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Tips For Adulthood: How To Edit Productively

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood. I’ve got writing on the brain these days. I’ve recently joined a writing group and I’m...

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve got writing on the brain these days. I’ve recently joined a writing group and I’m about to turn back to my own manuscript in a few days. (Drumroll, please…)

So I’m thinking again, about the craft of writing. Not the initial creative burst that yields a blog post…an article…a novel. But that potentially stomach-churning, roll-up-your-sleeves and stare-the-beast-in-the-face process commonly known as editing. (I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases best when he said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”)

Fortunately for me, many of the blogs and e-zines I regularly peruse are devoted to precisely this topic: the craft of writing. So I’m constantly being bombarded with new ideas about the writing process, which I dutifully file away for when the time comes.

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travellers who have something you need to edit – it could be a poem…a short story…heck, an office memo…and, like me, you need to find your mojo.

Here are five things to keep in mind when you edit:

1. Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take 4-6 weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that – if you can manage it, subject to deadlines, etc. – take even longer than that. The reason for waiting to begin the re-writing process is that you want to be able to open your ms. up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. And there’s another reason to let your story sit. As a friend of mine who’s a screenwriter once told me, “You’ll surprise yourself. There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.” And that’s exactly the point:  to be surprised. Because that’s the only way you’ll figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin.

2. Find ways to make the material new. If you’re like me, you find writing the first draft of anything far more fun than slogging your way through the edit. That’s natural. The first draft is all about throwing stuff out there, while the second (and third…and fourth…) drafts are about refinement. (See again, Hemingway.) So when you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to come up with devices that help you make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. One of my favorite writer/bloggers, Christina Baker Kline, has a host of suggestions for how to jumpstart a revision. My favorite? Write three new openings. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. Wow! What a great idea!

3. Trim excess words. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. But while we all *know* that cutting excess verbiage is one of the cardinal tasks of the second draft, how to wield the axe is another story entirely. In a guest post on the amazing Write To Done blog (a must for all you writers out there), Fekket Cantenel offers very specific advice for how to clean up your narration. Under trimming excess words, she offers the following remedy: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went up to the intro of this blog and cut out several words.

4. Read your writing out loud. This tip is brought to you by none other than David Sedaris, whose views on the writing process were generously shared by another great writer/blogger, Lisa Romeo Writes. On the topic of reading your work aloud, Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. And I’m sure that it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5. Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” I think what he’s getting at is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page however they come out. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to read what you’ve got and offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make (Lord knows I’m guilty of this) is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, but fail to spend enough time on the “open door” phase. And this can be catastrophic. Here’s the blogger/writer/editor, Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon, taken from her own life. Read it and weep (I’ve set it apart because it made that much of an impact on me):

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”



What works for you when you’re editing something?


I’m over on today talking about the British Government’s latest initiative: measuring citizens’ happiness.


Image: How well I could write if I were not here! by Madampsychosis via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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  1. Kristen @ Motherese November 17, 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    What a wonderfully helpful list. Thanks, Delia.

    As a former high school teacher, I love the idea of cutting a 1000 word essay to 500 words. (I wish I had thought of it a few years ago when teaching writing.)

    These days the only publishing I’m doing is on my blog, where I find it all too easy to fall in love with my sentences and to crave that endorphin hit from pressing “publish.” This post – especially suggestion #1 – is a great reminder to me to let my words sit for awhile before putting them out there for the world to see.

    • delialloyd November 17, 2010 at 10:09 pm #

      yes isn’t that the greatest assignment ever? I plan to use it when/as/if I ever teach writing…

  2. Victoria Mixon November 17, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    Hi Delia,

    Yes, these are all essential steps in self-editing! Letting your manuscript go cold is perhaps the most essential of them all, and King’s advice of taking a few weeks after it’s all done is probably based on his understanding that if he told the truth, “six months to a year,” nobody would listen to him at all.

    And it’s true that my agent said those things to me, but I dramatized it a bit for the sake of the story. It’s not like she dumped my novel. She had faith in it and in me. But she certainly made full use of the professional’s responsibility to toughen up a newbie to the harsh realities of the industry!

    And she was right. That novel was a mess. :)

    • delialloyd November 17, 2010 at 10:09 pm #

      nice to know that even when we screw up the first time round, we can always fix things. i love that story. so true. also glad to hear that it’s really 6-12 months since I’m about to crack my open after a year!! Thanks for dropping by. Love your blog.

      • Victoria Mixon November 18, 2010 at 2:46 am #

        Thank you, Delia!

        A cold manuscript is an absolute treasure. Be sure you cherish it. Carve out enough hours of uninterrupted time to read it straight through the first time, only taking those notes you can’t resist, without jolting yourself out of the fictional dream. You won’t get many chances at this level of objectivity, and it’s priceless.

        Good luck!

  3. Daryl Boylan November 17, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    All the useful suggestions you cite on the blog are just that: useful.
    As for the “happiness quotient” piece on PD, Derek Bok seems to have nailed what society can (try to) do for happiness; the rest is up to individuals. Clearly, some people with little manage at least some happiness (usually an excuse for governments to do even less to relieve outright misery))& others with everything don’t. Poor babies.

  4. BigLittleWolf November 18, 2010 at 12:51 am #

    Wonderful suggestions. I practice the “read it aloud” tip all the time. Very effective. And feel woeful daily, that I haven’t proper time to edit what screams for editing.


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