How to Edit Your Own Work

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Oh, God. I hate editing. I love writing. And unfortunately, if you want to be a halfway decent writer, you need to do a lot of editing. Over and over again. So it pays to know how to do it in a way that’s productive, fast, and as painless as possible. Here’s a quick rundown of the most important things I’ve learned as far as cleaning up my (messy, ugly, ill-conceived, stream of consciousness) writing.

You can’t actually do it totally alone. Get someone to read your stuff.

This is my number one editing tip. Simple but possibly terrifying. Letting someone read and criticize your work can be tough—it leaves you feeling very vulnerable, in my experience. It’s even harder once your reader suggests you make changes to the writing (which is the whole point…still, doesn’t make it easier). But it’s so important to get outside opinions, because it’s likely you’re not the best judge when it comes to your own work. Writing and publishing is also such a subjective thing, it’s super useful to get multiple perspectives on a piece because there might be things about it that one reader may hate, and another may love. You’ll inevitably be biased when editing your work—I know I have an unfortunate habit of getting very attached to my own characters and scenes, even if they really do nothing for my story. Having a beta reader solves this problem, and helps you find a place to start cleaning up your mess.

Know that it will not be easy and may take several rounds.

I spend so much more time editing work than I do writing it. This is how it should be. Be prepared to not only spend a lot of time and energy editing your book, but to possibly edit it four or more times. No matter how many times I edit a piece of writing, I almost ALWAYS find more to fix. To minimize the number of times you have to go back through your piece, use your initial edit as an opportunity to not only proofread and make line edits, but also to identify larger changes you want to make in the future.

Don’t be afraid of rewrites (I love
rewrites)!

Sometimes the best option really is to rewrite the entire piece. I’ve started all over after finishing a story more times than I can count. It sounds overwhelming, but it certainly doesn’t mean all your work has been for naught. Your first draft is still the story you’re telling…the rewrite is just you trying to find a better way to tell it. I like to take one of two approaches with this. Sometimes, I’ll rewrite the piece entirely, but print out a copy of the first draft to look at as I do—that way I can consider each line of the first draft and decide if I want to include it in the new version. This is often better for shorter works. When rewriting a book or other longer piece of writing, I like to read through the first draft and copy / paste the segments I like into a separate document. Some of these passages may be short, sometimes only a sentence or two. Other times I’ll save an entire chapter or portion of the book. Then, when you do your rewrite, you can use these parts as you see fit. With either method, the most important part of doing a rewrite is to plan it in great detail before you start…otherwise you’ll need to do another rewrite.

The first draft doesn’t have to be great. Just get the story down. Basically, shoot now and ask questions later. 👍🏻

While I strongly believe in spending a ridiculous amount of time planning before you start writing, I think that first drafts, especially in fiction writing, exist for the sole purpose of telling the basic story. It doesn’t have to be told well, or have all the details you’ll ultimately include. The first draft just needs to exist, and then you can edit multiple times to make it perfect.

Have a routine.

This is a tip I’ll give with getting any kind of work done. With editing, it’s especially important (for me) because I hate editing and have to force myself to do it. Make a plan, stick to it, and you’re halfway to success.

Take a break. Possibly a long break.

Sometimes you’re too close to a piece of writing to successfully edit it. In my experience, the best solution to this is to take a break. I don’t just mean taking a few hours off—it can be helpful, even necessary to the quality of your work, to step away for a few weeks or months. When you’ve spent a lot of time writing something, and possibly already done a round or two of edits, the narrative can start to seem forced, even nonsensical. This doesn’t mean you should abandon your story (or essay, or article). It might not be a reflection of the work at all. Take some time off then reevaluate later.

Be hard on yourself. You can take it.

Try your best to be self-aware and self-critical. It’s better you think your story needs a ton of work when it’s already good than think it’s ready for publication when it sucks. Try your best not to get too attached to any one character, chapter, etc. Be willing to cut ANYTHING that does not make the story better, and always second-guess yourself. Again, get someone else to read your writing as well.

Check sentence length and the overall sound of your writing. It can help to read it aloud to yourself.

Reading your work aloud is more helpful than you might think. It’s also weirdly enjoyable in a slightly narcissistic way. I find that actually hearing what you’ve written can make it easier to tell how the writing flows, or if your meter is off. Another tip with regards to making a piece read better, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction—vary sentence length. If every sentence on a page is the same length, there will be a sort of hard-to-place awkwardness to your writing.

Keep an eye on overused words.

I never thought about this at all until I had an agent (who was helping me with an in-depth edit on my book) mark off every time I used the word “just” in my writing. It was genuinely alarming. Some words (like pronouns) are naturally gonna show up a lot, but for the most part, be very aware of words you’re using several times a page. They tend to be words like just, kind of, a little, almost, etc. Filler words. Whenever you find a word you think may be overused, you can check where it shows up, and then easily replace it need be, by pressing the “ctrl” and “F” keys at the same time (or “command” and “F” on a Mac). This will bring up a search box that will allow you to easily scan the whole document.

First edit, focus on line edits and planning larger edits. Second edit, focus on implementing the larger changes, like reworking the plot and thematic elements.

I always use an initial edit mostly as a chance to make plans and get my bearings, in addition to making small edits (like changing the wording of a sentence, for example) as I read through my first draft. In that first edit, I’ll identify what some of the larger problems in the story are and decide how I’m going to fix them…but I don’t start trying to fix them just yet. I often have someone else read the piece while I’m doing the initial edit, or even before I start editing—then I can incorporate their feedback into my plans for the second round of editing.

Take out anything that doesn’t have a purpose. And be cautious about how much of the book doesn’t directly further the plot.

This is hard for me. Really, really hard. Particularly when I’m writing fiction and get weirdly attached to my characters, such that I write a bunch of scenes about their daily life in the name of character development when I’m really just mucking up the plot. As you edit, particularly when you come across a part that feels awkward or out-of-place, ask yourself, “Does this really, truly need to be here?” If the answer isn’t “absolutely”, cut it out.

Fact check like crazy.

Being overzealous about fact checking will save you a lot of embarrassment as a writer, protect your credibility, and make your work better all-around. This is especially true if you’re writing fiction on a topic you don’t know extremely well, especially especially if you’re writing historical fiction or fiction set in a location that is unfamiliar to you. An example of how easy it is to get something wrong when you’re not intimately familiar with what you’re writing—Gilmore Girls. I would like to preface this example by saying I have not extensively watched Gilmore Girls by choice and find the characters shrill and annoying—my sister and father (lol) are just really into it and it was constantly on in my house when I was in high school. But in any event, I know that the setting of the show (a small-town in Connecticut) is important to the plot, and generally is very well-developed. HOWEVER, as someone who grew up in a small town in Connecticut, I would frequently find myself noticing little things the writers got wrong about living in CT (ie. getting I-91 and I-84 confused). These are very small things that 99% of people would not catch. But as a rule, if you ever expect to have your writing read by a large number of people, make sure you don’t compromise the realism of your story by getting some stupid little detail wrong.

Use Hemingway App.

Hemingway is a SUPER useful program available as a free desktop app for Mac and PC. It helps you edit in numerous ways that grammar checking tools in most word processors do not. Hemingway will tell you if your sentences are too long, if you’re using too many adverbs, too much passive voice, etc. It’s a complex program with a lot of features, but it’s also pretty easy to navigate. And it’s the closest you’ll get to a beta-reader without an actual human.

Identify your general strengths and weaknesses. Again, be hard on yourself.

Having a beta reader can help with this. If you’re shopping your work around, ideally you’ll also get some in-depth criticism from agents and editors. Try to really take this criticism and use it to identify your overall strengths and weaknesses, on a larger scale than one piece of writing. Self-awareness is one of your biggest assets as far as improving in any area of life, but especially in writing. I know I am great at character creation and setting, but sometimes struggle with plot. I’m too scattered and get too attached to moments and scenes that do nothing for the story arc. Knowing this, I try to put plot first when I write a story.

Above all, try to remember that your favorite books probably sucked at some point. Even the best writers don’t get it right on the first try, and even bad stories can be made great with enough work. 🤘🏻

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