Editing Your Writing: The Basics

Updated on July 9, 2018
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I am the author of three middle grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

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In my previous article about editing, I explained why editing is such an important step in the writing process. In this article, I will break down the different stages of editing, from proofreading for spelling and grammar to cutting and rewriting for continuity and content. These are the basic building blocks of a successful edit and will result in a professional-looking piece of writing to share with the world.

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Editing By Typing

Though I sometimes try to avoid it, writing my first draft by hand gives me the opportunity to complete a first edit as I type it up. In fact, this article was originally written by hand, and many sentences are being added or rewritten as I type it out. I sometimes just type my first draft directly in Microsoft Word, especially when I know exactly what I want to say, but I tend to edit less and leave more errors and sloppy sentences when I do it this way.

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Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation

Editing means that you literally have to read every line forward and backward in order to catch every mistake. Many believe that editing is mainly about dotting I’s and crossing T’s, and that is true to an extent. Some of the most obvious signs of an unedited piece of writing are found in misspelled words, improper word usage, and punctuation errors. Your eighth grade teacher was right; spell check is not going to fix all of your mistakes, though if you are using a word processor, a first step should be to use that spell check feature first. Not only will it catch some of your most glaring errors, but it will suggest grammatical corrections to get you thinking about how to rework your weaker sentences and prep your brain for an intensive editing session.

Once spell check has done its work, you have to check for everything that it won’t catch including:

  • Titles – which words are capitalized and which are kept in lower case?
  • Italics vs. Quotations – I’m constantly looking up which kinds of titles are italicized versus put into quotes (ex. books, movies, paintings, songs, etc.). It’s hard to remember every rule of the English language, and this is one of them.
  • Capitalization – are proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences capitalized correctly?
  • Punctuation marks – periods, question marks, exclamation marks, quotations, ellipses, parenthesis, etc. Was every mark turned in the right direction when you typed it? Is it in the proper place in the sentence? If a word in a language other than English is used, is it accented correctly?
  • Tenses – Do you know when to use lie, lay, or laid? I’m always looking that one up. The English language is filled with tons of them.
  • Apostrophes – in words that end in “s”, omitting when typing a family’s last name, etc.
  • Definitions – Are you using every word correctly? Is there any chance that you are using it wrong?

If you’re not sure about something, ALWAYS look it up. Google is right on your phone or computer. Keep Google open on your browser, but try not to fall down a rabbit hole of searches or get distracted by your social media, news pages, games, etc. They are a writer’s worst enemy. If you’re old school, keep your reference books within arm’s reach. Otherwise, you’re not going to feel like getting up to retrieve it when you have a question and just guess which defeats the purpose of editing.

Continuity

Even when you have the clearest picture of a scene in your head, you can miss out on details that don’t flow within the story or scene as a whole. A character’s shirt could be blue one minute and purple the next. A bird’s nest could contain three eggs, but then four baby birds are born in the nest. Everyone does it, and the more you catch, the better.

Even writer Stephen King notes in his forward to his novel, The Green Mile, that in the complete novelization, he corrected a scene where a character in a straight jacket wipes sweat from his brow in the serialized version of the book. This small detail got past all of the hands that it went through from draft to publication, but he made sure to remedy in it when given the opportunity. When you are dreaming up numerous details to build your world, you sometimes forget what details came before the ones you are working on at the moment.

When you are editing for continuity, it’s best to read the piece as a casual reader would, paying close attention to the details of the scene and trying to imagine it as if you are reading it for the first time. Is what is on the page matching with what you had in your head, and does it match up with what was written in the paragraphs or chapters that came before it? Keep track of dates, weather, clothing, objects, time of day, etc.

While I am writing my novels, I make calendars and write in each major event in the story so that plot points don’t overlap and that they coincide with a season, holiday, school year, etc. My first novel takes place in the fall to winter of 1995 (September through December) so I made sure that any real life news, pop culture events, movies, or music had occurred or were released before I wrote them into a scene. I create road maps of neighborhoods so that when characters are walking through their town, they are going in the right direction and seeing the right landmarks each time. I make floor plans of the main character’s house so that I can show them moving through the house in the same direction and passing the same rooms.

While editing my latest novel, I realized that I included one scene where a character was able to look through the doorway of their dining room, though the kitchen, and into a back room to see her mom standing in front of the back door. In another scene that takes place prior to this, the same character and her sister are told to go from the dining room into the kitchen through a swinging door to give the other characters in the dining room privacy. Each set up worked well for the individual scene, but it didn’t make sense in the big picture. So, I either had to explain what happened to the kitchen door, or I had to rewrite one of the scenes. I choose to rewrite.

I have also been known to spell character names differently or give them different names entirely in drafts of my novels. This is when the “Find” and “Replace” features in Microsoft Word come in handy to fix all of the names at once so that the correct one shows up for that character on every page (however, make sure you still look out for incorrect names on each page in case you also spelled the name multiple ways). Ultimately, checking for continuity is one of the less painful editing run-throughs of a piece. It sets up many opportunities to be creative in correcting these errors and gives you a second chance to make choices as to how you want your scene to look, not just throwing in details as fillers to get to the juicy stuff. The details can be juicy and meaningful when given the right amount of attention. They just need to make sense and remain uniform throughout.

"The Green Mile" forward by Stephen King
"The Green Mile" forward by Stephen King | Source

Flow

You’ll also want to make sure that your sentences flow. This is the dreaded step where you have to read your work out loud to yourself. I hate reading my work aloud but not as much as I hate somebody else reading it aloud in front of me and stumbling over the choppy or lengthy sentences. Even reading quietly under your breath will help you to write more flowing sentences and can soften the experience of someone else reading a bad version of your work. It will sound more like nails on a scratching post than knives on a chalkboard.

Narration and dialogue will sound different verbalized than it does in your head, and you want it to be able to sound as close as possible to the performance that you were giving in your mind. It will tell you if you need to italicize a word for emphasis, add onomatopoeia for a desired sound effect, or change the punctuation to a more dramatic symbol. The way you pause and breathe while speaking a sentence will tell you where to add or cut. It will also alert you to unclear details or plot points. Many times while sharing a rough draft, someone has questioned an element that has prompted me to explain what I meant and triggered me to clarify that thought or action so that it makes sense to the reader.

A scene about word choice in music.

Limitations and Cutting

Limits

Vocabulary is limited when I write my middle grade novels which challenges me to come up with words that will fit my reader’s reading level without being generic or overused. I have to make sure that my word choice, dialogue, and narration all fit those limitations so that my characters don’t sound like geniuses like The Peanuts characters or overly simplistic like The Cat in the Hat. Remember your audience, and adapt your language and structure to fit the type of piece that you are writing and the people who will be reading it.

Cutting

A good first draft could still be too long. I tend to ramble and over-explain in my writing (and in real life). So, it’s usually necessary to start cutting when I edit. I have to ask:

  • Are my sentences too long?
  • Is the narrator telling instead of showing?
  • Does the reader need to know what goes on in between a character traveling from location A to location B, or can I just skip ahead and get them to where they need to go?
  • Is a character’s back story too long?
  • Can this entire chapter disappear with no negative consequences to the story?

When you’re trying to paint a detailed picture of a world that you built from scratch or include a well-written scene that you’re proud of, it can distract you from telling only what is necessary and required for an appropriate pace and full story. Great writers are always mourning the content that they have had to cut from their work. This is why the first cut of a movie is always over four hours long before the editor pairs it down to the standard ninety minutes to two hours. The material is usually less precious to an outside editor, and they know better what is unnecessary to save, but in its first stages of completion, you are the editor, and you have to distance yourself from the writing in order to tighten it up to the length it needs to be.

At the same time, I often save scrapped material as its own document to lessen the blow of parting with it from an edited piece, especially a long cut. It’s not often that I become sentimental towards a piece of writing to that extent. I’m usually okay with hitting the “delete” button and moving on. In one of my books, though, I provided a lengthy explanation of the history between two characters, a brother, and his much older sister. The chapter chronicled how the sister and their mother had butted heads for years over the sister’s decision to take over her father’s shop after his death rather than go to college. This back story was actually the premise of an adult novel that I was going to write before I scrapped it to focus on the brother character as the protagonist and turn the book into a middle grade novel. I still consider this back story as part of the book’s untold history, but the book was already long, and it didn’t serve the story except to illustrate how important the shop was to both the brother and the sister. However, I was able to illustrate this in other ways. So, this chapter has become a meaningful but unused deleted scene that I saved to remember where the idea for my completed novel was originally born.

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Rewriting

You may discover that the weakest sections of your work may need to be rewritten during the editing process. A famous example of this is Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman becoming To Kill a Mockingbird. When the publisher discovered that the flashback scenes of the characters as kids in the first novel would make a more compelling read, an American classic was born. It is rare for audiences to get to see two versions of one story, but it illustrates how important it is to the editing process. Many filmmakers who both write and edit regard editing to be another chance to rewrite their script before releasing the finished product. Editing is essentially rewriting, tightening, cutting, beefing up, and correcting until the piece may no longer resemble itself, in a good way.

Taking the time to go through each of the above stages of editing will ensure that you are creating the best piece of writing possible. What are your favorite parts of the editing process? Leave your comments below!

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