispers “That’s pretty awful/unnecessarily convoluted/too damn long” in your ear. Watching readers stumble over their own words and frown always tells me the same thing: they are reading them out loud for the first time. Don’t be that reader.

Identify the things you always do wrong

You’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. No one is perfect. Just like musicians develop bad practices, writers often do things they shouldn’t because they come naturally to them. Being honest about these things can mean the difference between turning in a superb manuscript and something that needs an inordinate amount of work. For example, I know that three things will probably sneak into everything I write: the words “just” and sometimes “very,” obsessive descriptions of movement, and people looking at things and each other (seriously, people look at stuff and at each other a LOT in my first drafts). I know these things are wrong, so I tend to either keep them in mind as I edit, or do one editing pass looking for them (I almost wrote “just looking for those things.” Hah).

Channel all your insecurities and turn them into an editing tool

If you go in thinking something is the best thing you’ve ever written, you will probably fail to fix whatever is wrong with it. Instead of doing that, gather all your insecurities, sharpen them, and then use them to analyze your work. If you think something sucks, rewrite it so it’s better. If you think a line could be shorter, cut it. If you think a scene could use more detail, add it because you’re probably right. You should learn to walk the fine line between “This sucks!” and “There are a few things here that certainly suck, but I have what it takes to fix them.”

Put yourself in the shoes of your ideal reader

If you write, you’re also a reader (or at least you should be). Work on teaching yourself how to approach your work as a reader instead of a writer. This means you should focus on the big picture. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up on every sentence, but we need to remember that readers often fly through a narrative, especially if they’re engaged and want to know what happens next. That means the line you spend two days on will be devoured in seconds. Ask yourself if what you’re reading is exciting, entertaining, engaging, etc. If it’s not, fix it.

Learn to walk the fine line between “This sucks!” and “There are a few things here that certainly suck, but I have what it takes to fix them.”

Learn to switch hats

This is easy for some of us because we do different things (writing, teaching, editing, reviewing, etc). However, it is a skill everyone should develop. When you’re done writing, take off your writing hat and put on your editing hat. You are not trying to create anything; you’re working on polishing something, and that means one of your main focuses will be finding weaknesses in the writing and fixing them. Once you have the ability to switch hats and become an editor…

Be merciless

This is about getting the story in the best shape possible. Fuck your feelings. Edit mercilessly. Edit ruthlessly. Take a knife and slaughter as many of your babies as you need to in order to make the narrative as lean, fast, powerful, and engaging as you can. You can cry later.

Have a clear understanding of your style and ignore rules that don’t apply to you

Here are some things you will hear:

“Cut long sentences in two.” Well, sometimes a long sentence does the trick. Sometimes a long sentence is a beautiful thing. Thirty long sentences in a row might be too much and will destroy your rhythm, but one or two from time to time might work.

“Always stick to one voice.” This one is solid. You know, except when it’s not. Sometimes one voice isn’t enough. Don’t be afraid to use as many voices as you need to tell your story the best way you can.

“Get rid of all redundancies.” Okay, hear me out on this one. First, sometimes you need redundancies in dialogue because people are often redundant. I hate it when everyone sounds like an MIT professor. Second, sometimes a redundancy will drive the point home and improve your rhythm. Are redundancies good? No, but never say never, you know?

The list goes on and on. Some of them make all the sense in the world, but others try too hard to set rules in place that don’t take into account how unique some narratives can be. Take what you know you can use and throw away the rest.

Grammar matters

This one makes people angry. I’m not talking about an occasional typo here; I’m talking about reading published books where the author doesn’t know that then and than aren’t interchangeable, or that to and too or off and of aren’t the same thing. Writers should know what words mean. If you think disinterested and uninterested are the same thing, or that advice and advise are the same word, or affect and effect are interchangeable, you need to stop typing for a minute and go learn what those words mean so you can use them correctly. Oh, and if you want to fight about this one, don’t address me as a writer or a columnist; talk to me like I’m the guy who will read and review your book or the editor who will turn your work down because it kinda looks like you don’t know what you’re doing.

Respect punctuation

Unless your name is Donald Trump, you shouldn’t abuse exclamation points! When you do, they lose their impact! Eventually, they start looking dumb! See, what I mean!? Exactly!!!

Remember the things you know

When you’re writing, you’re slicing your soul open and pouring it onto the page. When you’re done, you have to pull back and look at what you created. Writing is about getting the story out. Editing is about making that story better. This means you need to remind yourself of the importance of elements like pacing, worldbuilding, character development, and economy of language. Keep those things in mind and use them as filters. Look at what you did right and the things you could’ve done better, and then do them better.

Now get out there and edit.

Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. 

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Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 23, 2020 - 4:32pm

Good stuff. 

Nelle_Ekard's picture
Nelle_Ekard from Florida/Georgia is reading A Tropical Frontier: Tales of Old Florida September 26, 2020 - 6:19am

Excellent tips. Thanks! I would like to suggest that if you use a word processing program, like MS Word, you can use auto-correct to alert you to "the things you always do wrong." Macros can be helpful, too, although I never managed to create good macros in Word (I still mourn the loss of WordPerfect). I've also found turning on the grammar checker in MS Word can alert me to inadvertent errors (although you do have to use judgment; the grammar checker isn't always right). I've also recently started using Grammarly, an add-on app for online use and MS Word. Grammarly assesses "tone," and, like MS Word, isn't always correct. It is especially bad when evaluating dialogue and when the subject is separated from the verb by prepositional phrases.

Finally, as a reader, I sometimes find errors that look like the result of editing (words out of order, missing words, or words that shouldn't even be there). When editing, be especially careful to read "around the edit" to make sure you haven't created an error like this.