Sunday, April 17, 2011

Edit Yourself!

Editing, rewriting, second draft, revision... no matter what terms we use, this part of the writing process is inevitably the part we all dread. After all, it's hard work to edit your writing, and writing is supposed to be fun, right? Ummm... well, yes and no.

At a writer's conference I attended last fall, New York Times best-selling author Jerry B. Jenkins addressed editing issues in a session called "Thick-Skinned Critiques." A few brave conference attendees sent in the first page of their manuscripts and let Jerry have at it. And have at it, he did! The normally mild-mannered writer was like a surgeon during the Civil War, brutally hacking away limbs with no anesthesia. OK, maybe he was a bit more gracious than that, but by the time he was finished, the page was definitely bleeding with editing marks. (He actually used a green pen instead of a red one; maybe he thought it would look less brutal that way.)

In a nutshell, Jenkins' main advice to writers was simple: Less is more. Omit needless words. "Avoid throat clearing," he said, "and get on with the story!"

Here are a few of the tips he gave -- words of wisdom from someone who has sold millions and millions of books.

  1. Avoid subtle redundancies. Change "He blinked his eyes." to "He blinked." What else are you going to blink besides your eyes?
  2. Give the reader credit. Resist the urge to explain. Example: "Marian was mad. She pounded the table. 'George you're going to drive me crazy!' she said angrily." Jenkins deleted "Marian was mad" and "she said angrily." We already know she's angry by her actions and dialogue. Good point!
  3. Don't put quotation marks around words or phrases you think your reader won't "get." See? I just did it! 
  4. Delete the word that.
  5. Avoid telling what's NOT happening. "She didn't say anything."
  6. Don't use the term "literally" unless you mean it. "My eyes literally fell out of my head." Really? That's scary!
  7. Use strong nouns and verbs, but avoid being an adjectival maniac. "The brilliant, glowing sun set against the ominous, dreary background of the creepy, haunted house." Ugh!
  8. Avoid the words up and down. "She sat down on the couch."
  9. Avoid attributing dialogue (he said, she said) unless absolutely necessary. Sometimes this is more distracting to the reader.
  10. Avoid hedging verbs. "He frowned a bit." "She gave a half smile."
Try out these nuggets of wisdom the next time you're self-editing. In the words of Sean Connery (from the movie Finding Forrester): "Write the first draft with your heart and the second draft with your head."


  1. "Omit needless words..." that's from Strunk & White. :) I think one of my brothers used to go around saying that... either that, or it was a "catchphrase" in one of my classes.

  2. Steph, you're right. He did attribute "Omit needless words" to Strunk & White. It's a good mantra for any writer!