5 editor’s secrets to help you write like a pro
by Sonia Simone
Professional writers get work because they hit their deadlines, they stay on their message, and they don’t throw too many tantrums. Some pros have a great writing voice or a superb style, but as often as not, that gets in the way. When you know that the best word is “prescient,” it’s hard to swallow when an account manager tells you the client won’t know what it means.
Professional writers rely on editors to fix their clunks. Like good gardeners, sensitive editors don’t hack away—we prune and gently shape. When we’ve done a great job, the page looks just like it did before, only better. It’s the page the writer intended to write.
Editing, like writing, takes time to learn. But here are five fixes I make with nearly every project. Learn to make them yourself and you’ll take your writing to a more professional, marketable, and persuasive level.
1. Sentences can only do one thing at a time.
Have you ever heard a four-year-old run out of breath before she can finish her thought? I edit a lot of sentences that work the same way. You need a noun, you need a verb, you might need an object. Give some serious thought to stopping right there.
Sentences are building blocks, not bungee cords; they’re not meant to be stretched to the limit. I’m not saying you necessarily want a Hemingway-esque series of clipped short sentences, but most writers benefit from dividing their longest sentences into shorter, more muscular ones.
2. Paragraphs can only do one thing at a time.
A paragraph supports a single idea. Construct complex arguments by combining simple ideas that follow logically. Every time you address a new idea, add a line break. Short paragraphs are the most readable; few should be more than three or four sentences long. This is more important if you’re writing for the Web.
3. Look closely at -ing
Nouns ending in -ing are fine. (Strong writing, IT consulting, great fishing.) But constructions like “I am running,” “a forum for building consensus,” or “The new team will be managing” are inherently weak. Rewrite them to “I run,” “a forum to build consensus,” and “the team will manage.” You’re on the right track when the rewrite has fewer words (see below).
(If for some insane reason you want to get all geeky about this, you can read the Wikipedia article on gerunds and present participles. But you don’t have to know the underlying grammatical rules to make this work. Rewrite -ing when you can, and your writing will grow muscles you didn’t know it had.)
4. Omit unnecessary words.
I know we all heard this in high school, but we weren’t listening. (Mostly because it’s hard.) It’s doubly hard when you’re editing your own writing—we put all that work into getting words onto the page, and by god we need a damned good reason to get rid of them.
Here’s your damned good reason: extra words drain life from your work. The fewer words used to express an idea, the more punch it has. Therefore:
On a daily basis (usually best rewritten to “every day”)
that it was good.
(I just caught one above: four-year-old
You can nearly always improve sentences by rewriting them in fewer words.
5. Reframe 90% of the passive voice.
French speakers consider an elegantly managed passive voice to be the height of refinement. But here in the good old U.S. (or Australia, Great Britain, etc.), we value action. We do things is inherently more interesting than Things are done by us. Passive voice muddies your writing; when the actor is hidden, the action makes less sense.
Bonus: Use spell-check
There’s no excuse for teh in anything more formal than a Twitter tweet.
Also, “a lot” and “all right” are always spelled as two words. You can trust me, I’m an editor.
Easy reading is damned hard writing.
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne
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I had a high school english teacher who drilled into us “OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS!” 5 decades later, I still hear her voice in my head whenever I write anything. 🙂
I’m typically not a fan of “rules” in fiction writing at least, but those are some pretty good ones.
I wonder if I there anyway to bookmark this article in my blog. But well, informative and good 5 points to remember. Thanks!
In the seventh grade, I walked into English class one day to see on the chalk board: “A” all the way to the left and “LOT” all the way to the right. My teacher said, “There’s a space between. A lot is two words.” I never made the mistake again. That same week, I walked in to see “CANNOT” written in the middle of the board. “No space,” she said, “one word.” I often wonder what the world would look like on paper if more people had Mrs. Lawrence for 7th grade English.
Great comment, thank you, cellulitelooksbettertan. Indeed there are those teachers who inspire us by lifting the burdens of our children (and adult) minds with simple, yet meaningful lessons.
‘Alot’ must be an Americanism. Today is the first time I’d ever heard of its being a problem. Never happened in Australia while I was growing up, and I’m no spring chicken. Even my less literate younger relatives and new Aussie writers I edited have never used it in their writing.
Personally, I’m a stickler for gerunds and the subjunctive mood. What I have discovered is that even popular professional writers like Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer get lay/lie incorrect in their early work. Lay means to place something, while lie means to recline. Both have many other meanings which are correctly used.
I learned a couple months a go about the passive voice. Had no idea there was one but I’m glad I know now. Another reason to find a good writer’s group, you learn.
In High School I did a year of Latin then gave it up as boring. But I learned things that have helped my writing greatly. All the tenses used in English came from Latin and they are not taught properly in English class. Nowadays even the parts of speech aren’t taught. My daughter had no idea what a noun or verb was, much less adjective, adverb or pronoun.
Not a single American writer I’ve read understands the Pluperfect tense which covers something done in the past before something else you were discussing. It is really essential for getting your sequence of events correct. It’s the one where you use ‘had had.’