Quick Fix: Tips for Self-editing

I think I've been here before.

I think I’ve been here before.

You’ve written your really bad,*%$# first draft without regard to its quality–just like Anne Lamott advises. You set it aside for at least a day, and now you’re staring at your screen at the hot mess you created. What next?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are three easy ways to become a better self-editor:

Pass the Tension Test

The first tip involves checking your story or scene (fiction or true) to be sure it follows a progression of beginning, middle and end. If it passes this test, progress to the “Tension Test,” making sure the story or scene begins with a problem for the character and gets more and more tense with conflict until it peaks at the climax. If your story is about a person who wants something and then calmly walks out and takes it, there isn’t going to be much tension or conflict. Readers want to see characters work for what they want by overcoming obstacles. Don’t make things easy for your protagonist, and do keep your character close to the conflict.

Banish Some Modifiers

A much simpler way to self-edit is by zeroing in on all the modifiers your draft contains. First check to be sure you really need any “ly” words, as they often modify a weak verb. “She walked quickly” could be simplified with a specific active verb such as, “she trotted.” The more specific you can be, the more precisely you can manage what your readers imagine. Next, check for double or triple modifiers. It’s not hard to get into a rhythm where each noun has two modifiers, but it can become sing-song and/or not as precise. For example, if you write, “Della walked along the dark, deserted street with her trusty pocket flashlight, casting its yellow hazy beams on several red cars parked on the lonely desolate block,” you can see how the double modifier use can get tiresome. Look for ways to either be more specific (instead of several red cars, it might be three Camaros) or choose where you’ll be specific and allow readers to imagine other unimportant details. When you name things so they stick out, readers are apt to think the detail is important to remember. If that’s not the case, readers will be disappointed.

Swap Passive for Proactive

Last, I believe that crafting straightforward, active verb sentences is often the best way to keep your readers engaged in the story. Passive constructions (A decision was made by Della) make your story sound like boring meeting minutes, but a direct active sentence (Della made a decision) engages and enlivens your reader. Go through your draft and try replacing all the “was __ing” sentences (Della was walking) to simple past tense (Della walked) and see how much tighter the story becomes. Don’t allow narrative description to intrude on any scene for more than three sentences. (See my post on the Rule of Three). These tips can make your revisions less daunting and actually help lift your story out of the rough and onto the polishing stage.

Your Turn: What’s the most difficult aspect of revision for you?

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.

7 comments on “Quick Fix: Tips for Self-editing

  1. Mrs. Clare, I am currently working on the first draft of my fantasy novel. I am working on its outline. I am also creating scenes from each and every chapter sporadically. I feel as though I have to feel inspired at times to complete these scenes. Any advice is most welcome. B.W.

  2. Dear BW,
    First, all writers struggle with inspiration. When it lands upon you, it’s wonderful. But oftentimes, inspiration is elusive. Writers who finish their novels learn that you cannot rely on inspiration to get to The End. I suggest that you set up a writing schedule each week. Make it a reasonable time so you’re more likely to stick with it, say an hour every other day or something like that. Then, SHOW UP, whether you’re inspired or not. Get your Butt in Chair (BIC). Write a scene whether you feel like it or not. Give yourself permission to write it REALLY BADLY. When the hour’s up, you’re done until the next day. If you wait for the time when you’re inspired and can write it exactly how you want it, you’ll probably wait a long time. Better to write it–however good or bad it comes out–and revise on a different day, than to not write at all.
    Hope this helps,
    KEEP WRITING! ~Linda

  3. Umm…”Della was walking” isn’t passive. The action is still happening. The verb (walking)didn’t change the object (Della). Sorry, but I can’t help myself; I love helping other writers. You might want to use the poor cat for your example. “The cat was kicked.” Matter of fact, look at any James Patterson novel and you’ll find hundreds of sentences constructed with the action still happening. But I do agree with you that “Della walked” is cleaner. Am I banned? *hangs head*

    • Sue,
      Of course not! I probably should have made a separate heading for those “was ing” constructions–not passive but still not tight & clean. I find new writers can quickly improve their work just by eliminating those things (gerunds?) Sorry I flunked diagramming. Anyways, I know ’em when I see ’em. Thanks for pointing it out.
      Keep Writing!

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