How to Edit Your Writing

The topic of editing has been on our minds again lately as we put the finishing touches on Issue Five manuscripts. The following post was written for bloggers and authors who desire to grow in their editing skills. No one has arrived and so we should all strive to improve. For what it’s worth, the following are a few things I’ve learned on my journey thus far… 

You can see previous entries in our “Advice to Aspiring Writers” series here.)

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” – William Strunk, Elements of Style

After your haphazard flow of ideas is all written out, it’s time to roll up your sleeves for the real work. My blog posts and articles typically start out with a handful of bullet points or ideas listed in a Word doc. Then I begin writing out thoughts to build an outline. The paragraphs soon begin to take flesh. I fill in details and add anecdotes, illustrations, and quotations. Then, I hack it to pieces because this take-no-prisoner working and re-working of the text is the way 99% of quality writing emerges.

Economy of Language

Start at the beginning, trimming obvious dead-ends and superfluous sentences. Focus on the easy and obvious edits, moving quickly to retain a sense of textual flow. Don’t get bogged down in detail pruning – at this point, you’re simply hacking dead wood. This process often takes several rounds through so don’t be discouraged if you find yourself recasting sentences over and over to work out the kinks. Writing is mostly mechanical.

Strunk’s advice above cannot be overemphasized: cut every superfluous word. Any word that serves no purpose and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence, goes to the chopping block. Your writing will be stronger for having done it and your readers will thank you. Read Zinsser’s On Writing Well to get specific examples of words that ought to be cut. I go back to Zinsser over and over to imbibe this mentality.

As you hunt for textual clutter, remind yourself there is probably already a word that was designed to replace the cumbersome phrase clogging your sentence. Find that word. If you need to, consult a thesaurus to jog your mental lexicon. Ask yourself if it’s possible to recast the sentence to save a word or two. If so, do it. All these little trimmings add up to big savings. Your readers don’t want to slog through a 3,000-word essay that could have been said in 300. Most writing formats have a word count limit. Exceed it at your own risk. For a blog, any post over 1,000 words is probably too long.  

Read Aloud

As you’re editing, it can be helpful to read aloud because one of the things that sets great writing apart from adequate writing is cadence. You may have already noticed that skillful prose carries the reader along in a rhythm that ebbs and flows. Check to see if your sentences vary in length and complexity – this keeps your reader intrigued. It also helps to read your favorite authors aloud. Seeing and hearing how successful writing is done gives you a frame of reference to assess the quality of your own work.

Be Yourself

No one likes reading something that sounds like it was written by a robot, so if you’re going to write in a canned and formulaic way, you’d better hope your readers are passionate enough about the topic that they are willing to overlook a tedious presentation. Resist the tendency to put on the “writer’s voice” in an attempt to sound more professional, knowledgeable, or authoritative than you actually are. Just be you. When you allow your personality to shine through your words, your writing will have soul. And soul is what engages your reader. If you include long descriptive or informative paragraphs in your writing, try to interject them with a human voice. I’ve found placing a brief and informal summary sentence at the end of one of these paragraphs lightens the load. Just be yourself.

The goal of writing is to express your thoughts in a way that is as clear and compelling to your reader as they are to you. You may well have great ideas that the world wants to hear, but if you can’t articulate them coherently, no one else will benefit from them. Editing is not always an easy process, but it is essential. It’s this process that distinguishes rambling from quality writing.