Self-Editing for Writers: Five Steps
It is often said that writing is rewriting. Unless you’re quite the accomplished writer, your first draft will likely be filled with typos, plot holes, crutch words, and unmotivated characters. Polishing a rough draft down to a finished product takes hard work, focus, and a willingness to sacrifice your darlings. I offer these tips to help with your self-editing (or rewriting) to produce tight, elegant prose.
1. Distance yourself from your writing
Put your work aside for a few hours or even a few days. Don’t try to edit your own writing as soon as you’re done. It’s too fresh in your mind and you will read what you think you wrote and not what you really wrote. Your brain will skip over even the most obvious errors. As Mark Twain once wrote, “…you think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes and vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.”
2. Print out your manuscript
Reading a hard copy of your work will allow you to experience it as a reader might. You’ll review it in a different frame of mind, and will most likely be able to pick up on errors you wouldn’t be able to by reading it on the screen.
Another tip to help edit your manuscript is to read it aloud, which will make it easier to detect missing words and discover the cadence of your writing.
2. First pass: Read like a reader, not like an editor
The first time you go through a piece, read it as a reader. Ignore small mistakes and read for comprehension . . . The Big Picture. Once you’re done, assess what you’ve read. Is the protagonist likeable and the villain sympathetic? Did the plot and subplots make sense and tie together? Are there any loose ends that need to be tied up? Have you properly foreshadowed upcoming events to prepare the reader? Have you made the reading experience visceral by including descriptions of smells, sounds, and texture? If you can answer these questions satisfactorily, then move to the next step.
3. Second pass: Copyedit and check for filtering
The devil’s in the details, as they say. Read your manuscript carefully, sentence by sentence, to correct typos, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you’re grammar challenged, don’t be afraid to consult a manual. I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style and The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein.
Then check to make sure you’ve eliminated filtering. Filter words separate the reader from the character’s point of view and put a barrier between the character and the action.
Nicholle noticed an elderly couple as she skirted past them and decided to take the steps up to Washington District hospital. She realized she reached the top when she saw the magfield, and butted her way past startled patients. She decided to tap open a directory, which seemed to unfold before her.
Nicholle skirted past an elderly couple and bounded up the green marble steps of Washington District hospital. She reached the top, ran through the magfield, and butted her way past startled patients. She tapped open a directory, which unfolded before her in a holographic display of green and black.
Does the revised passage feel more “in the moment”? Comb through your writing and eliminate filter words. Here is a list of common ones:
• to see
• to hear
• to think
• to wonder
• to seem
• to decide
• to know
• to feel
• to notice
• to realize
• to watch
4. Third pass: Crutch words
We all have words that we use too many times, words we fall back on when we’re in the draft phase. It’s okay to use them then, to help keep the creative juices going. But be sure to delete as many as you can in the editing phase. My crutch words were “suddenly,” a catch-all to describe things that happened quickly, and the form of “to be.” I knew I could write more creative narrative, so for each instance, I rewrote the sentence. Here’s a list of common crutch words. Which one is your go-to word?
• a lot
5. Last pass: Read it as corrected
Finally, read the document with all changes made and check for additional errors. Make note of your weaknesses and develop a checklist for you to use in the future.
And that’s it. Of course, it usually takes years of writing practice just to create a workable first draft. For example, character motivation has its own set of rules that have to be learned and practiced. But that’s another article.