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How to Edit: an Exercise in Precision and Paring; Keep Up Your Standards!


Ann loves to offer advice on writing, to experiment with words and to encourage others to do so, occasionally issuing challenges of her own.

General Observations

Every writer has his or her own way of approaching a draft, be it fact or fiction, prose or poetry. Some plan, perhaps by using a mind-map; some scribble ideas down and let the muse sort them out; some clever ones have the whole idea in their heads and out it comes, as did J K Rowling when she crafted her ‘Harry Potter’ series over the course of one train journey, we are told (I’m a bit sceptical about that).

Whatever the approach, proof-reading and editing is a must. Here are a few ways one can make the final text be our best at any given time. We all make the occasional mistake but let’s try to avoid them!

Personal Approach

When I write, I fling down ideas onto paper or screen, as quickly as possible so that nothing is forgotten. Good ideas or phraseology never come back in such a satisfying form if I leave it until later. My old brain doesn’t have as good a short-term memory as it used to, so panic sets in if I don’t jot at speed.

Sometimes ideas will grow from that all by themselves, or is that my muse? They can take things in a totally different direction or merely off at a tangent; that’s the delightful part of writing.

Then I edit and proof-read as many times as necessary. But how does one do that? I find that it helps to be as vicious as possible with my text, so I use the following rules.

How to Edit

This is my original ‘fling’ of ideas, to be improved upon later, as an example of what can be done. As you read, be critical and decide how it succeeds (or not) as a ‘how to’ list:

Check for any repetition and remove it

Check for spelling errors and remove them

Make sure you have no words like ‘nice’ or ‘very’ - replace ‘nice’ with more specific words, delete ‘very’ as it’s usually superfluous

Make sure you have no unnecessary or redundant words; if you’ve already got over your point, don’t elaborate further

Remove ‘and’s, ‘the’s and ‘then’s if possible; it’s surprising how often you can do that or at least rephrase to get rid of them

Use a different word for the start of each paragraph; so many people have a string of paragraphs which start with ‘The…’

Pare your words: minimise wherever possible, cut out tautology, i.e. using together words which mean the same

Who is your audience? Make sure you’ve spoken to that audience in particular.

Decide on your mood as it makes a huge difference to your choice of words - do you want the effect to be funny, serious, sad, antagonistic or thought-provoking?

Make your writing fit the mood; brisk and sharp - short words; romantic and flowing - softer, longer words in a longer sentence

Vary length of sentences; you risk boredom, confusion or running out of mental breath if your sentence reaches a paragraph

If your writing confuses you, then it will confuse any other reader

If you have any doubts or feel that it doesn’t sound quite right, change it until you’re satisfied; don’t be lazy! Don’t make do with the original!

Edited List

Now let's tidy that up, rewrite those rules to make them clearer, in a more logical order, more concise and therefore more palatable to read. I might even add extras.

Let's start by using bullet-points.

  • Who is your audience? Speak to that target.
  • Keep on subject!
  • Check for repetition; remove it!
  • Check spelling; correct errors!
  • Reflect mood: short words for brisk & sharp; softer words, longer sentences for romantic & flowing.
  • Avoid ‘nice’ or ‘very’! Use specific alternatives for ‘nice’. Delete ‘very’.
  • Delete redundant text. Convey your point once.
  • Delete ‘and’, ‘the’, ‘then’ unless vital, or rephrase to improve text.
  • Use different first word for each paragraph. Don't make para too long.
  • Pare your words; minimise, be aware of tautology (using two or more words which mean the same).
  • Vary length and delivery of sentences to ease reading & avoid boredom or confusion.
  • Make sure each word is relevant to subject and audience.
  • Edit any ‘woolly’ writing; if your writing confuses you, it will confuse any reader. If it doesn’t sound right, do something about it!


Having decided on a helpful list, let’s write some sentences in various styles. We’ll start with a situation and explore the basics, then change that to suit alternative interpretations.

Example 1: Poor Pussycat!

‘The cat mewed because the boy was holding her too tightly. She couldn’t get away and was having difficulty breathing. He didn’t want her to escape.’

Ok, that describes a scene. How could you make it more interesting? How could you convey a mood? What’s the attitude of the boy?

‘The cat in Tommy’s hands mewed in distress. She couldn’t move, found it hard to breathe. Tommy only wanted to play; he had no idea she was unhappy.’

That gives you the idea that Tommy is probably young and doesn’t want to cause any harm; he’s innocent but it’s not great for the cat.

If I change the final sentence:

‘…..Tommy wasn’t about to let her go. Ignoring her distress, he got hold of one leg.’

That makes things more sinister and maybe Tommy is older or at least a teenager. I would also change ‘cat’ to ‘kitten’ as this increases the pathos.

Example 2: Weather in Landscape

Let’s consider a landscape description.

‘From the sea front, you could see across the bay to a peninsular. The sea was rough and the wind blew hard from the west.’

Anyone could write that; it’s basic, boring and lazy. Let’s try again.

‘Standing on the sea front, she surveyed the open panorama stretching round the bay to a headland just visible through the mist. Crested waves smashed into the sea wall, spray spat over the top and the wind snatched at her jacket.’

This time,

  • using she/he makes it more personal, as well as seeing the scene through that person’s eyes,
  • the weather is dramatic, so make the description the same, using words like ‘smashed’, ‘spat’ and ‘snatched’,
  • with the added benefit of alliteration (using the same initial letter).

Example 3: Sad Scenario

Finally, we’ll have a go at creating sadness.

‘She walked away from him as he stood in the street. He wanted to tell her not to leave but he couldn’t talk. He sat down and started to cry silently.’

That needs much more oomph!

‘He watched her turn and walk away. His throat constricted, not allowing any passage of words, though his mind screamed,

“Don’t leave me!”

Sinking to the platform bench, the world spinning, he encased his chest with crossed arms, shoulders hunched, silent sobs heaving in time to the faint rhythm of his heart.’

There is more feeling in the second version. We have no idea what has happened but it makes us want to find out. We feel more compassion for this man who is desperate to get the woman, presumably his girlfriend or wife, to stay.

This is because

  • it uses negative words; ‘sinking’, ‘hunched’, ‘silent’, ‘faint’, indicating despair, a sense of loss, maybe confusion, and helplessness.
  • the sentences are longer, reflecting the agony he’s going through, the hopelessness of the situation. What can he do? Time’s running out and she’s going away!
  • we have an idea of surroundings from ‘platform’ and ‘bench’. Stations are often used as a scene for change, movement, uncertainty.

Use emotion! Use surroundings! Up the ante!

Scene & Mood

Stations - Leaving or Arriving, a Sense of Transience

Stations - Leaving or Arriving, a Sense of Transience

Quotes from the Greats

We have some fine examples of high standards in the writings of the classic novelists as well as from more modern and contemporary writers.

Charlotte Brontë

‘Jane Eyre’ holds so much that keeps us hooked. There is a famous line which begins the last chapter:

‘Reader, I married him.’

Short, to the point, satisfying for the reader because we are informed, we feel part of their happy ending after all the trials and tribulations.

In contrast are her descriptions of Lowood, the harsh school where Jane was sent by a cruel aunt; ‘… the water in the pitchers was frozen…. a keen northeast wind, whistling through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had made us shiver in our beds, and turned the contents of the ewers to ice.’

It says so much more than ‘we were freezing cold’. Doesn’t it make you shiver?

Two Janes!

Jane Eyre: Novel

Jane Eyre: Novel

Jane Austen: Author

Jane Austen: Author

Jane Austen

Austen’s wit and social observation are second to none. As part of society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, she had a keen insight and judgement of those around her. The opening sentence of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is testament to this, qualified by the subsequent paragraph.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

We see the superficial attitude as well as the underlying practicalities that a woman needed to marry well in order to live comfortably; she rarely inherited and had to rely on a husband’s or a family’s financial status.

Ian Rankin

In one of his ‘Rebus’ stories, ‘Death is Not the End’, Rankin describes Edinburgh.

“April meant still not quite spring in Edinburgh. A few sunny days to be sure, buds getting twitchy, wondering if winter had been paid the ransom. But there was snow still hanging in a sky the colour of chicken bones.”

Of course Spring takes longer to arrive in Scotland but making the buds ‘twitchy’ and paying winter a ‘ransom’ is a unique way of portraying the scene. Snow making the sky ‘the colour of chicken bones’ makes it so identifiable; it makes me think, “Oh, yes, it is like that!”

Short Stories & Novels

Short Stories & Novels

Robert Macfarlane

Billed as a travel writer Macfarlane, in my opinion, writes better than many novelists. His book ‘Landmarks’ talks about the link between words and landscape. He explains:

‘This is a book about the power of language… to shape our sense of place… What we cannot name, we cannot in some sense see.’

‘A basic literacy of landscape is falling away…. A common language - a language of the commons - is getting rarer. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious; a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.’

‘Language deficit leads to attention deficit…. Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.’

He juxtaposes words and ideas, making us respond with appreciation, with appropriate emotions and with the realisation that words can convey so much if we use them well.

For me, the following sums up language:

‘We see in words: in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words. The roots of individual words reach out and intermesh, their stems lean and criss-cross, and their outgrowths branch and clasp.’

That tells us how words are visual; he links words to nature, to landscape. Words have ‘roots’, they have ‘branches’ and they ‘lean…, branch… and clasp’. Wonderful!


So now I’m going to give you a basic introduction to a story. Keeping to the same theme, your task is to make that introduction more interesting, have more impact, and then finish the story in the same fashion. It should be between 500 and 1000 words. You can change the character's name if you wish, male or female.

‘Jemma walked up to the door of the house and rang the bell. There was no answer. She went round the back. In the back garden was a figure……..’

What happens when she goes round the back?


Let me Know!

Please let me know if you take up the challenge and leave a link here or via my email. I will list all responses below.

I’m looking forward to reading all your marvellous ideas!

Responses: - Rodric Johnson - Rinita Sen - John Hansen - Verlie Burroughs - Diana L Pierce - Eric Dierker - Doris James - Lori Colbo

Can you Resist a Challenge?

© 2018 Ann Carr


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 25, 2021:

Thanks Greg! I'd forgotten about this one! Off to have a look shortly.


greg cain from Moscow, Idaho, USA on January 25, 2021:

Ann - I only just discovered this piece, which looks like it was originally written and published before my time on HP. Anyway, I love this advice and think we've talked about it before: I had a professor who used to repeat this phrase day after day: "Good writing is rewriting." I don't know if my response could be considered good, but I did a lot of write/rewrite on it these past few days. Here it is: Hope you enjoy! Be well, and have a good week.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 02, 2019:

Umesh Chandra Bhatt: Thank you for your comment. I try to speak to a range of writers as we are all in need of reminders from time to time, so I was pleased that you thought this was useful for both. Much appreciated.


Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 01, 2019:

Useful article not only for a budding writer but for an experienced one also. Thanks for posting.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on November 03, 2018:

Hi Lawrence! I agree with you in that I enjoy editing too. It's satisfying to hone things and spruce up the words.

Thanks for your input. Much appreciated.


Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on November 02, 2018:


I have to admit, I enjoy editing!

Usually, when I write, I go for the 'basics' in my first draft. (What appears here on hp with my stories is the first draft with a little checking).

After that, its time to 'flesh out' the story and that can be fun.

Usually, I've ended up adding 5-10k words to a novel working stuff out, adding bits, changing what isn't working etc.

As for the challenge, I would say "Sometimes"

Totally agree with the points you make though.


gyanendra mocktan from Kathmandu,Nepal on October 22, 2018:

Ann Carr:

I will have to go through repeatedly through your article. So that, those ideas are deeply imprinted in my mind.

Thank you.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 21, 2018:

gyanendra mocktan: You're very welcome. Thanks for reading and commenting.


gyanendra mocktan from Kathmandu,Nepal on October 21, 2018:

Ann Carr, your article is useful for me to improve my writing skill. Thank you again.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 15, 2018:

Thank you, Liz. Glad you found it useful; it's always good to have a reminder.

Never mind; you can always come back to it any time!


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 15, 2018:

Thank you Eric! I have just read your response and thoroughly enjoyed the exciting ride. Have added the link to this hub.

I wonder who that was!


Liz Westwood from UK on October 14, 2018:

You give great advice. I could do with keeping a copy by me. Only wish I had time for the challenge.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 14, 2018:

One of our mutual friends wrote me; Eric you do not play well with others, you are supposed to tell Ann.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 13, 2018:

Thanks Genna. Yes, even when we know all this, the reminders are useful. Thank you for your generous comment.

I appreciate how busy you are!


Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on October 13, 2018:

Hi Ann...what wonderful writing tips! They are important, yet so easy for us all to forget. This is a handy primer to have at our fingertips as we jot/type down ideas, word flow, and characterizations. Thank you! Unfortunately, I don't have the time to respond to your challenge, but I'm enjoying reading the all of the responses.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 12, 2018:

Thank you Lori, for reading and leaving your kind comment. Don't worry, there's no time limit to this, so whenever you do have time feel free to respond if you feel like it! I'm sure it would be a goodie.


Lori Colbo from United States on October 11, 2018:

This was awesome. Not sure if I have time for the challenge but very good and helpful advise here.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 10, 2018:

manatita: Thanks for such a positive comment. Glad you found it worthwhile.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 10, 2018:

Looking forward to reading your response, Eric.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 10, 2018:

Thanks Dora. Glad it's of some use. Austen is hard to beat! Hope you do something for the challenge.


Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 09, 2018:

And so I have been studying this in breaks from a brief on employee privacy and using their image.

I think the challenge is excellent. May I give it my best?

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 09, 2018:

Thanks for the important lessons you taught in this article. I appreciate your edit guide and examples. I memorized the opening sentence of "Pride and Prejudice;" it is unforgettable! Thinking about the challenge.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 09, 2018:

Hello Eric! I love your Mum's sign; perfect!

Thanks for visiting and your lovely comment.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 09, 2018:

Thank you for your response, Dianna. I will read it when I am back home at the end of the week.


manatita44 from london on October 09, 2018:

Lots of interesting tips and great ideas. Some stunning pieces from awesome writers and of course a challenge with lots of potential, towards the end.

Impactful and informative hub.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 08, 2018:

Oh my Ann. I do not edit so well. I am working on it being a base courtesy for a reader. It will be more appropriate, God will it or maybe not as God's purpose is beyond me.

As will be with my submission my mom had above a door "This house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be loving and welcoming". Emma was my Jemma.

Thanks do much for this wonderful article.

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on October 08, 2018:

I accept the challenge. Thank you for the motivation. Here is the link to my article.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 08, 2018:

Thanks, Jackie, for your kind words. I enjoy this kind of thing; it suits my analytical mind!

I appreciate your reading and commenting.


Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on October 08, 2018:

You have really gotten onto something here, Ann. Wonderful work!

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on October 08, 2018:

I look forward to what you will write, Ann. No pressure, I hope. You always do it right!

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 08, 2018:

Thanks, John! I've read it and commented; great story and thanks for taking up the challenge.


John Hansen from Gondwana Land on October 07, 2018:

Hi Ann. I did manage to pen a response. Here is a link to my attempt:

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 07, 2018:

Thank you, Rinita. I've read your great response and added it to the list above.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 07, 2018:

I'll give it some thought, Rodric, and try to come up with something useful!


Rinita Sen on October 06, 2018:

Ann, here is my humble attempt. Thank you for the interesting challenge.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 06, 2018:

That's good Ann. I am really interested in doing this. Thank you.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on October 06, 2018:

Ann, I know you are not going to do a series, but I wonder if you would consider an in dept hub on using different words at the beginning of each sentence and its impact on the tone, and writing style of writers. It could take me years to adapt to the things that you taught in this article, but I love the challenge. One of my friends mentioned to me years ago that I used the same words to start the sentences in my manuscript for my first book. I had to go through and change it. I wish I would have had access to your article then.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 06, 2018:

I do the occasional hub on grammar etc but I don't want to do another series. My 'Take a Word..' one is enough to be going on with.

Having said that, if anyone asked me about a particular angle on writing, I'd happily answer with some sort of hub. I don't want to tread on bill's toes either. He does an excellent job with his long-running series.

Thanks for your lovely comment, Rinita.


Rinita Sen on October 06, 2018:

Ann, you should seriously consider starting a hub series, like Bill. Maybe once a month if not weekly. We all learn so much from you. Plus your challenges are always exciting. Not sure if I will do this one, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 06, 2018:

Thank you, Mary. I'm glad you found it useful. There's no time limit to the challenge so whenever you have time I'll be pleased to read your response. The challenge is there for ever!


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 06, 2018:

Thank you, Rodric. I have read your super response and am adding the link to this. Thanks for taking up the challenge!


Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on October 05, 2018:

Ann, here is my contribution to the challenged:

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 05, 2018:

Enjoyed reading and learning from your hub. I wish I can take up the challenge but it is thanksgiving weekend for us here in Canada so my mind is occupied by this. Maybe, next time. What I can do is go back to this and try it out when I find the time. It will be a good writing practice.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on October 05, 2018:

Oh my gosh, Ann, you have done it to me again with your great content and writing challenges! I am getting on it right now.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 05, 2018:

Thank you, Linda, for your kind words. Glad to have offered some inspiration.

I hope you manage to pen a response to the challenge.


Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on October 05, 2018:

Ann this is wonderfully written. I too will bookmark this. Great suggestions and examples. You have inspired me to keep going. I don't know if I will take the challenge. Perhaps if it rains enough this weekend I will be forced to play at my keyboard.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 05, 2018:

Thank you, Verlie. Glad you liked this and I appreciate your kind comments.

If you found Macfarlane's words inspiring, try reading 'Landmarks'; it's full of similar inspiration, to my mind a brilliant read.


Verlie Burroughs from Canada on October 05, 2018:

Thanks for this great list of editing reminders, and your classic examples of good writing. I found Robert Macfarlane's words inspiring. And enjoyed your personal photographs which add colour and context to what could be a dry subject on the page. Your challenge has me intrigued, will be interesting to see what comes out of it. Cheers, Verlie

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 05, 2018:

Thank you, bill. I'm honoured that you're saving it for future reference.

Now you see where I was going with that question for last Monday! You know all this, as do others, but it's always good to have a reminder and to focus on the salient points.

It's sunny here! Unusually mild for October so we're making the most of it - garden chair painting as well as the gallons being applied indoors!

Peace and blessings to you too, my valued friend.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 05, 2018:

Thank you, Larry! Glad you found it useful.

We all make mistakes and it's good to have reminders once in a while. I had to think hard about some of these!


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 05, 2018:

Thank you, Flourish. It seemed to be a topical point so I wanted to elaborate on it.

I appreciate your kind comments.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 05, 2018:

Hello Pamela! Thank you for your kind comments.

Your point about long paragraphs is an excellent one. Breaking up paragraphs for a slightly different point is essential.

Thanks for your input and support; much appreciated.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 05, 2018:

Thank you, John. I really appreciate your comments and support.

I hope you manage to have time to take up the challenge as I'm sure you'll come up with a goodie!


Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 05, 2018:

You have just written a primer for all writers to follow. Excellent suggestions, but better yet, excellent examples. Well done, Ann! I rarely save an article for future reference, but I'm saving this one.

Staying dry on a fretfully wet Friday. I hope your weekend is dry fun rather than soaked fun. :)

Peace and blessings, my friend


Larry Slawson from North Carolina on October 05, 2018:

Enjoyed reading! Thank you for sharing. A lot of helpful tips in this.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 05, 2018:

I liked the many examples — your own fabulous creative examples, the list of tips and traps and the examples from prominent authors. Well done!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 05, 2018:

You included a huge amount of writing tips that I found excellent. I jot down ideas quickly also or sometimes they are gone forever.

I also try not to make my paragraphs too long, as sometimes you try to read a hub with only 1 or 2 paragraphs. That makes the reading more difficult. Thanks for bringing so many examples for us to compare.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on October 05, 2018:

Ann, this article is superb. The list of 'how to edit" is essential and very helpful (especially for me.) The examples of improving the sentences/scenarios are great as are the examples of text from the famous writers. Will I accept your challenge...maybe. I have a busy time coming up but I'll try to fit it in. I haven't written any short fiction in a while.

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