Change It Up Editing

I'm Candace Johnson, and I love words. Especially yours. Let me help you say it the way you mean it!

How to (Almost) Instantly Improve Your Writing

ID-10053750If you are serious about your writing, you’ve probably searched for the magic formula that will guarantee publication of your work. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but there is no magic formula.

Writing is hard. Writing well is hard work. Writing well enough to see your work published takes time, dedication, ruthless editing, and yes, a bit of luck.

Luck isn’t something you have much control over . . . but you do have control over time, dedication, and ruthless editing.

Millions of words have been written about finding and making time to write, so you’re probably working on that, and you’re already dedicated to your craft or you wouldn’t be reading Stephen King’s On Writing and searching blogs for ideas on how to make a living in this crazy business.

That leaves ruthless editing as your ticket to instantly improving your writing.

How does that work, exactly?

I’m glad you asked.

The #1 way to become a better writer is to edit someone else’s writing.

In a wonderful post about writing in a way that makes people feel, Guy Bergstrom writes:

You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car matters a helluva lot less than the engine that makes it go. Focus on the engine.”

We writers spend a great deal of time crafting a sentence so it says exactly what we want it to say. The tendency to overwrite is a common mistake, especially when we’re first starting out, but it’s something we can overcome with time and a lot of practice.

Ruthless editing, then, means going back and deleting all the fluff; it means breaking the story down and building it back up again; it means returning to writing basics. Need a few ideas on where to begin?

In Creative Writing with the Crimson League, Victoria Gefer writes:

Remember, the most basic rule of editing, on the most basic level, is always this:

Any word that doesn’t need to be in a sentence shouldn’t be.

Remember rule two of editing:

Never distort your writing into something that’s worse than using a common, go-to phrase. Don’t change “weak” style points on principle; change them when you can see a clear way to make your writing better by changing them: a way to be clearer, simpler, and less redundant.”

Once you’ve revised your work, it’s time to get some perspective on it. Remember this:

The #1 way to become a better writer is to edit someone else’s writing.

I edit other people’s work for a living, and I can honestly say that every piece I’ve worked on has been a learning experience in some way. Reading, as we all know, is a wonderful way to learn how other writers write, but I encourage you to edit another writer’s work; there’s nothing like it for learning about your own style and foibles.

One of the best articles I’ve read about peer editing is by Oliver Gray at LiteratureAndLibation.com:

Editing another writer’s work will improve your writing. It gives you a chance to read all kinds of stuff you might not see otherwise, but also gives you a chance to see what mistakes other writers are making. Editing gives you the chance to learn from other people’s lessons, dissect how a writer created an image or a theme or a tone.”

So there you have it in a nutshell: editing another writer’s writing will improve your own, because editing forces you to look at writing from a completely different point of view. Whether you join an online critique group like Scribophile or reach out to a fellow writer you met on WordPress, I encourage you to learn about writing in a different way by editing someone else’s writing.

As Oliver Gray wrote to me, “Man, editing and revisions is way harder than actually writing!” And he’s right! Writing is the fun part; editing and revising are what make you a better writer. Almost instantly!

Have you done any peer editing? Have you found your own writing improves after editing someone else’s work? What valuable insights have you gained from the process?

Happy Writing,

Candace

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68 thoughts on “How to (Almost) Instantly Improve Your Writing

  1. Such a terrific menu of posts to help the struggling, desperate, or simply hungry to learn author. I look forward to a plethora of bright ideas and terrific insight. Cheers!

  2. Pingback: “All About Editing” or How an Indie Author Made My Day | change it up editing

  3. Okay, part one done in 1920X1080. I really need to get reading glasses soon. I’m happy that I did not read this in my tiny 7″ tab because I would have missed a lot of great points due to eye strain.

    I have never thought of editing someone else’s work can help improve my writing. In my mind, reading the work of an excellent author can help me sharpen my pen. And taking into consideration my present understanding of my mastery of the english language, I don’t have the confidence yet to edit someone else’s work. However, since you and several writers encourage such action, I am definitely willing to try it out.

    Reading this is just like starting a chain of events, and it has started me to move on to one post to the other. I have learned a lot and once I am fully satisfied with all the knowledge that I got from your website post after post in succession, I will try to squeeze in some peer editing… If I am up to par in editing someone else’s work, we shall then see.

  4. daphodill on said:

    Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden.

  5. I read and write a lot of fanfiction, and one thing I do (that a lot of fanfiction readers don’t) is try to leave constructive reviews. Most fans will tell a writer that their story is amazing, and how much they love it, but won’t leave anything constructive, usually because they don’t know how and are more interested in the fandom than the quality of the writing. However, I find that fanfiction is a great place to practice both writing and editing, so if I read a fic and find something that could be improved, I tell the writer. I find this helpful for myself because if I then go back and read some of my own stories I will find mistakes or room for improvement that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

    • I’m curious, Lucy: are those writers usually open to your constructive reviews? As writers we should always look for feedback that helps us improve our craft . . . but some writers are more open to it than others. I know what you mean about going back to your own work and seeing things you didn’t see before; I wrote some pretty cringeworthy stuff in college that will never see the light of day!

  6. artphart on said:

    Reblogged this on artphart tries to blog and commented:
    Maybe if someone I know lets me see what he’s working on, I can get some practice in.. (*hint hint*). Candace Johnson’s recent post about English major editors is a little discouraging though. Especially because I’m an English major. Ah well. Even though this article is pretty flat and repetitive, it is vital to know that taking a step back and editing someone else’s work improves your own writing and critiquing skill set.

    • I LOVE English majors; I was an English major, too, as I mentioned in that post (http://wp.me/p2IvJd-GI). My point was that majoring in English in college does not an editor make . . . but it can be a great first step, followed by educating yourself through courses and workshops, finding a mentor, reading books about editing . . . and learning to edit your own work and the WIPs of other writers, which I advocate in this post you were kind enough to reblog. Thanks!

      • artphart on said:

        Hi and thank you for clarifying! I understand where you’re coming from. I think I tend to feel under attack as an English major, especially at the college I attend, so reading articles by professionals about students of English is always intimidating and sometimes a little overwhelming. Editing has always been a field that I felt an affinity for and figuring out how to ease my way into editing is a tough. I looking forward to checking out more of your tips and scouring other sources for techniques to improve my writing. I just hope that one day I will have the skills to burst out of the English major groove that one freelance editor spoke of in your article, and join the mindset of professional editors. Thanks for replying!

  7. Reblogged this on Honoria's Notebook and commented:
    Yesterday I wrote, rather testily on the subject of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing, but as a new writer I am always grateful for good advice that will help me improve my writing. Like this piece from ‘change it up editing’.

  8. Great post! And very true. Editing the work of others has helped me approach the editing of my own work as a reader and not the author–as well as helped me to be very open to the editing suggestions others offer me.

  9. very fun article! Honored by the citation. 🙂 Ruthless editing is so, so important!

  10. Thank you for the ‘wordsmith’ tools and your likes.

  11. This was very helpful. I will reboot it on my blog. Thank you!

  12. Pingback: Recap: Productivity – Shut Up & Write

  13. I’ve edited for pay before, but I’m one of those who doesn’t actively seek out projects because my life can get busy with other things, so it’s a few times a year I’ll edit. But I do have my own literary magazine and have tutored at my uni’s writing center. I also had a freelance editor edit half a manuscript for me, so doing all of this has improved my writing tenfold and made me a much better self-editor/copy editor.

  14. Reblogged this on Author Unpublished and commented:
    This is a great reminder post for those of us who like to (over)edit. 🙂

  15. I have a 100k novel sitting in my email, waiting for me to edit it. This is going to be one heck of a learning experience 😛

  16. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Candace offers great advice for improving your writing through peer editing. Go forth and read her post 🙂

  17. Thanks for this post, Candace. I’ve critiqued other writers on Zoetrope.com and when I was in a writing program. Yes, the process does make me reflect on my own writing. I try to apply my critiques to my own writing, try to keep in mind the suggestions I give others. This is excellent advice 🙂

  18. I have edited the work of others but always people that I know personally so I sometimes feel like maybe I hold back and it doesn’t do as much good for my own writing. I am working on finding some critique partners with which to trade work. I love having friends and a husband who are willing to honestly edit my work but an outside opinion would be nice too!

    • It’s really difficult to tell your best friend or your sweetie that their writing needs work, isn’t it? Editing for someone you don’t know well is still tough, but when they beg for your honest assessment, it’s much easier to give. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I hope you’ll stop by often.

  19. Reblogged this on Jcckeith and commented:
    This mentions some of my favorite blogs and has some great info

  20. byjhmae on said:

    I have a few things to say about this one!

    1) About writing simply: Every positive response I’ve enjoyed has been for a story that I wrote in a very simple, straightforward way. When I got too “pretty,” I got my you know what handed to me.
    2) About editing others: I 100% agree – I learn so much more by reading other writers, because I see what doesn’t work, clear and right in front of my face. I’ve always believed that you learn through mistakes, not through doing things right.
    3) I actually enjoy editing, but only after I’ve not read a story of mine for a LONG TIME – I’m talking a month plus. Editing when you still know what you wanted to say, not what you should say, is a nightmare. It makes me feel like my brain is being scrambled.

    Great post again! 🙂

    • Thanks for all your thoughts on this. #1 can be a challenge for an editor, too. An editing job I had about a year ago was difficult because the author insisted she was being “literary” in her phrasing–in her nonfiction book. Trying to keep her voice while having the darn thing make sense and not sound like a romance novel was quite a tightrope to walk.

  21. This is a great post and terrific links, Candace. It’s amazing how much extra “fluff” is packed into my first drafts…..embarrassing. I find myself constantly editing e-mails I receive from co-workers…it’s addicting. 🙂

  22. Pingback: How to (Almost) Instantly Improve Your Writing | Phillip McCollum

  23. This is such a great article, Candace! I’ve only recently come to understand the power of critiquing someone else’s work and the effect it has on my own writing. I think it helps that you can look at someone else’s work more objectively, so your brain can do its job of focusing on the process and not your own ego. 🙂

  24. I need a critique partner, stat!! My husband reads and redlines for me, but I would love to find someone to swap sentences.

  25. I’ve learned so much by editing other people’s writing and I know my writing has improved as a result. Great post.

  26. You sure hit the nail on the head! I recently discovered this principle myself when putting together an anthology. Not only did I learn a lot about my own writing but it turns out helping another writer bring out their best is quite satisfying and fun!

    • An anthology is like jumping into the pool instead of just dipping your toes–so many different writing styles to learn from! What is the genre? Did you find any common errors among all those different stories? Thanks for stopping by.

      • Ha, you said it! I have a post-apocalyptic setting called the Wrecked Earth that my novel is set in. The anthology has seven writers each telling a story with the common theme of a meteorite that has affected the characters (meteor storms are the cause of the apocalyptic setting) – and, as I hoped, each story is very unique in style and tone and topic. It has been amazing so far! I’d say the most common error was missing a beat or two in the middle of the story to properly set up the ending, to make the ending more meaningful. The endings were great ideas, the writers simply needed make some adjustments to make them sing.

      • That sounds like a great anthology! I’m not surprised you identified the “missed beat” in the middle–that’s not an unusual problem. As writers, we focus on a strong beginning, and we’re excited to write a great ending, but we sometimes forget that the reader won’t get there if boredom sets in.

      • Yes! And we already have the payoff in our minds for the ending. It ‘works’ for us automatically, and as such we may overlook that the reader isn’t in our heads, and needs a bit more in order to ‘get it’.

  27. I couldn’t agree more!

  28. Reblogged this on The Red Pen of Doom and commented:
    All true. And not just because she quotes me.

  29. What you say is packed chock full of Truthiness.
    -Guy

  30. I had “reviewed” other writer’s work in the past, but never really, truly edited until I started my Hopkins program. It’s kind of crazy how quickly it can seep into your own craft if you do it a lot, with specific focus. Best ROI for new writers by FAR.

    • Like most other things in life, studying it and doing it are very different animals. There’s a reason why writing programs place such an emphasis on peer review. The great part is looking back on your older work and seeing how much progress you’ve made in your own writing as a result.

  31. Gwen on said:

    I have a few critique partners, and we regularly exchange work. I know I can count on them for honest feedback, and I do the same in return. You’re right – editing someone else’s writing is a valuable learning tool.

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