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Grammarly told me.
Last year, I wrote 1,000,000 words give or take 200,000+.
Not all of them saw the light of day. I’m happy they didn’t.
The first draft of anything is shit. ~ Ernest Hemingway
Not all of them would be considered damn good writing.
Irrespective of that, I own those words. They’re the embodiment of my thoughts. When they hit the paper, it’s my job to beat them into something coherent.
Something you can understand.
Something worthy of being read.
It’s my duty as the writer and it’s your right as the reader. I don’t want to teach you how to become a better writer or how to edit your writing.
Rather, I want to share the self-editing tips I live by. The self-editing guidelines which helped me connect with the millions of people who’ve read my work.
You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~ Arthur Plotnik
Self-editing tips I wish knew when I started this long —sometimes solitary— journey.
There’s nothing more satisfying than finishing a difficult piece. Your first thought — my first thought — is to start at the top and edit what you’ve written.
It makes sense, but it can do more harm than good. When you’ve just finished writing, you’re still too close to the work. You’re knee deep in the thoughts you’ve poured onto the page. It’s too soon to kill your darlings.
Instead, take a break. Go out for a walk, go play with the kids, or watch the stupid box. Whatever you do, step away from what you’ve written for a few hours. This isn’t for fun — not entirely at least. It has tangible benefits.
Emily Wenstrom from The Write Practice laid out a few of those benefits.
Alright, you’ve taken your break and you’re back at the keyboard. What’s the first thing you do?
Edit your grammar?
Every writer I know has trouble writing. ~ Joseph Heller
That would be doing yourself a disservice. Before you think about whether there should be a period or comma at the end of your thought, your narrative needs to be coherent. I was talking about this in TRL with one of my students.
Its necessity becomes obvious when you’re writing longer pieces like novels, novellas, or nonfiction work.
One gains universal applause who mingles the useful with the agreeable, at once delighting and instructing the reader. ~ Horace
The codename for this overlooked process is structural editing. It’s when you go through your work to determine how the individual elements support or undermine the main plot.
Does your piece answer the question it was written for?
Does the writing flow in a logical manner?
If you’re drawing conclusions, does the rest of the writing support it?
Are you switching between different voices?
Do your subplots and subheadings move the writing forward?
Are you adding too many details or not enough details?
These are the kinds of questions structural editing answers.In 2015, I was in Lagos and met a young lady named Elsie. She owned a lifestyle blog which covered a wide range of topics. I’d been playing around with the idea of writing a modern romantic thriller set in West Africa.
Our meeting gave me the medium I was looking for to get my thoughts out of my head and onto paper. I wrote an outline and started to create and release the novel 1 chapter at a time over the course of 26 weeks. A Dangerous Love Affair was born.
My editor consisted of two of my siblings. One is a medical student and one was an engineering student at the time. About 13 weeks in, I realized there were huge plot holes and inconsistencies in the story. It was too late to go back and I was in too deep to quit.
I trudged on.
There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers. ~ H. L. Mencken
The story itself was fun, it just wasn’t well put together. A structural edit would’ve saved it.
Moral of the story, when you come back from your break, look at the narrative and flow before you look at grammar and punctuation.
Have you heard of the rule of three? It suggests things that come in three are funnier, more exciting, or more effective than other numbers of things. In essence, the rule of three in writing is a hat tip to the oral storytelling tradition.
Look back through this article; you’ll see I use the rule of three — a lot.
Before the written word, history was passed down through the stories told when your community gathered. The storytellers had a duty to hold the attention of their tribe. This was done by establishing the right tone of voice, repetition, and rhythm.
More than just holding their attention, it helped their audience learn and retain ideas. Even though pen and paper are your weapons of choice, reading aloud will you help find where your writing is lacking.
Read out loud to find places where your wording is awkward. Also look for where you can remove some of the excess to create a tighter, simpler, and more effective piece.
You get bonus points if you read your writing to another person.
We have a natural tendency to want to do the right things in social situations. Reading to someone will give you a heightened awareness of your work.
You’ll catch issues with your writing and work harder to fix them because of social pressure. Even if the person is your partner, sibling, or friend.
The simpler you say it, the more eloquent it is. ~ August Wilson
This is how you get ruthless with your writing.
Short sentences are powerful.
The longer your sentence, the more ideas it contains. The more ideas it contains, the greater the chance your reader gets distracted. The more distracted your reader, the shorter the distance to the back button.
Proofread carefully to see if you any words out. ~ Author Unknown
Short sentences are king. They deliver a punch. They’re poignant. They’re difficult to use.
On the web, we’re skimmers. It’s not that people don’t read long form writing. They do. People consume whatever interests them. It’s just difficult to write long form and remain entertaining.
Short sentences make the reading experience more enjoyable.
Roy Peter Clark wrote a column in The New York Times. He analyzed the power of the short sentence with an excerpt from Libra by Don DeLillo:
Marguerite felt a weakness in her legs. The wind made the canopy snap. She felt hollow in her body and heart. But even as they led her from the grave she heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald spoken by two boys standing fifty feet away, here to grab some clods of souvenir earth. Lee Harvey Oswald. Saying it like a secret they’d keep forever. She saw the first dusty car drive off, just silhouetted heads in windows. She walked with the policemen up to the second car, where the funeral director stood under a black umbrella, holding open the door. Lee Harvey Oswald. No matter what happened, how hard they schemed against her, this was the one thing they could not take away — the truth and lasting power of his name. It belonged to her now, and to history.
The short sentences in the passage have power because of the longer sentences preceding them.
In general, strive to keep your sentences below 20-25 words. Put more and you introduce multiple ideas. Each sentence is made to communicate one clear thought.
Good things, when short, are twice as good. ~ Baltasar Gracian
Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~ Mark Twain
I couldn’t have said it better if I tried. Since this is an article on self-editing tips. We’ll forgo the editor part. I have a special part of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King framed.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.
Words to live by.
Please please please cut them from your writing. They don’t do much — if anything. They add weight where none should exist.
Adverbs and adjectives express the degree to which something occurs. She ate quickly. He’s uniquely built. He slammed the door fitfully.
They do NOTHING.
Sorry, let me calm down. They’re a useless part of a writer’s vocabulary because your context clues give your reader all the information they need. If they don’t, an adverb isn’t going to save you.
Cut them ruthlessly.
The law of diminishing returns is real. Put it out in the world, your tribe will forgive everything as long as you have a good story.
Your readers will forgive your missed periods.
They’ll forgive your comma splices.
They’ll even forgive your run on sentence.
They won’t forgive you boring them to death.
Grammar is always secondary to story. Everything is secondary to being understood.
Don’t only write about what you know, also write what fascinates you.
These self-editing tips have served me well. I learn a bit more everyday. Now, I think I’m a decent writer. In five years from now, I may want to delete everything I’ve written this year.
It’s part of my evolution, it’s part of your evolution.
When you finish your piece, take a break then come back to worry about the structure and coherence. After that, you can figure out where your commas should go.
Keep your sentences short, under 25 words is ideal. Cut the –ly words from your vocabulary whenever it’s possible.
When all is said and done, publish the damn thing.
I’ve left out the most important tip that’ll help you become a better writer. Keep writing.
Let me know the self-editing tips you’re using to become a better writer in the comments.
Note: I couldn’t find the original source for many of the gifs and memes used in this post, if you know where they came from please let me know.