Polishing Your Writing

As writers, we understand how multiple revisions can polish a so-so piece and make it shine. But how we approach our polishing may be as important as how many revisions we undertake.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at a rewriting strategy for polishing your prose.

Hearing Is Believing

I tend to write a first draft without editing myself. I’ve been writing a long time now, so I can sometimes rephrase or replace as I type, but generally, I don’t censor myself. As the saying goes, “I write to see what I think.” Even if you are a meticulous plotter, writing without editing yourself can allow surprises and unexpected details to emerge.

Let your first draft sit for at least 24 hours—more if you can. Then, get out your first draft (you know, the version you haven’t altered from its creation) and read it aloud. Reading out loud taps a different part of the brain than silent reading. Without the speech component, our brains tend to fill in details (words) that aren’t there or reword sentences. Read your draft to your writing group or your dog, but not to your spouse or your mom.

Your ears will pick up clunky constructions and those darned dangling participles. You’ll be more apt to notice whether your passage “flows” or if what you’ve written confuses. Watch for spots that repeat or don’t move the story. This first-step revision doesn’t actually change what you’ve written but can give you important clues about how to rewrite.

Go Big at First

Some writers start out thinking that self-editing is a matter of switching out words or swapping sentences. But after you’ve read out loud, I tell my students to start big. It makes little sense to me to hone every sentence/word if the piece has structural problems. Start by thinking of the forest, not the trees.

Your story, chapter or scene must be a microcosm of the overall story. In other words, your protagonist has a goal. How does this chapter or scene move her either closer or farther from that goal? As you begin the self-editing, evaluate the piece or passage by testing against that overarching goal (or in nonfiction, the theme or point).

Many books and videos exist to help you with the Big Picture of your work. One way to think of whatever you’re editing is to imagine your story as a board game. Your protagonist is the game piece. Each square is a scene. How does each roll and landing get that protagonist closer or farther from the goal? What obstacles crop up along the way and how does your character overcome them?

One way to edit the big picture is to think of your story as a board game.

Save Nits for Last

You’ll be self-editing in many layers, so it’s safe to leave those small edits for last. After you’ve improved the Big Picture of your work, you can pay attention to word choices. Replace passive constructions with active verbs. Let those active verbs replace ly words and over-reliance on modifiers. Let verbs which are specific and active help you delete “ing” gerunds, transforming was playing into a simple past tense played.

Now you can also sharpen your dialogue and let descriptions be specific and vivid. Don’t forget that your protagonist (or point of view character) must filter all this through her perspective, her attitudes, her desires and goals. As you can see, many revisions are likely as you polish your writing.

After all these rounds of revision, you can end right where you started—by reading your work out loud, preferably after you’ve let it sit for a time. As you read, you may discover that you need even more self-editing. Or, if you think you can’t improve what you’ve done, it may be time for a pro editor to take a look. Self-editing is a process, not a one-time thing. If you write for publication, you’ll learn to value revision as much as the creative process itself. Polishing is just part of the game.

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.

3 comments on “Polishing Your Writing

  1. My saving grace for editing a novel is Microsoft Excel. I start by listing all my chapters and then from there derive all manner of things from it. Since Excel handles time and dates so well, I can be assured chronologically things are in order, but also by assigning individual chapters numbers (1-10) I can have it plot out character arcs, emotional highs and lows, and using its line graph maker, really see how the chapters play out throughout the course of the novel.

    A lot of times I can make for better reading novels by just rearranging chapters.

    Sometimes I have to go back and adjust things chronologically to fit better because I rearranged things, but it has always made for a better novel, I think. I do a lot of other analytical checks with Microsoft Excel for sure, but just plotting out how a reader will feel from the first chapter to the last, by line graph, can be eye-opening.

  2. Travis,
    Wow, you are so organized. I am much more of a pantster, so I’m ashamed to say what I do in that department. A stack of notecards, a bunch of post-its, even a simple list in a spiral notebook. Excel is intimidating–glad it works for you!
    Keep Writing,

  3. Dear Linda,

    To be honest with you, I am more of a pantser in writing the first draft, but upon editing, I tend to be more organized and thus use Microsoft Excel.

    Just as an example, I am at 38,000 words in on a new novel, and started with the last three ending chapters, went back and found my story beginning, did a few there, then jumped to the middle. In short, I try to write were inspired, and not chronologically. Then I’ll “blend it” as I call it, which is adding segues and transitional paragraphs and have a well-flowing rough draft. Then I start in with my Excel program to get the details right.

    Kind of a non-traditional way to write, but I found it keeps my quirky-self writing.

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