How to Edit Your Own Writing

I wrote my first book at the age of 13. It was a Star Wars fanfiction novella. Here are a couple of lines from the book:

“Let’s sit over here on this bench. They both sat down.”

Yes, my dialogue was expository, and yes I included action inside quotations.

Reading it now, it’s hilarious. And a little painful. But when I first started writing, I thought I was ingenious. I wouldn’t have claimed to be a savant, but if someone said that about me, I wouldn’t have disagreed because that would make them super observant and it would guarantee them a bright future as a talent scout.

As my writing improved, I realized I’m not a savant, I’m mediocre. I don’t have a natural writing ability. I naturally daydream. So I decided to write my daydreams down one day, and forgot to grow out of that when I became an adult. And that’s how I became a writer.

It took a long time to accept my first drafts will always be bad. Always.

Can you accept that about your writing?

Because I acknowledge that my first drafts are lacking, this is a visual representation of how I feel when I let someone read one of my stories:

Scared man

Sheer and utter terror. I want to grab their shoulders and scream in their face, “Tell me you like it! Verbally affirm me!” Don’t worry, I’ll be opening up about that to my therapist too.

I’m afraid my prose will assault the pleasure center in their brains and render them incapacitated for the rest of the day. Have I mentioned that I have the tendency to be a teensy overdramatic?

Once I accepted that my first draft could never be good, it relieved a lot of pressure. Whether it’s your first draft or tenth, it can always be improved. Here are a few tricks that helped me edit my own writing:

1. Remove all adverbs 

Replace them with a stronger, more vivid verb. You use adverbs when you lack the vocabulary to paint an evocative picture. You should never walk slowly. Feel free to slog, trudge, or plod. But never, ever walk slowly. Or Shakespeare will unearth himself to slap you.

Although that would be fantastic to meet him, I hear he has rather bony hands. It would probably hurt. Not to mention the emotional pain.

Print your manuscript and underline every verb you see. If you have weak verbs, you have weak sentences. Weak sentences weaken scenes. And weak scenes weaken the overall story.

Now the word “weaken” sounds odd after saying it so many times.

Weaken.

Hehe.

2. Don’t edit while you write

This is a cardinal sin. And I am guilty. A first draft is about getting words on the page. Finish the story arc, and then go back and make it look pretty. If it sucks, let it suck until you come back for your second draft.

If you’re obsessed with perfecting your copy, then you’ll end up never finishing your novel. It’s hard to create content whenRobert Graves Quote you’re focused on perfecting what you wrote yesterday.

3. Come back later

Set aside your writing when you’re finished with the story. At least a month. Don’t think about it. Don’t look at it. Don’t touch. Don’t smell. Well, you could probably smell if you want to… if you’re into that sort of thing.

Stephen King usually writes the first draft of his next novel before coming back to edit his previous one. In his memoir, On Writing, he says he doesn’t want to remember the whole story so he can be more objective when trimming and editing.

But King isn’t that successful, so you should probably ignore his advice and keep doing it your way.

4. Edit the big picture first

Don’t comb through your story sentence by sentence and assume when you reach the last page you’ve completed the second draft.

First, you need to take a step back. If a character has not been changed somehow through the course of the scene, then it’s not a scene. These scenes usually exists for expository sake alone – to show backstory to the readers. Cut it. Replace it with something that alters a character’s motive or perspective.

Audiences nowadawys have excellent bullshit radars. Don’t insult their intelligence by thinking you can sneak a scene in there just to explain your character’s history.

If you do, then Jack London and Mark Twain will unearth themselves to slap you. It’s been an eventful day meeting so many acclaimed authors, hasn’t it? Lucky you.

The first round of editing is for cutting scenes that don’t belong. It speeds the plot along. Readers like that. Rearrange some chapters, not sentences.


I’ve used these steps on my own writing and have corrected some painful plot pitfalls, as well as some embarrassing sentences almost as bad as the ones from my Star Wars novella. I bet the ones you need to touch up aren’t quite as gnarly as that. So you have a head start on me!

Next week you can expect a blog post on how to write exposition well. Hope you enjoyed my first post, and hope you come back for more!

Have you ever been embarrassed to read your old writing? Leave a comment in the section below! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

6 Comments

  1. Love this!! Thank you for all the insight. I have definitely been embarrassed to read old writing. Lately I’ve gone so far as to hide it around the apartment so I don’t even have to see it. I keep telling myself “One of these days I’ll read it, organize it, and do something with it!”

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this, Jenny! I’ve found that old ideas, even the bad ones, often spark new ideas. So I challenge you to dig out those old stories and re-read them, whether it leads to inspiration or hilarity!

  2. I actually like what I write. Even when it was old stuff. I am not the greatest writer though either. I only have a couple books out and some people said it was okay, while others said it sucked. so who knows. Thanks for the writing tips 🙂 Have a good day 🙂

    • bdschmitt

      August 5, 2015 at 11:47 am

      Hi Angelbritney, sometimes digging through your older stuff can help you learn a lot (both from mistakes and from the good stuff). I’m glad you found the tips helpful!

  3. Thank you for the helpful tips and reminders! And yes, recently went through years of writing and had several ‘Let’s just chalk that up to practice writing’ folders – move ’em to the back and try not to look at those again! But also found a few gems I’d like to re-work.
    Thanks for the encouragement to your fellow writers!

    • bdschmitt

      August 5, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      Hi Peggy, I’m glad it was helpful! I’ve had many “chalk it up to practice writing” times. It’s nice when you see something buried in there that’s valuable — that always energizes me!

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