How to edit your work: A practical example

Editing your own work can be tough.  In today’s post, I’ve selected a random paragraph from my first book. The two characters are Emma (main POV) and Vain (who is sleeping beside her).  Emma can’t sleep.

Here’s the original:

****Emma woke up early and crept out of the bedroom she shared with Vain, who was not pleasant to sleep beside.  She tossed and turned all night, murmuring and calling out, and besides that, she snored.  Emma barely needed to sleep anymore, so she spent most of the night reliving the events of the past few days.****

A few things spring out immediately.

  1. The first sentence is about Emma waking up early,  and the second sentence is “She tossed and turned”. On reflection, it’s not immediately obvious if the “she” in the sentence refers to Vain or Emma.
  2. The paragraph is a little off from an order of operations perspective.  The structure goes “Emma can’t sleep, Vain snores, Emma can’t sleep”.
  3. The sentences are kind of dull
    1. Subject did something and did something, description
    2. Subject did something, and did something
    3. Subject description, subject did something

Edit #1: Remove unnecessary words

Let’s do what I like to think of as a “first round” edit.  Trimming the fat from the sentences to get to the core:

Emma woke up (remove) early and crept out of the bedroom she shared with Vain, who was not pleasant to sleep beside (first I “tell” she’s not pleasant to sleep beside, and then I show it.  The showing is stronger, I don’t need the tell).  She tossed and turned (cliche) all night, murmuring and calling out (yes, this is what tossing and turning means), and besides that, (remove) she snored.  Emma barely needed to sleep anymore, so (should be “and”)  she spent most of (remove) the night reliving the events of the past few days.

Here’s the new sentence with my edits:

****Emma woke early and crept out of the bedroom she shared with Vain, who tossed and turned all night and she snored.  Emma barely needed sleep and spent the night reliving the events of the past few days.****

Hmm.  I don’t actually love this.  I think I’ve cut too deeply and lost the original point of the paragraph.  I find I do this sometimes, I take too much off and have to start again.

Edit #2: Change the order

I’m not sure if this is going to help in this instance, but I’ve found a lot of my paragraphs can be improved by changing the order of the sentences.   Let’s see if that helps me in this instance.

****Emma woke up early and crept out of the bedroom she shared with Vain, who was not pleasant to sleep beside.  Emma barely needed to sleep anymore, so she spent most of the night reliving the events of the past few days.  Vain tossed and turned all night, murmuring and calling out, and besides that, she snored.  .****

Interesting.   I don’t like that two sentences in a row now start with “Emma”, but I really like the new flow of the first two lines.  They’re more logically sequenced and much smoother to read.  Now, Emma waking up early is directly related to tossing and turning all night, as opposed to Vain being shitty to sleep beside.

The new structure gets more to the core of the paragraph.  Emma spent all night tossing and turning so she got up early.  The Vain part is a red herring.

I’m not done, but if I was to stop here and move on, this would be the new paragraph:

****Emma woke early and crept out of the bedroom.  She barely needed to sleep anymore, and spent most of the night reliving the events of the past few days.****

I think I can do better though.

Edit #3: Rewrite

What am I trying to accomplish with this paragraph?  This starts a new chapter, so my purpose is:

  • Show that the POV is Emma
  • Show that it’s early in the morning
  • Add some tiny bit of characterization to Emma.  It’s been a tough couple days and she’s fraying.

That’s really all I need from this section.  How else can I write this to get the point across?  The most important character moment is Emma thinking about the past few days.  They’ve been really stressful for her, that’s what I should be focusing on.  I shouldn’t be telling the reader she tossed and turned, I should be showing what is bothering her.

Let me try again:

****Emma barely slept.  When she closed her eyes, she could see the Wyatt leering at her, reaching out to pull at her shirt and slap her while the other two laughed.****

Already, I like this a lot better.  Now, rather than telling you that “Emma relieved the events of the past few days”, I’m putting you right into her head.  You’re there with her, reliving a traumatic incident with her.

Let’s layer on the part about Vain snoring.

****Emma barely slept.  When she closed her eyes, she could see the Wyatt leering at her, reaching out to pull at her shirt and slap her while the other two laughed.  Vain’s snoring somehow made it worse and eventually, Emma gave up altogether and crept out of the bedroom as sunlight was starting to peak through windows****

Okay, I think this is way better than the original.  The focus is entirely on Emma, the sentences flow better and you get a sense of why she’s bothered.

One last run should do the trick.  I need to go back and re-trim.  ALWAYS go back and re-trim.

Edit #4: Remove unnecessary words

****Emma barely slept.(I do this alot.  I write a sentence prepping the reader for what I’m about to show them.  I start with “Emma barely slept” and then I show you that Emma barely slept.  It’s unnecessary)When she Emma (now that I’m killing the first line, I need to establish it’s Emma right away – I can’t open a new chapter with “she”, the readers won’t know who I’m talking about) closed her eyes, she could see saw (anytime you write “could see, could hear, could feel” change it to the more immediate saw, heard, felt.   Always)  the Wyatt leering at her, reaching out to pull at her shirt, and slapping her, while the others two laughed.  Vain’s snoring somehow made it worse and eventually as sunlight was starting started (almost anytime you write “was verb” you can replace “was” with a better conjugation of the verb.  Was running = ran.  Was thinking = thought, etc.  Also, I’m killing “started” too) to peaked through windows, Emma gave up altogether (I debated keeping “altogether”.  Normally I’d cut it, but in this instance it better conveys the sense of Emma getting frustrated) and crept out of the bedroom ****

New paragraph

****When Emma closed her eyes, she saw the Wyatt leering at her, reaching at her shirt, slapping her, while the others laughed.  Vain’s snoring somehow made it worse, and as sunlight peaked through the windows, Emma gave up altogether and crept out of the bedroom.****

Okay.  I think this is stronger than the first version.  I still don’t love it, I think there’s something missing at the start, but generally, I like where this is headed.  At this point, I’d highlight this section to circle back to after a couple days and see if I can approach it with fresh eyes.


So there you have it.  One hour of editing on a single paragraph.   Do I do this for every line?  No.  Should I?  Yes.

I hope you agree the new version is better.  The point of this exercise isn’t to prove that “you too can write masterpieces” because it’s still kind of a clunky sentence.  The point is to prove that no matter how well you think you’ve written something, you can probably make it better.

Remember the tagline: Writing is hard

Get to work!

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2 comments

    1. You know what’s funny is after all this I STILL didn’t love how it turned out, but I thought it was more helpful to show the process. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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