Let me paint you a picture. You’ve just finished your first draft. Corks have been popped, backs have been slapped, and you’re basking in the rosy glow of a job well done.
Except NO YOU’RE NOT, GET BACK TO WORK.
There’s a saying that writing is re-writing, and that’s by and large true, in my experience. It’s very easy to miss stuff on your first go round. But it’s pretty daunting to have just got to the end of a project and then realise that you’ve got to go right back to the beginning again. Whether you’re writing a novel or an essay, you’re always going to make mistakes in your first draft, but often it’s quite tricky to know exactly where to start.
Luckily for you guys, I am a mild-mannered editor by day and I am, like, the best at making sentences. Here’s some quick and dirty tips to use as a starting point.
- Check your spelling and grammar…
All the editing lists say this, and it’s because it’s true. If you’re writing fiction, having proper spelling and grammar will help a reader get into the story – they won’t get snapped out of it every time they see a typo. If you’re writing an essay, correct spelling and grammar will make you sound like you know what you’re talking about. (Also one time, at university, our tutor told my seminar group that someone had submitted their dissertation with an accidental swear word in there, so CHECK YOUR TYPOS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.)
- …but don’t stick to it too rigidly.
This really applies more to fiction than non-fiction, so if you’re writing an essay feel free to skip to the next step. Depending on the type of thing you’re writing, sticking to very rigid grammatical rules can sometimes work against you. By all means use the correct punctuation, but forcing all your sentences to fit into a very regimented pattern doesn’t always work well – it can be pretty boring. Mixing things up a bit in terms of sentence structure helps your writing feel interesting, so go ahead and start that sentence with ‘and’.
- Take a break.
Go for a walk. Look at some clouds. Have some dinner, or maybe a nap. Anything that will give you fresh eyes, because if you go straight back to the beginning after typing your final sentence, you’re going to be reading what you were going for instead of what’s actually there. Obviously this works better when you’ve got time to take a proper break, but even if you’re writing to deadline this will really help. Maybe just go for a run instead of taking a full week of R&R, otherwise your teachers will be mad at me.
- Invest in a thesaurus…
Check your work for repeated phrases. It’s OK to use the same phrase a few times, but if it’s popping up every paragraph you need to re-assess your choice of words. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I used to be so bad for this and only realised I was doing it when one of my friends pointed it out. I was leaning on those phrases so often that they were actually getting in the way of the plot. Fixing it was difficult, but when I did my writing became a lot better.
- …but don’t pay it too much attention.
Look. Thesauruses (thesauri?) are great and everything, but they do have a tendency to turn all your prose completely purple. By all means switch up your choice of words, but don’t choose anything that sounds daft.
- Get some outside feedback.
If you’ve got time, see if you can get someone else to have a quick look through your work. Even if it’s just your mate proofing your essay at the kitchen table, it really helps to have a second pair of eyes. I’ve got my family and friends to read bits I’ve written for as long as I can remember, and they pick up stuff I wouldn’t have even thought of. (Thanks, guys!)
- Read it aloud.
Seriously, do it. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of putting stuff down because it looks good on paper, particularly when you’re writing essays. Don’t make the same mistakes I made, and always make sure it sounds like something a human could conceivably say out loud before you hand it in.
- See how it all flows together.
How are you progressing from one idea to the next? Are you following a chain of argument or a narrative thread when you’re moving between topics? This will really help it feel natural, as opposed to checking things off a list. I always find that reading it aloud helps here too. If new topics are introduced in a way that feels jarring when it’s spoken, that probably means I’m not doing something right.
- Be picky.
You don’t need to have a cast-iron reason to cut something if you want to get rid of it. It’s your work, and if you decide that it’s time to hack and slash at something you’ve written then chop chop.
It’s enough to decide you’ve gone off something – and if you keep the original version, you can always put it back in if you change your mind.
- Trust your instincts.
You know what you want to say, so write it down. These tips are just tips – they are by no means the be-all and end-all of editing. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. Equally, if something else on a different list works better, add it to your list of things to look for. Going over your own stuff can be an incredibly personal process, so you’ve got to do it in a way that works for you.
And that’s it! These are my extremely basic, starting-point tips for anyone looking for some advice on how to edit their own stuff. Hopefully they’re useful. The most important thing is to find a process that works for you. It may take some doing, and you may want to try a few different approaches, but it’ll help you find a way to make your writing really shine, no matter what it is you’re actually putting on paper.
Now get back to work.