Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ten Handy Edits

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s pithy advice, ‘Murder your Darlings” gives the writer an acidic editorial razor; Never, ever, fall in love with your own words. Instructors of creative writing repeat this maxim almost ad nauseum. For me, I need to focus my editing, pinpointing one or two specifics on each read-through. I push all my nonfiction drafts through these types of edits, murdering my darlings all the while.

1. Outline: Do all the main sections fit? Are the transitions clear? Do the section lengths match their contributions to the overall story?

2. Verbs: Check tenses for consistency within sentences and paragraphs. Emphasize present tense, active voice, fewer syllables. Use strong verbs. Much of the author’s voice, of her ability to capture and hold a reader, lies in verb and metaphor choices.

3. Read Aloud Edit: Absolutely essential. Check the flow and meter, the rhythm, find wordings that jar, isolate words that don’t fit or aren’t the author’s voice when read aloud.

4. Brevity: Cut all the crap that is tangential or irrelevant, shorten the sentences.

5. Minimize The 1st Person: Reduce the number of “I”s. No one wants to read your “Dear Diary” ramblings.

6. Time Line: Are the movements in time easy to follow, does the story move right along? Flashbacks can help with back story but avoid too much jumping around in time.

7. Past Participles: Simple past tense is usually a much more powerful phrasing.

8. Prepositional Phrases: Keep them to a minimum, use only where essential. Never more than one in a sentence unless absolutely necessary.

9. Metaphors and Word Choice: Wallace Stegner insists that words must be correct in all their meanings. Others might be familiar with more standard meanings. Using words with special meanings to the author alone, or to an inner circle, loses the general reader.

10. One Last Slash and Burn – Take No Prisoners Edit: Back off. Let the writing cool for a while. Create that emotional distance that must precede your final “darlings” pogrom. Then return with an editorial vengeance. Cut to the chase. Get rid of everything that is not essential to telling the story. Usually this means most of the spurious flavoring, the nonessential back story. Fear not. This literary Sophie’s Choice is ultimately cleansing.

What editorial foci help you the most?


  1. Hi Jerry -- All of these are excellent, but reading my manuscript aloud is one of the steps that has been most helpful to me. I hear problems that I do not see when I'm reading silently.

  2. Agreed, Pat. Among all the others, it may depend on what the writer's bad habits are. As a recovering scientist, my first-order problem is my overblown vocabulary. But I agree, the "Read Aloud" edit usually shocks me the most. "Did I write that?" "I don't talk like that, why should I write like that?" Or just plain "OMG, that sounds horrid."