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What I've Learned From Editing

Sara General

I’m working on the fourth draft of my young adult manuscript. This phase of the editing is what my editor refers to as “line editing”. Essentially, that means she read through my entire manuscript and made specific notes about what lines were working and which ones weren’t. This allowed me to see my strengths and weaknesses more clearly. My job in this pass is fairly straightforward—to fix these lines with her support and guidance.  

I previously wrote about the fun I was having with edits and can honestly say my love of editing has only increased. I’ve learned so much and after tweeting about it, a fellow writer in the #MarWritingChallenge suggested I write about it, so this post is my way of sharing some of what I think I’ve learned with you! Hopefully, something in my experience may help you as well. (And vice versa—feel free to chime in with editing tips you love!)

1. Hire an Editor

I know this probably doesn’t need saying but hiring an editor is a really important step and it wouldn’t feel right to not include it. I probably wouldn’t have learned any of the things I’ve learned if I hadn’t done that. So if you can, gift yourself and hire an editor, trade for services, etc. We are so lucky that there are more and more ways to connect with good editors nowadays. It might seem like a big expense but it was such a great investment. Also, it seems like most editors will be willing to edit a few sample pages to let you see what it will be like working with them and if it will work for both of you. 

2. Write it fresh!

There are a LOT of clichés out there and I’m guilty of using many of them. I think when you read a lot, you wind up being naturally exposed to them and so it gets easy for those clichés to find their way into a first draft—where the goal is to write fast and get the story down. In the editing stages, you have a chance to go back and write those clichés in a unique and fresh way. Here are some examples of clichés I found: 

  • Her heart sank
  • A wave of anger washed over her
  • Tears welled up 

These clichés definitely work (they’re cliché for a reason), so finding unique ways to rephrase them is a challenge. Over the last week, I worked through my manuscript, scribbling on a legal pad, brainstorming ways to make them fresher and still true to the voice of my novel. There are a lot of ways to do this—you just have to be creative. Strangely, this exercise made me fall in love with writing—and editing—all over again. You have to really think about language and what it evokes in the mind of the reader. Very cool.

3. Repetitive Body Language

Characters in my book are constantly nodding, swallowing, frowning and smiling. This was placeholder body language I put there in early drafts but in the editing phase it was time to challenge myself and have my characters use other parts of their body to express themselves. For this, I really had to take a step back and watch what people did. Amateur tip? I watched television scenes where people were scared, happy, angry, confused, etc., and tried to think what they were doing with their body that was telling me what they were feeling. I still think one of the best things you can do here to is read. Get ideas about how other people are tackling body language. 

4. Overusing Words

Look. That. There was (He was/She was). Glance.

I overuse all of these words. To correct it, my editor suggested I do a word search and see how many times I did this. Then they challenged me to eliminate at least half of those. I did a word search in this blog post and found I had used ‘that’ three times in the first three paragraphs. If you’re using Microsoft Word as your processor (as I am), I need to tell you the Search Document bar is your friend. It helps you find the words you use a lot and replace them. 

5. Embracing Rhetorical Devices

Rhetorical devices are just plain cool. Up until this draft, I’d never really looked at how rhetorical devices worked and what role they played in telling a story. I have my editor to thank for this one as well. I really firmly believe that the first draft is the all story. I believe that even more after coming this far through the editing process, but I think in later drafts you have the opportunity to include some of these devices and enhance the manuscript in a very deliberate way. It can be a lot of fun to be really deliberate with your writing. I’ve just started using devices so I’m certainly no expert, but so far, it seems to me they work the best when there’s already raw and vibrant text—the device just helps that text stand out a bit more. But I suppose they could also work where something was falling flat. Okay, maybe I have no idea where they work best—the point is, they can add a really sweet layer to your story when you want to try something special. It might be neat to have some of those in your toolbox. (I was using some without even realizing I was doing it—you really do pick up so much from reading). Again—thank you, editor. 

These are the few I started with: Anaphora. Polysyndeton. Asyndeton.   


6. Dialogue Tags 

“This is embarrassing,” she said.

“I know. Don’t worry. I do it all the time too,” he said.

“Can we fix this?” she asked.

“Yes.” He typed furiously on the keyboard. “Just give me a minute.”

“What are you doing?” She peered over his shoulder.

“I’m showing you how to use dialogue tags properly,” he said.


These are important. They don’t need to be fancy, either. Dialogue tags that are tried-and-true and don’t detract from the reading flow are the simple ones: said and asked. Some editors might not mind if you used other dialogue tags but mine encouraged me not to, explaining that they are best when invisible. There are times when I think fancy ones work (there are a lot of fancy dialogue tags in many of my favourite books) but for the most part, I think it was safe for me to lose the fancy tags and amp up the descriptions of the character showing the emotion I was trying to convey through the tag.

These are just a couple highlights of what I’ve learned from this phase of editing. I’d be writing all night if I tried to cram everything I discovered in here and I know we all need to keep working on our manuscripts! I don’t think anything I’ve shared will come as a surprise to anyone—I’m hardly the first person to write about editing after all! But these were small things that I really found made my manuscript stronger. Once I understand why I was making these changes and got comfortable making them, I started to move through the manuscript a lot faster—yesterday, I made it through ten chapters! It feels awesome to clean up my manuscript and learn more about the craft of writing at the same time that I can apply to my other projects. What about you? What tips are helping you with your own work?

Happy writing everyone! (P.S. I've recently started painting again & this is one of my works in progress I thought I'd share. Slowly moving away from my usual crayon drawings!).