Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ask O: Self-Editing Tips?

Happy Wednesday, my writing friends!

Today we're going to talk about making our writing soar by dumping unneeded words and phrases.

I’ve never been in a hot air balloon, but I’ve seen them on TV and one thing I’ve noticed—when they start out, sandbags are tied to their baskets. As they rise, the pilots unloose them one by one until they’re soaring through the clouds.

I enjoy writing first drafts. I let my fancy-free creative side run wild as I type fast and furious. Forgetting about the rules of writing, I load it down with tons of sandbags—the bulky stuff that weighs down the story. But if I want my writing to soar, sandbags must plummet. Here are a few to hoist.

That’s Gotta Go
Eject superfluous words. Sometimes I barely notice I’m using these until I read my first draft. Like so. You’d be amazed how many so’s I end up cutting. That. You rarely need it. Just is another. There is and there are—jettison those culprits. Replace them with strong verbs. Here’s an example (from real life):

Sandbagged: There is a lot of dust on top of my TV.
Rising: The dust heap atop my TV grows every day.

Basically, suddenly, as, like, look, turn, walk… When splattered all over the place, these words bog down a story’s ascent.

Soggy Sand
I want my prose to project strength and confidence. Feeble forms of speech hinder this. Drop these bags:

Prepositional Phrases
Sandbagged: The family of dragons walked with glee.
Rising: The dragon family skipped.

Sandbagged: I angrily touched the Coke machine.
Rising: I smacked it.

Passive Voice
Sandbagged:Joe was tickled by an elephant.
Rising: An elephant tickled Joe.

Weak Verbs
Sandbagged: That concert was good.
Rising: That concert rocked!

Too Many in the Basket
I once read a book in which the author repeated unusual words at least once—usually more—in the same paragraph. Like,

The lady unpredictably ran into the forest with the dog unpredictably chasing her, and her hem unpredictably coming unraveled.

I struggle with this too. I don’t know why, but sometimes words get stuck in my head. And without noticing, they pop out over and over.

It’s also easy to get stuck on one type of characterization, but readers will notice if a character’s eyes squint, or jaw clenches, or palms sweat every couple pages.

Heavy Attributions
When I first write dialog, I use said a lot. And said is good. Nothing wrong with said. But when I revise, I usually add stuff like, “Come here,” the swamp monster gurgled; “You’re kidding,” the queen chortled; or “I’ll find you!” the evil lord hissed—y’know, just to spice it up. And that’s good … until I read it.

It gets to be too much. Like I’m trying too hard to be clever. So then I cut out attributions altogether. For example: The little girl eyed her mother and giggled. “Mom’s hair is green.” But too much of that makes my story seem stiff and awkward. What’s better is to achieve a good balance by blending all three techniques. Tip: Reading your scene aloud helps find this balance.

So when you’re creating your story, take the time to release those sandbags—and watch your writing soar.

Happy Writing and God bless,

Note: A form of this article first appeared in the Northwest Christian Author


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm bookmarking this one, too. :)

  2. One of my pet peeves lately is reading added prep phrases before the mention a body part: She patted him on the shoulder. Better: She patted his shoulder. Great reminder, O!

  3. Great tips, O! Love how you relate writing to an air balloon and how it can be hindered by unnecessary words and phrases. Very cleaver! :-D

  4. Thanks, friends! Good point, Annette. Don't really need "on the."


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