Editing Like a Creative Writer
by Trista Cornelius
I think most writers dread editing their own work. It’s one of the last steps in a long process, it does not feel creative, and it causes us to fret about what’s “right” and what’s “wrong.”
Although I can’t make editing easier, I can give you some ideas about how to do it in a creative way.
Try these tips out.
First, find something you’ve written that doesn’t feel like it’s working. Choose one page that feels dull or flat, maybe a part of your story or poem that no longer inspires you. Use this page to practice some of the following techniques.
1. Read through your page and underline all of the verbs.
This may be harder than it sounds. If I give you a simple sentence – Sally ate the ball – you know “ate” is the verb. However, in your own writing, it can be harder to find verbs because your sentences are not so simple. Know that every complete sentence will have a verb and a verb expresses some sort of action.
I used my phone to call my husband, setting it on speaker so I could hold the phone in front of me as I walked quickly out of there. Suddenly, I heard an extremely loud voice screaming at me. I nearly fainted before I recognized a familiar “… five-oh-three… ”: my husband’s voicemail. I hung up, but clung to my phone.
Once you’ve underlined your verbs, study them. Could you use more specific verbs?
Instead of “screaming” maybe the voice was “bellowing” or even “screeching,” both of which are a little less common than “screaming.”
Could you change the verb tense?
It might sound more suspenseful if I wrote this passage in present tense (use, set, can hold, walk, hear …), letting it unfold in the moment so the reader is less sure I survived to tell the tale.
Could you get rid of adverbs by choosing a more unique verb? (Adverbs describe verbs.)
Instead of “walked quickly” maybe I “hustled” or “scurried.”
2. Next, repeat this process with nouns. Underline all of the main nouns in your sentences.
I used my phone to call my husband, setting it on speaker so I could hold the phone in front of me as I hurried out of there. Suddenly, I heard an extremely loud voice screaming at me. I nearly fainted before I recognized a familiar “… five-oh-three …”: my husband’s voicemail. I hung up, but clung to my phone.
Do you have any repeated nouns? Do you have any bland nouns?
In my example, notice how often I use the word “phone.” The phone is not a big part of the story, so maybe it’s fine as it is. However, if it were more important, I could evolve its definition by starting to call it “the contraption” or “the device” or “my lifesaver.”
Could you have a more specific noun and avoid an adjective? (Adjectives describe nouns).
Maybe “loud voice” could be replaced with a “squeal” or a “bellow.”
3. Repeat this process for adjectives and adverbs.
For “extremely loud,” I could use “thundering” or “deafening” or “clamorous.”
Maybe in your writing, you refer to the color red, a color we all think we know. However, is it red or is it maroon, magenta, burgundy, or vermillion?
Tools to keep nearby
It’s handy to either have hard copies of a dictionary and a thesaurus nearby, or have your browser open to Google and type in the search box:
The results will not only help you spruce up your writing, they will help you reconsider your entire story.
Reviving a floundering page can resuscitate an entire story because analyzing your verbs and nouns helps you further define the purpose of your piece of writing, the effect you want it to have on the reader, and the emotion or lesson your story explores.
However, I don’t recommend doing this with more than one page of writing. It’s too intense to apply to an entire piece. Practicing with one page ought to be enough to tune your writing ear for the rest of your editing process.
Good luck, and let me know how it goes if you give it a try!
PS: Try collaborating on this exercise with a writing colleague. Trade pages of writing and go through these steps for each other. It might be easier to find someone else’s verbs and nouns. When it’s not your own writing, you’ll probably consider wilder nouns and verbs than the writer would have. This can jostle you out of familiar habits or even out of a writing rut.
This is the fifteenth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason! Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.