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

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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

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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?