Self-editing; How to Polish the prose


 Writing is rewriting.

When you’re writing, you’re all over the place in creativity and flow. When you’re rewriting, you are tidying up, restoring the order so your writing stays on track.
Polish: Smoothing the reading. For example: changing words or phrases.
Rewrite: reworking elements of the story to make it more immediate and dramatic. For example: adding or cutting characters. Adding or cutting scenes.

Step 1 Cut the excess

No. 1 cause of bad writing: Verbosity – Using more words than necessary while fewer and/or simpler words create energy and elucidate meaning.
The fix: Anything and everything that is not directly serving to move the story along must be cut.

Putting your story on a diet forces you to cut off all the excess fat with critical eyes. You’re focusing the lens to create a sharper image. You’re discovering where the gaps are and what’s needed to fill them. This is brutal. Think stabbing a person to death – brutal. Cutting forces you to decide what truly belongs and what doesn’t. Often times, this is done by feeling. The better you master the craft of writing, the better you can reason why something does or doesn’t belong. Go over every word, every line, every paragraph, every scene, every chapter and consider how the story would be without it. Take it out, put it aside. Did you story get weaker or stronger? Does it need more cutting? Cut until you end up with a piece that works for you. Now the material you relate to the most, will stand out from the rest.

Here’s a list of must-cuts

  • Qualifiers: cut weak qualifiers such as: a little / a bit / rather / sort of/ kind of/ quite/ very/ pretty/ slightly/ mostly. They weaken the mental imagery.
  • Needless connectors, such as “because”. They lead to unnecessarily long sentences, which slows the pace.
  • Redundant words, such as “the maroon red lamp”. Once will do.
  • Check the value of adverbs. Beware of redundant adverbs, such as “young kitten”. Double check use of ‘entire, awfully, highly, mostly, quite, particularly, rather, really, slightly, somewhat, truly, very, terribly’.
  • Redundant phrases, such as “she thought to herself”. Unless she can plant thoughts into other people’s minds, this phrase is redundant.
  • Repetition of plot information. Trust your reader. Spare him excess information. Only repeat if necessary to refocus the reader’s attention, reinforce understanding, create humour effect or signal story events.
  • Avoid jargon.
  • When in doubt – leave it out!

Step 2: First level editing – Rewriting the substance, organization, content and style

Golden rule mantra

Prefer the familiar to the unknown word.
Prefer the single word to a long description: say ‘boulder’ rather than ‘large rock’.
Prefer the simple to the complicated: say ‘use’ rather than ‘utelization’.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the standard to the off-beat.
Prefer the specific to the general.
Prefer the definite to the vague.
Prefer the concrete to the abstract.

Polish the prose for imagery


Adverbs signal weak verbs. Use only when the noun isn’t specific enough.

There is a particular kind of adverb, the manner adverb, that hurts the writing. The ones that describe the manner in which an action occurred. For better understanding, check out this article on “The Anatomy of a Sentence“.

Example: “walk quickly” <- scratch that out, instead use an active verb such as “raced”

Not all adverbs have to be scrapped.


Adjectives: use as little as possible. Adjectives overwhelm rather than sharpen description. Eliminate all adjectives, then put them back only in the places where its presence is truly missed, where its presence strengthens the sentence.

Example: “Early Dawn”

Good if it’s important that the event should start as soon as the sun comes up. Bad if the word “dawn” suffices for context and time indication.

If you must use an adjective, try placing it after the noun instead of preceding it. Make it stand on it’s own. It will appear stronger this way. Some readers might even mistake it for a concrete noun. Example from ‘ A Farewell to Arms’ by Hemingway:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

Make use of all three kinds of weight a word can have
  • denotation: the literal meaning (bird is slang for woman but literally it means a warm-blooded vertebrate of the class Aves)
  • connotation: what it suggests or implies (a cock can be a bird or …. )
  • sensuousness: how it sounds (snape sounds like snake)
Be clear

Use simple words to express big ideas. Eliminate excessive words. Avoid euphemisms: they talk around things instead of addressing them. They conceal instead of reveal.

Be original

Do not use cliché phrasing

Tips for imagery:
  • Verbs: use specific active verbs. A verb is active when its subject is performing whatever action the verb describes.
  • Use concrete subjects and verbs.
  • Sentence modifiers: better placed after the noun. Example: the cat with the crook in his tail vs the crook in the tail of the cat.
  • Ambiguous abstract terms, such as “a cosy place”. They don’t provide imagery.
  • Phrases like “…began to…” and “…started to….” unless said action is interrupted.
  • Empty hyperboles. They exaggerate the truth without adding to the imagery.

Pace control

Vowels: long vowels sound slow, solemn, serious, tragedy. Hard quick vowels speed up the pace.

Giving a strong punch

  • Clichés such as “a fit of anger”. Overused phrases have lost their emotional punch.
  • Circumlocution, which means talking around a subject. People do this to avoid emotional punches, but in writing you strive for these.
  • Euphemisms outside of intended dialogue purpose. They avoid the emotional punch that writers strive to achieve.
  • Keep the prose engaging by rewriting all lines that start with ‘there is’.
  • A tight subject and active verb is more spirited. Example: The fact that he appeared made all the difference. That he appeared made all the difference.

For comfortable processing

Anglo-saxon vs Latinate: Latinate is mostly polysyllabic and formal sounding, they stress the second syllable, example: transmit. Anglo-saxon synonyms are usually one syllable, example: sent. Preference for invisible writing is anglo-saxon. Preference for fancy prose is latinate.

  • Double negatives, outside of intended dialogue purposes. They make readers work unnecessarily hard to process the words, messing with the invisibility of the words.
  • Jargon, unless your readers will only consist of people with the same profession. Others will rather pick up a different novel than a dictionary.
  • Positive vs Negative phrasing: positive wording is better. It’s easier to process for readers. Example: He is always on time vs He is always late

Step 3: Second level editing – fixing punctuation, grammar and mechanisms.

Do this yourself first, use spell-check for convenience but double check its recommendations. If possible, use an editor or friend to proofread your manuscript with fresh eyes before sending it in anywhere.

Cahn, S. M. & Cahn, V. L. (2013) Polishing your Prose
Carroll, D. L. (1995) A manual of writer’s tricks.
Hale, C. (1999) Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose.
Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings.

Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques