All the Write Stuff: Fine-Tuning Your Text

For the new year, some of you may have resolved to write or polish your manuscript. I whole-heartedly believe that revising and editing is the most important (and most pain-staking) part of the writing process.

In this post, I’ll lay out some goals and revision/editing tips that you can use to clean up your text. This post is geared towards poets and writers who are aiming to get their work published; however, I hope it is useful for recreational authors, as well, as they seek to improve their craft.

Write Your Goals
If you really want to get cracking on your writing this year, make sure to write your goals down. Better yet, create a schedule for yourself with clear deadlines. Better still, share your goals and schedule with someone—a friend, a mentor, a writer’s group—and ask them to hold you accountable for your writing this year.

I know of some writers who have joined online writing website or Facebook groups, or who Instagram proof that they’re meeting their writing goals. Play around with different systems to find out what works best for you.

Get Feedback
This is central to starting the revision process. I know we writers tend to be self-conscious introverts, but this step is worth the interaction. The most helpful feedback I receive is often from other writers. If you’re willing to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone, I highly recommend joining a local writer’s group; these are often hosted at libraries and community centers, and more information about our city’s monthly writer’s group can be found on our calendar.

If you’re unable to join a writer’s group or don’t feel comfortable sharing your work, you can always ask a well-read friend, creative teacher, or trusted family member to give you feedback. Make sure they’re willing to read your work before you send it over, though—and make sure they know how long it is!

Sometimes it can be awkward or painful to ask for feedback. If you’re nervous about your readers’ level of cruelty or softness, try asking them to respond to set questions. I like to ask for feedback on what they liked, what questions linger (ie, what is unclear in my text and what they want to know more about), and what suggestions they have for improvement. Sometimes I’ll ask more specific questions pertaining to concerns I have about that piece.

I’ve found that this line of questioning is far more constructive for my readers and myself. The questions are also soft enough that I’m not hurt by their feedback, which is always a concern after you’ve spent days or months slaving over your work. After getting feedback, I usually have a better idea of what I need to change. After I make changes, I submit the piece for feedback again—usually to the same group of people and one or two new readers. Repeat this cycle until you’re satisfied with your reader’s responses.

Edit, Then Edit Again
There’s a difference between revising and editing. Revisions entail more significant changes—the polishing of content; edits are the little changes—the polishing of language. Once you’ve used reader feedback to reach a level of revision you and your readers are satisfied with, it’s time to edit the crap out of your manuscript.

“But why,” you may say, “would I edit so much when publishers hire editors to do that for me?”

Because clear language can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.

When I worked as editor-in-chief of a literary arts journal, we used a blind submission format. We were a pretty offbeat publication, so we weren’t particular about Standard English grammar, either. But if I had to work hard to understand what the first few paragraphs or lines were communicating due to a clear lack of editing, I was likely to abandon the piece. 

Even as a small, fairly unknown literary arts journal, we received thousands of pages of submissions each issue. As I saw it, if submitters couldn’t take the time to fix typos, remove useless words, craft compelling sentences, or rewrite cliché phrases, they were submitting their work with the expectation of rejection.

Is it fair? Not really. But all editors do it. And if you had to read as much as we do, you’d start to do it, too. So, don’t cut corners when it comes to self-editing.

It is worth noting that more publishers are becoming accepting and aware of diverse vernaculars—such as African-American Vernacular English and Non Native English—as valuable features of voice. When I talk about editing, I need to emphasize that I do not encourage vernacular speakers to standardize their English. Instead, editing should be about retaining voice and clarifying content

When you edit, seek to make every word count in some way. If you’re aiming for a beautiful or lyrical writing style, walk through your manuscript with a thesaurus as your wand, softening words and sentences on the way. If you want your writing to feel raw in parts, use bold verbs and words with hard consonant sounds—and pepper your sentences with em dashes.

In fact, if time permits, don’t just make every word count—make every punctuation mark matter. Be purposeful in your sentence structures.

When you feel more comfortable about even the fine details of your piece, go just one step further: read it out loud. If you’re writing a book, read a chapter at a time. It doesn’t matter if you have an audience or if you’re talking to yourself—this step will help you catch persistent issues and fine-tune your voice and tone. If you have a willing friend, try having them read your piece out loud, too!

I say all this knowing that, while revision and editing are important and highly underrated, you need to be prepared to let go of your baby at some point. If you’ve been stewing over the same piece for a while now and your latest round of edits were minimal, it’s likely time to send her off to a publisher. Don’t helicopter-parent your writing—aim high and let her fly. 

(Side note: Don’t forget to check our library calendar for new events in the area! We have two writers visiting this season. On February 9th, Detroit mystery author DE Johnson will talk about what he dug up on Eloise Hospital while researching for Detroit Breakdown. And on April 13th, Joe Grimm will talk about his latest publication, The Faygo Book. Click here for more details or to register!)

For more resources on revising and editing your work, check out these websites:

For more information on how to fine-tune your text, check out:

Steering the Craft by Ursula K Le Guin The Last Draft by Sandra Scofield Do I Make Myself Clear by Harold Evans
Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and David King Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon Word Hero by Jay Heinrichs

For tightly-polished books that might inspire your own revision and editing process, check out:

Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein by Gertrude Stein Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Anne Dillard A Mercy by Toni Morrison
The Round House Louise Erdrich Untwine by Edwidge Danticat Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood Bone by Fae Myenne Ng