Your writing is better if you spend more time on it. “Editing” means fixing grammar and syntax mistakes, while “revising” means refining and clarifying ideas and overall structure. Both processes are necessary before the final “proofreading” — a spellcheck and punctuation review. Inexperienced writers gloss over the revision stage. If your ideas are weak, your structure shaky, or your paragraphs haphazardly constructed, it won’t matter that everything is spelled correctly.
Tip #1: Let it breathe.
Your emotional attachment to your writing is strongest while you’re working on it, so a short absence will allow you to reflect on the work with new, less sensitive eyes. Print out the pages, settle in to your favorite reading chair, and write notes in the margins. Mark things that work, things that don’t, and additional ideas; if so inspired, free-write on the back of the final page and begin expanding ideas on the spot. Do not be discouraged if your first draft isn’t up to the quality of your vision. That’s what revision is for.
Tip #2: Revise global, then revise local.
Concentrate on ideas first. Don’t waste time tweaking sentences and word choice when the overall structure or logic may need work. Address both the nominal and the underlying subject, e.g. your story is about a rural town, but the underlying subject may be the intimacy and insularity of community. Ground your writing in logic, time, place, and purpose first. Then worry about grammar.
Tip #3: Ask questions designed to elicit a new perspective.
Use the insights and answers to guide your revision. Consider, among other things:
- What’s your point? How would you summarize the storyline or argument of this piece?
- Have you cited your sources?
- Are your sources credible?
- Would additional sources strengthen your evidence?
- Who is the intended reader? Is the voice appropriate for the material? Does the voice remain consistent throughout?
- How is it organized? Are your ideas cohesively presented and structured? Are there sections? How do they frame the piece?
- Do the ideas in each paragraph and sentence flow together? Do they follow the “known-new” contract of cohesion?
- Is there resolution?
Tip #4: Get feedback.
Once you have a working draft, seek disinterested feedback from fellow writers, editors, and colleagues. Ask them what is working, what isn’t working, and whether there are lapses in logic or vagueness in language. Is anything confusing? Not properly supported? Are any arguments more or less effective than others? What questions does it evoke? What, in their opinion, is the meaning of the piece? By seeking this outside viewpoint, the writer embraces a reader-centered perspective of his or her work. This helps to articulate the difference between what the writer intends to say and what’s actually on paper.
If you’re a regular writer, seek out a writing group. By surrounding yourself with a community of writers, you gain the advantage of not only critical feedback, but also ongoing support and continuing education.
Tip #5: Expand your sources.
Research doesn’t end with the first draft. In addition to impartial feedback, seek resident experts and fresh resources to expand the knowledge bank supporting your work. If you’re writing about a sports event, you’ll want to interview athletes, fans, and coaches. You may also interview the event organizer, the veteran champions, the vendors, and the neighbors who don’t appreciate traffic jams and cheering crowds outside their windows. Get creative, be open to new knowledge, and incorporate meaningful details into your revision.
Tip #6: Work on bite-sized pieces.
Whether the piece is five pages or 500, wrap your head around the revision by breaking it up into manageable pieces. Work on one chapter, section, or scene at a time, and then step back and examine how these changes affected the overall piece. Pick a new focus for each round of revision. Once you’ve addressed global ideas, structure, and organization, wade into the syntactic issues of pace, style, tone, and parallelism.
Tip #7: Educate yourself.
Learn the terminology of writing. For an overview of grammar vocabulary, from subject-predicate to infinitives, gerunds, and adverbials, check out “The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. In addition, keep the following reference books on your desk and develop a working knowledge of their contents:
- The Elements of Style, 4th edition, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
- AP Stylebook (for journalism style)
- Chicago Manual of Style (for publishing style)
Good writers are also good readers. For a complete study of modern and classic literature, including writing techniques, read a book a week.
Tip #8: Kill your darlings.
The hardest part of revision is cutting out the dead weight. This is especially true if you’ve labored over the language. But no matter how brightly an anecdote shines on its own, it may be unnecessary if it doesn’t offer meaningful details necessary to the purpose of the piece. Be merciless in stripping out and reworking these sections; in industry parlance, “Kill your darlings.” Keep these hacked-up pieces of writing in a separate file for use in a later work.
Tip #9: Tighten the language.
Write simply. Strong prose tells a clear story and doesn’t call attention to itself. Note that a thesaurus is a helpful tool when you’re reaching for the right word, but writing full of thesaurus-sourced words feels artificial and stilted. Here are four fast tips to tighten language:
- Don’t use six words when four will work. Replace, “Her story is a unique one,” with, “Her story is unique.”
- Be specific. Replace, “Suzie is boring,” with, “Suzie seems incapable of discussing any matters that don’t involve television, flight schedules, or New Kids on the Block.”
- Use vivid verbs with motion and attitude; did he “walk” or “amble”? Did she “say” or “scream”?
- Reign in adjectives. Describe more with the force of the details than with the diction. Replace, “It’s an adventurous, fictional, gripping but long sci-fi book,” with, “The sci-fi novel is a whopper at 7,000 pages, but the plot-twisting adventure guarantees a gripping read.”
Quoting Strunk and White, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” [Elements of Style, 4th ed, p. 23]
Tip #10: Choose a good title.
Be provocative. Good titles intrigue the reader, they have tension built in, they don’t rely on abstractions or clichés, and they get to the heart of the piece. Resist the temptation to make a play on movie titles or song lyrics. Create, don’t imitate.