Every written, published piece is a reflection of several different processes: writing, several rounds (and types) of editing, proofreading, formatting, and publishing. Often we think of the whole process as “writing a piece,” but it’s important to look at those individual steps of the process. All must be done well in order to delight the reader with the finished piece.
While many types of editing go into producing a finished piece, today I want to look at simple self-editing steps. If you are writing an article or a devotional for your blog, you might not go through as many editing stages as you would for a book. But you at least want to take some simple self-editing steps to be sure your piece is polished for your readers. The same goes for preparing a manuscript for a professional editor to read. If you are working with an editor, you want to self-edit first, and give that editor the best piece you can.
Following are five self-editing tips for the Christian writer – and you will want to begin each round of editing with prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit to guide you through the process.
1. Remove the word “that.”
“That” is a word we tend to overuse in writing because it helps us think and make connections. While “that” may be part of your mental process in writing, your reader doesn’t need to see it. Each time your reader sees “that,” it breaks up the flow of the piece. You want your reader to immerse herself in your writing and engage the story, the testimony, the wisdom you are sharing – not focus on the words, especially empty words like “that.”
Go ahead and write “that” in your first draft. You should never edit yourself while you are writing the first draft, otherwise you will block the flow from heart to paper. But after you complete your first draft, spend your first round of editing eliminating “that.” And yes, occasionally you really will need to use “that” for the meaning of the sentence. But “that” will happen about 5% of the time. Most instances of the word “that” can be removed without affecting the meaning of your sentences.
2. Remove or limit your use of adverbs.
I realized I had an “adverb problem” when a friend, who is not a native speaker of English, read a chapter I had written. She pointed to a sentence: “The boat cut sharply through the water.” With brow furrowed, she said, “Doesn’t it mean the same thing? Sharply and cut?” She had a point.
Most of the adverbs we write are not needed by our readers. If our verbs are strong to begin with, they don’t need boosting. The verb “cut” is very descriptive for a moving boat. It creates imagery of water parting with sharp edges. No need to add “sharply.” When we over-describe, it weakens the imagery formed in our readers’ minds.
Again, it’s okay to write adverbs into your first draft. The first draft is all about getting the word imagery from heart to paper. But when you self-edit, make one round focused on “marking up” your adverbs. If you edit with a printed draft, circle the adverbs. If you use a computer, use the built-in highlighter to mark the adverbs. The reason for doing this is that you may want to leave a few of them in for color or texture. But first, circle or mark them all. Then cut about 95%. Leave a strategic few – and know exactly why you have chosen to leave those few.
3. Remove or minimize your use of exclamation marks.
When overused, exclamation marks have the opposite effect of what you intend. An exclamation mark minimizes the impact of a sentence. The more you use them, the less emphatic your writing will be.
Instead, create impact through your choice of words and sentence structure. Use strong verbs. Create atmosphere through succinct descriptive phrases and action. Vary sentence length to build tension. Let your reader be moved by the sentence without the need for an exclamation mark.
To test this out, write a paragraph about an exciting event. Make two copies. On the first copy, add an exclamation mark to the end of each sentence. On the second copy, be sure every sentence ends with just a period (unless it needs a question mark). Put the two paragraphs aside for a few days. Then go back and read them. Pay attention to how you react to the exclamation marks. Which version sounds better? Which is more impactful? Why?
You can still use exclamation marks in your writing. But use them sparingly. Be sure you have a very good reason when you use one.
4. Read out loud and listen for awkward-sounding phrases or anything that makes you stumble or trip.
It’s a phenomenon of the human eyes and brain, but when we write something and spend time tweaking it, our brain tends to smooth over things as we read it back to ourselves. It’s hard to tell, just by re-reading your own work, whether or not it will sound smooth to your readers.
It will help if you do the following:
Put it aside for a day or two. Then read it to yourself out loud. Listen for any awkwardness. Then ask someone else to read it out loud to you. Make a note of where they stumble in their reading (ask them to put a quick mark on that place). Also make a note or what sounds awkward to you when you hear it. And make a note of what doesn’t come across the way you intended. Go back and edit those places. Then read them out loud again until it sounds right.
5. Read with all five of your senses.
A powerful piece creates a sense of texture. Your readers can engage your written piece with all five senses. This doesn’t always come through in your initial writing process. Most often, texture comes through editing.
Consider reading through your piece five different times. Each time, focus on one of your senses. What can you hear? How can you bring more “hearing” into the piece. What can you smell? How can you heighten the piece so your reader will come away with a certain fragrance? If you describe an object, can your readers feel it? Days after they finished reading your piece, so they feel as if they really touched that object?
Weaving the five senses into your writing is not something you want to overdo. You should choose a few effective places to bring sensory texture. As you edit, you will see the most ideal places to engage your readers’ sense of sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing. A little effort spent on a few such places will give greater impact to your piece.
Self-editing takes time. It should be done in several rounds, not all at once. For each round, decide what you will look for and work on. One round might be for removing adverbs. Another round might be to develop the sense of smell. Take the time to shape your written piece. It will make all the difference for your reader.
Even so, part of editing is knowing when you are done. A piece can be perfected infinitely more than it needs to be. Take several rounds to shape your work for optimal impact. But then, decide to be done. Publish your piece and share it. That’s why you wrote it, after all.
This exercise might help you practice editing. On Sunday, I published a portion of a letter I wrote while serving as a visiting lecturer in Russia 21 years ago. This letter was handwritten and unedited. I published the text “as is” to preserve authenticity. But it’s a goldmine of all the things I would want to eliminate through self-editing.
I hadn’t taken any writing or editing classes when I wrote this letter – that will be obvious when you read it. I started my writing/editing career the following year. When I returned home from Russia, I had so much to write about that I dove into learning the craft.
Take a look at the first letter, and see what stands out from the above self-editing tips (especially tips 1-4). You will find a lot! You can add to the above list my overuse of semi-colons.
The letter will open in a new page, so you can refer back to the tips on this page while you are reading the letter. Portions of the letter will be published in four parts over the next few Sundays, so you will have several opportunities to practice.