Revision: Five Simple Self-editing Skills

A writer friend once told me that at a writing conference where Ray Bradbury was the keynoter, the legendary sci-fi writer told the “newbies” that he never revised. Furthermore, if these new writers had to alter even a word of their draft they weren’t meant for writing and should pick another field. Backstage, my friend cornered him. “You know very well that you revise,” my friend said to Bradbury. “Why do you tell the conferees such a thing?”
Bradbury smiled and said, “I just like to mess with them.”
Writing Tip for Today: I truly hope none of my readers was at that conference. Most new writers I know are dead serious in their goals of gaining the skills required to write a successful book. If any published author claims to never revise, you might want to point out that her/his nose is growing faster than Pinocchio’s. Here are five simple ways to improve your self-editing skills:

  1. Weed-whack Modifiers. Begin with those “ly” words we hear so much about. Whenever a student asks me why we suggest cutting adverbs, I reply that an adverb is usually a marker that a weak verb is lurking nearby. Don’t stop with “lys.” Scan a couple of pages of your work. Do you see multiple descriptors (aka adjectives/adverbs) in many sentences? Try picking the best one and axing the other.
  2. Active Verbs, Active Stories. If you replace “to be” verbs (is, are, was, were) with specific active verbs, the reader will sense more story movement. Many writers who’ve started in other careers (technical writers, lawyers, politics) use active verbs only as a last resort. Contract legalese often is written by individuals with little regard for the action. See? To change that sentence from passive to active: Individuals with little regard for action often write contract or legalese wording. Be on the lookout for boring verbs: walk, talk, look, move, put or place. Replace these with precise verbs, such as: amble, yell, ogle, dance, toss, plop.
  3. Learn To Weave. No CHUNKING! Readers forget about descriptions if those descriptions are chunked at the beginning of a scene. It’s fine to set-up a scene, but after only a few exchanges of dialogue, the setting, the time of day and even the characters begin to fade away until, like the Cheshire Cat, all that remains is a smile. Weave descriptions, body language and inner thought/emotions around your dialogue.
  4. Rule of 3. One way to remember step three is to count. Three lines spoken by our main character and then a sentence (I call these “beats”) of action, body language or an inner feeling/thought. Three exchanges of dialogue (Are so. Am not. Are so.) and break up the dialogue with a paragraph of narrative. Three paragraphs of back story (aka flashback) and touch back on the real time scene. It’s not really a rule, but the RULE OF 3 can help you learn to pace your scenes.
  5. Speed Up Scenes. The scenes you write should be important in the sense that each one reveals a bit more of the story. Instead of always beginning a scene before the real action begins, try launching it in media res, that great tool that makes readers feel as if they’ve walked in on an argument. Axe scenes that move the story “sideways,” that is, they go on and on about a plot point that’s already been revealed. Practice these five tools of self-editing, and you’ll be a better writer. Just don’t go around claiming you never revise.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

5 comments on “Revision: Five Simple Self-editing Skills

  1. I love the “3” rule. I never thought of it like that before. I do like to add lots of beats, but will be more mindful of when and where they come. Great list. I love lists!

  2. Jan,The “3” rule helps me teach writers to blend the elements of a scene. So many times writers draft with almost all dialogue. That’s great, but you can’t leave it that way. I hope writers don’t get too anal about it, but in general I think it helps. ~Linda

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