Editing your own work can be intimidating. Where do you start? This month we’ll be sharing some excerpts of Nicole Bianchi’s post, How to Edit Your Writing: An Effective 7-Step Process. Hopefully her logical process will demystify the editing task and give you a practical way forward.
Today I’m sharing the steps I follow to edit my work along with the editing advice I’ve gleaned from various famous authors over the years.
When I have an idea for a new article, I spend time jotting down notes, researching (if necessary), and thinking of different ways I can approach the topic. Before I begin writing the piece, I gather all of those notes together and construct an outline. (If I were writing fiction, this would be the plotting stage.)
You wouldn’t begin building a house without construction plans that carefully measure the foundation, how big each room will be, and other precise details.
Similarly, I find when I don’t outline my piece beforehand, the first draft ends up a tangled mess. That’s because I’m developing my ideas as I go. If I outline first, the piece usually ends up not requiring as many revisions.
Here are two tips for outlining your piece:
- First, summarize what your article is about in one sentence. This sentence should present the main idea or argument of your piece. You might end up including this sentence in the introduction of your piece, but even if you don’t, it will be a helpful guide as you write. If a paragraph doesn’t relate back to that original theme or support your argument, delete it.
- After you’ve written down your one-sentence summary, you can plan out the main points of each section of your piece. Organize your thoughts into a logical and chronological structure.
2. Write Your First Draft
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
I try hard to follow Steinbeck’s advice, but I am guilty of rewriting whole paragraphs as I work on my first draft. So don’t beat yourself up too much over this. Every writer has their own unique way of working. William Zinsser observes in his book On Writing Well,
Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first.
If a paragraph is giving you trouble, however, remember that you can always skip it and come back to it after you have gotten the rest of the piece down on paper. You might end up discovering that the paragraph wasn’t necessary after all.
3. Substantive Edit
A substantive edit (also known as a developmental edit) means analyzing the structure and flow of your piece.
Once I’ve finished the first draft, I step back from it and try to examine it as if I were the reader. I highly recommend reading your piece out loud at this point.
Ask yourself these questions as you read:
- Do the paragraphs flow logically and chronologically?
- If not, do you need to rearrange them or rewrite them?
- Do you have smooth transitions between each paragraph and from one idea to the next?
- Is there anything you need to explain in more depth?
- Are there any parts of the piece that need more context?
- Any sentences or sections that are repetitious?
- Any sentences that are vague and could be enriched with more detailed examples?
Most importantly, examine whether every paragraph relates back to that initial one-sentence summary you wrote during the outlining process. As Marion Roach observes in her book The Memoir Project,
While editing, check back with that original pitch and see if you’ve done what you promised to do. What did you set out to illustrate? Have you fulfilled your obligations?
Maybe the direction of your piece has changed or evolved as you wrote the first draft. In that case, you might need to delete whole paragraphs, no matter how beautifully you’ve written them. Kurt Vonnegut advises,
Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
4. Have Someone Read Your Piece
Another set of eyes is always helpful at this stage of the editing process. You want to make sure that your piece is easy to read, that there is a logical flow within your paragraphs, and that you’ve effectively communicated your message to your readers.
Usually, I’ll ask my dad to read my nonfiction pieces. He’s frank in his criticism, and he’ll tell me if there are vague paragraphs, confusing sentences, or others that wander without getting to a point.
For my fiction pieces, I’ll turn to my brother, Michael, or my fellow fiction writing friends. Since they write fiction too, they can tell me if one of my scenes isn’t working or point out if I’m guilty of info dumping.
Another benefit of having someone read your piece is that they can prevent you from falling into the trap of perfectionism and over-editing.
While you shouldn’t be concerned with editing grammar at this point, I do recommend running your piece through a grammar and spelling checker to catch any typos or other errors (Grammarly is helpful for this). This is just a way to ensure that grammar errors don’t distract your volunteer editor.
If you don’t have a friend who can read your piece and give you feedback, I recommend putting your piece aside for at least a day. When you read a piece after a day has passed, you are usually able to examine it more objectively. This is a tip I learned from Neil Gaiman,
The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.
Check back soon for the final three steps in the editing process.
At Certa Publishing, we want to equip our writers to effectively edit their own work, such as Ms. Bianchi advises. However, we realize that authors often need an expert’s help. That’s where our Book Editing Services come in. Contact us today to find out how we can partner with you!