Self-Editing for Writers

Who’s up for a jail break?

After you finish writing your first draft, editing it can seem scary and overwhelming. For the final stages, hiring a professional editor can be a wise decision. But before you search out an editor, revise as much as you can. No matter where you are in your writing life, you can learn to self-edit your own writing. 

Writing tip for Today: Let’s look at three easy-to-use self-editing techniques.

Check the Library

If you don’t already own a copy, get the classic, Elements of Style by Strunk & White. In this slim volume, you’ll find grammatical rules (lie and lay, anyone?), tips on usage and advice for writing in a clear and straightforward fashion. Another great resource is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. If you can never remember the correct its or it’s, these handy guides will help. Many other resource books, from thesauri to dictionaries are available in print or digital form. Use them to give your writing professional polish.

Fix Your Verbs

Become aware of how you use verbs and “ing” words. Verbs are action words—the engine that keeps the writing car running. You might write an excellent description, character or setting, but without energetic verbs, the car isn’t going very far. Also called active verbs, they literally depict the action of a sentence. Contrast action with passive verbs—a state of being rather than an action. Typically, writers pair these passive verbs (is, are, was, were) with an “ing” word. It’s not wrong, but replacing the “was ing” with one simple but active verb can tighten and add power to a sentence. Example: Ned was walking down the street to school. Good enough, right? But if we omit the “was” and use the simple past tense of walking—walked—the sentence is shorter and more direct. Look through your drafts and see how many of these was “ings” you might transform into a more straightforward version.

Take it further: replace the past tense verb (walk, in our example) with a specific active verb. How is the person walking? Is he late? Does he dawdle? He might race, rush, run, or amble, sashay, poke along. Ned was walking down the street to school becomes Ned sprinted down the street to school.

Drain the Swamp

Another easy technique identifies and uses sparingly words from the “Vague Swamp.” Most swampy words are modifiers—adjectives and adverbs that describe their nouns. Intensifiers: really, very, great, lots, many, giant, huge. Diminishers: little, small, some, a few, a bit. Vague: thing, stuff, problem, situation. Locate and replace with precise terms to help readers know exactly what you mean. And while we’re talking about modifiers, check your draft for modifier overuse. With too many modifiers, readers can feel weighted down. Only give readers details they need to know.

Go Straight At It

When we write with the vague swamp, we often end up using bigger and more words than necessary. For instance: The little old man darted behind the maritime fabrication facility and ignited his smoking materials. This sentence contains several multi-syllabic words. If we “go straight at it:” He darted behind the old shipyard and lit a cigarette. Also note how stilted these big words make the tone. Readers prefer a more intimate casual style.

Your Turn: What aspect of self-editing do you find most challenging?







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.

1 comment on “Self-Editing for Writers

  1. Pingback: Writing to Match Word Count - Linda S. Clare

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