You’ve poured yourself into creating an amazing story. You've read it through several times. Yet perhaps you hesitate before pressing “submit,” wondering: What could I do to make it even better?
As an editor and writing coach, I’ve learned strategies for strengthening others’ great writing. I try to use these tips to improve my own writing as well (when I’m not rushing to make a challenge deadline …).
So, I thought I'd share four editing exercises that my fellow Vocal writers may find helpful. These tools are geared toward fiction pieces, but could be adapted for nonfiction and poetry as well. While I wrote this with self-editing in mind, these tips might also serve those answering the summons to critique another's work (talking Iron Maiden here, L.C. Schäfer!).
1. The scissors test
I'm an over-drafter. On my first pass through a story, everything gets dumped from my mind onto the page.
So the question I ask myself as I enter editing mode is: What would it do to the piece if I cut this out? "This" could be anything from a few words, to a few paragraphs, to a whole subplot.
The application of scissors can be painful for word-hoarders like me. Thus I rarely use the blunt axe of "delete" -- I tenderly cut and paste into a separate blank document where all that extraneous material can still have a home. That way, if I realize I've nicked something vital, I can copy text back.
But usually ... the piece is better off with the trim.
Where to apply the scissors test? Prime candidates:
- Descriptions: Details are vital to "show not tell," but long strings of adjectives (I love Vocalist Meredith Harmon's poetic phrase "mosaic of descriptive nominatives"!) can produce sensory overload. Try shedding a descriptor or two and see if that helps the word picture pop. Cut out adjectives implied by other text. Or go thesaurus hunting to find one word that can replace a phrase.
- Exposition: First drafts tend to lay out a lot of background information -- plot context, character backstories, rules of a fantasy universe. Try scissoring out info that (a) gets communicated in other ways as the story unfolds; (b) is interesting garnish but not vital to the meat of the story; or (c) might be more impactful if left to the reader to infer.
- Conclusions: Many of us were taught the formula for proper essays: announce what you're going to say; say it; then summarize what you said. In my opinion, great fiction sometimes allows the summary to echo silently in the mind of the reader. Endings (whether of the whole story or an emotional beat) don't always have to be gift wrapped in words.
Draft ending (invented on the spot): After all those years of waiting, a slow smile crept into her eyes. She felt happy at last.
Revised: A smile crept into her eyes at last.
The first expository clause is unnecessary, since it's already known from the story that she's been waiting a long time. "Slow" can be scissored because it's implied by "crept." I tried cutting the second sentence, but on re-reading with that edit, realized this lost the sense of "finally!!" So added back in the "at last."
What do you think of this revision?
2. The eyeball test
Print out your piece, if you can, or shrink the text on the screen to see a big chunk at a time. Look for extra long paragraphs. Sometimes that indicates unnecessary detail or over-explanation or verbosity -- scissor test it! You can also try inserting a paragraph break to give a thought more breathing room.
Or, you may just decide that the paragraph is long because it needs to be long, and that's fine too.
Similarly, scroll through to visually map the main plot points of your story. If there's a segment that takes up way more space than others, consider whether its length is appropriate to its significance in the story. If something takes a lot of real estate to explain, it's possible that a tangent has snuck in to take residence. Or, maybe an overcomplicated narrative invites simplifying and decluttering.
Conversely, if a segment of plot is disproportionately short, ask yourself if something's missing. Is there critical information that's been been glossed over, or packed too tightly? A conflict that's too abruptly wrapped up? Action or dialogue that could be dramatized rather than summarized? Emotional beats that could be let out to dance?
In my experience writers are most likely to shortchange their narrative closer to the ending (for a simple reason: we get tired!). I once coached a YA book in which one paragraph toward the end of the first draft clearly needed unpacking. Spinning out that dense core generated two new, meaningful chapters!
3. The read-aloud test
Recruit your friend or relative or pet or stuffed animal to listen to you read your piece. Or just read it to your phone -- it's used to being talked to. For this exercise you don't require feedback (though for me that's always a bonus), just an audience.
When we read aloud to someone, some switch tends to toggle in our brain that we are not writing just for ourselves but for others. That helps us edit from a new perspective. No matter how many times I've silently reviewed a piece, when I read it with an audience in mind, I discover new ways to improve my work.
As you read aloud, pay attention to how you find yourself responding to the text:
- If your mind starts wandering ... this potentially marks a bog where your reader's attention may lag as well. Can you spice up the writing? Add captivating dialogue or action? Trim out a dull part?
For example, in a story still in draft stage (not on vocal yet), one scene describes the activities of two characters. In my re-read, it felt draggy and disjointed. I ended up cutting the action by the side character -- which was interesting, but not consequential -- to focus on the main character's action and keep things moving.
- If you stumble over the wording ... try to de-clunkify the writing. Also look for typos or missing words. I discovered once that I had accidentally deleted a whole line of text! Of course the passage didn't make sense when read aloud.
- If you wonder,"Didn't I say this already?" ... you probably did. The search text feature is great for locating redundancies.
- If you have to take a breath in the middle of a long sentence ... maybe trim a clause or two, or rework into several shorter sentences? Readers also like to take a mental breath now and then.
- If you get goose bumps ... sigh with satisfaction and don't change a thing.
4. The squiggle test
This is the easiest exercise of all -- in fact, I feel almost silly bringing it up.
Almost every writing program, including Vocal, puts colorful squiggly lines (or just lines) under misspelled words. Some programs also notify you of possible grammatical errors. So check your document for squiggles before you hit submit.
Do, however, review each automated correction to make sure it is accurate and appropriate. Even algorhythms get it wrong sometimes. YOU are the writer, and if you want to keep invented spelling or sentence fragments for your art's sake, you are entitled.
But -- if a squiggle can help prevent unintentional error, it's worth the look.
(Well, what do you know -- a helpful squiggle told me I misspelled algorithm a few sentences ago. Learn something new every day.)
Not THAT kind of test
By calling these editing strategies "tests," I don't mean to induce anxiety or imply a grading system. Sure, your finished work for the Vocal Writing Awards is being judged ... but YOU are in charge of the editing process that gets you there. Only you can decide when your work is ready to submit.
You, the author, are the arbiter of which words best express your creative vision. Do you love (most of) what you've written? Test passed.
I mentioned earlier that as I revise, I often keep a file of the fragments I've cut out or rewritten. My "scissored" file for this article is almost 900 words. That's a lot of self-editing to write about editing! And now, though this piece may not be perfect, I am going to save changes and submit, with the hope that it may be helpful.
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Personal note: I write nonfiction and edit/coach authors for my "day job" ... so Vocal is my tree fort for fiction and poetry. But I've been contemplating a series on editing since the launch of the Critique community, and with the VWA deadline around the corner, it seemed a good time to encourage my vocal peeps to shine.
About the Creator
I love: my husband and children; all who claim me as family or friend; the first bite of chocolate; the last blue before sunset; solving puzzles; stroking cats; finding myself by writing; losing myself in reading; the Creator who is love.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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