I believe that within each writer there is an editor, a source of self-criticism that can take our work to the next level with a simple re-read and a dash of red pen. Of course, self-editing is not the end of the line when it comes to polishing your writing (workshopping and seeking a third-party editor is invaluable) but you can do a lot for your story, poem, or script by simply cleaning it up yourself.
At sentence-level (looking at each word and how it functions within the sentence it forms) you can usually cut, condense, or re-word to enrich your writing. There are many things that you could focus on when self-editing at sentence-level (from tone and voice to word-choice and vocabulary) but without even delving too deeply you can tighten and intensify your style.
Before you email your writing to a friend, pass around the paper at a workshopping group, or send off your submission to a journal, take the time to focus on the following to wake up your inner-editor.
This may sound harsh, but adverbs are lazy. Adverbs work against the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ by telling the reader that ‘the star shone brightly’ rather than showing that it ‘twinkled and glittered like a lost silver coin’, for example.
There is almost always a way to show an adverb rather than telling it, and sometimes you can just cut them entirely and your writing hasn’t lost anything.
The more adverbs you use, the less interesting and unique your descriptions become. So any time you can show your adverb, or cut it entirely, the more enjoyable your writing becomes to read.
Omit needless words
It was the great Strunk who hammered the following into E.B. White’s brain, and it stands true today. We pack our writing (as we do our speech) with ‘filler’ words, words that don’t add to the sentence but just take up valuable space.
The main culprits to take note of include: really, very, just, so, a lot, pretty much, rather, quite, and sometimes.
Sometimes these words are necessary, but you’ll know when to get rid of them and when to re-write them. Check out this cheat sheet for ideas on how to get around lazy ‘very’ words.
Unnecessary words can also work their way into your writing by means of tautology or repetition. When you’ve said one thing but reiterate it in different words you’re creating unnecessary work for the reader, and using up your word count.
Comb back through your writing and analyse the importance of every word at sentence-level, cutting the ones that are pointless. Be ruthless. This will tighten your sentences and give greater impact and immediacy to your writing.
We wouldn’t have them if they weren’t so good. But it’s like flogging a dead horse (see what I did there?). Clichés are used so frequently in our everyday language that it feels natural to slip them into your writing, and you don’t even notice.
They’re often brilliant images or analogies, but when you’ve heard them all your life they become meaningless and dull.
If you find the perfect cliché to sum up your character’s emotions or thoughts, cut it and re-write your own with images that are original and new. Creativity is refreshing, so use it to your advantage to wow your reader with new words in new ways.