Thursday, March 13, 2014

Polishing Your Prose: Practical Editing and Revision Tips

Last Sunday I gave a workshop on "Polishing Your Prose: Practical Editing and Revision Tips" to about 25 members of the Columbia Chapter of the Missouri Writers' Guild. 

Thank you, Lori and the CCMWG board, for inviting me to come speak. Also, thanks, Eva, for taking photos.

I began the workshop by defining the basic stages of writing as: prewriting, writing, rewriting, editing, and proofreading. 
My focus for the workshop was on rewriting and editing. Here are some highlights of what I covered:

* Writing is a process of discovery. 

* During prewriting and writing, the focus is on the writer.  

* This is when writers brainstorm and come up with ideas and get their ideas down on paper.

* Tip: Organize your notes, write without editing, and save everything.

* "Write about what interests you." That was Daniel Woodrell's suggestion during a book talk I attended last month at the St. Charles Community College.

* Revision is the process of re-vision; to see again by taking a fresh look at what you've written. (More about clarity of vision below.)

* Rewriting, editing, and proofreading are part of the revision process.

* During revision, editing, and proofreading, the focus is on the reader.

* In an interview, the late Elmore Leonard said, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

* In On Writing, Steven King recommended: "Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open."

* Other revision and editing tips:

Don't do final edits on the computer screen
Print out a copy
Read the copy out loud
Read it backwards to catch mistakes
Always give your work a title (more on this below)
Don't give too much information too soon
Use vivid writing and specific, concrete language
Make good use of white space
Avoid lengthy paragraphs
Put statements in a positive form
Eliminate needless words
Place emphatic words at the end of the sentence
Place yourself in the background
Write in a way that comes naturally
Avoid foreign language
Always keep the reader in mind

At the end of the workshop, participants completed an exercise to edit sentences and eliminate needless words. They also took a for-fun mini-quiz. To emphasize the importance of titles, I gave them the original title of ten famous novels and asked them to guess the novels' better known titles. The CCMWG writers know their stuff--they got almost all ten right.

Here are a few of the before-and-after titles:
Atticus was changed to To Kill a Mockingbird
First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice
The Last Man in Europe is better known as 1984

When the topic of clear vision and focus comes to mind, I think about how eagles take a long view then zoom in and focus. 

How timely that on Monday, the day after my talk, my grandson spotted an eagle soaring above our place in Osage County, along the Gasconade River. 

I grabbed my camera and took this photo to capture the moment. Don't you wish you had his clarity of purpose and clear vision?

How about you? Do you have any revision or editing tips?


  1. I imagine it sounds crazy to other people, but I find this activity quite helpful: take your hard copy and retype it. (Certainly, this wouldn't work with a novel--way too long to do.) As you're retyping it, you're looking at it with new eyes and revising and cutting as you go.

    It sounds like it was a great talk that you gave, Donna. Thanks for sharing some of the tips you shared with the Columbia writers.

  2. Very helpful hints, Donna. Wish I could have been there to hear your presentation.

    Critter Alley

  3. Donna, this was thorough and helpful to seasoned writers as well as novices. That eagle was a perk. great work.

  4. I have no tips, other than, "Editing is a necessity." I tend to think my first effort is perfect, and cringe when I read over it a couple of days later.

  5. Excellent and practical tips. Thx! Nice photo of that eagle, too.

  6. As always, great advice, Donna! I think for me, if I have time, is to let the work sit. Something about putting a little distance between yourself and the work, helps bring the mistakes into focus. (And EVERY time I look at a piece--no matter low long ago--I find something I wish I could fix!)

  7. Great tips Donna and I so wished I could have attended, but had other commitments. I'm sure you did a great job (as always).

  8. Hi Sioux,
    I've never tried that before, but it's worth a try.

    Hi Pat,
    Wish you could too!

    Hi Linda,
    Thanks! It was thrilling to see that eagle soar.

    Hi Val,
    How true!

    Hi Marcia,

    Hi Cathy,
    Putting your work aside is such good advice. I forgot to mention that during my presentation.

    Hi Lynn,
    Thanks. You are so kind!

  9. One of the biggies for me is to be careful not to over edit. I always see something to improve, and I've had to learn that when a project is done, it needs to be DONE so I don't become bogged down in the process so much that it holds me back from working on other things.

    Great post.

  10. Hi Lisa,
    I agree. It's not easy knowing when to stop editing.

  11. I like to let someone else take a look. Another set of eyes can point out something I missed completely!!


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