Bad Advice Wednesday: Writer, Edit Thyself!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Here’s a few thoughts on editing your own work:

1. “I hate it,” isn’t an uncommon reaction when returning to a piece of writing after a time away from it, just as “This is the greatest thing ever written” isn’t uncommon when in the throes of inspiration.  The trick is to come back to a piece with a mindset somewhere in between the two extremes.  That is to come back with a “new head,” calm, practical, aware that what you are approaching isn’t either the worse or greatest piece of writing ever produced, but something that can be tackled, re-worked, improved.

2. It’s easier to have a “new head” when there’s actually another head.  That’s the reason that editors exist.  You simply can’t see everything yourself.  Is there another individual, hopefully a writer who knows something about craft, who can read for you consistently?   Sometimes a single external sensibility (that is, a person) can help as much as a class.  (I know this one contradicts my title.)

3. What really irked you during your workshop/criticism from editor?  Not just stupid comments but ones that hit home…”Honesty is the first step in greatness,” said Samuel Johnson and one thing that revision is about is honesty.  It’s worth asking yourself a question you can pay a psychologist to ask you: What am I avoiding?  Other questions to ask yourself: Where am I being dishonest?  Glib?  Taking shortcuts?  Where am I inserting an opinion/generalization/idea that I haven’t really thought out?  Why did I include this?  What does it mean to me?

4. Often our own writing is interesting to us because it happened to us.  Is it interesting to a stranger?  Don’t come to your work with an overly critical attitude–“It’s all boring”–but do ask yourself why someone else would be compelled to read it.  It never hurts to ask: Am I being self-indulgent?  (I usually answer yes, and continue on.)

5. Make the verbs active. Unless you have a specific mood in mind, think movement.

6. Is there a reason you aren’t turning something into a scene or at least a mini-scene?  Is that reason laziness?

7. Use earthy details to deflate pomposity.  It’s worth remembering that for every glistening lily we see there exists a can of Alpo dog food.

8. Smell, taste, touch, sound.  Is your piece taking place in a a sensory vacuum?  Overdo it–you can always scale back.

9. To paraphrase Bernard DeVotto, “Revision separates the women from the girls.”  Remember revising doesn’t have the la-la nearly hallucinogenic thrills of some first drafts.  It is about work, craftsmanship, thought.  But it can be very satisfying in a different way.


  1. Barbarann Ayars writes:

    You know, thinking hard, what’s more boring than bringing your video of your last blast trip on safari, or Holy Land, or trekking the Himalayas, or walking on the moon? If you didn’t make the trip, why would you care after five minutes of polite viewing? hey! Is that my book?

    My life is mine. It’s pretty interesting and quite unique. To me. But what about it should make the reader care, stay up late reading, laughing, weeping, swearing through my detritus and my triumphs? A child of nearly complete negation, it’s a real challenge to write about what isn’t there, which on the face of it is the work of a mother of wild success, so how do I show a reader how it feels to be invisible? Not sure that would keep me awake, etc. But I’m having one heck of a good time trying.

    #4 and #5. Oh thanks. Makes my day…..sticking this on my computer, on my wall, on my page of do’s ….btw, Happy New Year you guys.

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Love it, especially #s 1 and 6. Per the latter, it’s something the scene-bashers don’t discuss: it is much harder to write scene than summary. Not sure about good reflection, though. That’s pretty hard, too. That point you made in 3.

    • Dave writes:

      Scene-bashers! I love it. I guess I’m one after my “Don’t Write Scenes!” post, but I really meant don’t write ONLY scenes.

  3. Barbarann Ayars writes:

    ditto livlliness….liveliness…..back to the drawing board. Or lunch!

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks Barbara–And welcome to Cocktail Hour. We won’t need spell check anymore, i can see that!

  4. Barbarann Ayars writes:

    There is no word: reffered. How about: “referred.”….see what I mean?

  5. Barbarann Ayars writes:

    You can see by my posts that I am now obviously addicted. To writing. To words. To you. #7 and #8 are worthy for my needs, and occupy much of my time. I began by just blasting it on the page. The whole memoir. Freeform. And, hilarious, gave no one a name, reffered to dialogue but wrote none, vigorously glistening lilies. In all, 300 pages of recall. No order, much heat. Jeez.

    Two years later it has order, focus, agony and comic relief. Sensory livliness, real. That’s because I read the first draft and said, “girl, you need help”. Several writing courses later, a few capable editors, and one sterling one, I have a memoir that is tightened, focused, in-your-face alive. I have written it real and omg, slant. It boiled down to one simple idea: decide what you want to say and say it. Don’t make the reader guess.

    I recognize a blessing or two. The characters that shaped my life are many and colorful. Easy to write about. Some of the events they shepherded me through are and have always been favorite topics for the reading public. Some of them taught me to laugh my way through tragedy. Some of them taught me survival. A few of them showed me I was right about a toxic mother. A couple were larger than life. I miss them all.

    #1 is the imperative. Walk away from the hot thing and return a week or two later to see with new eyes what you said as opposed to what you thought you said. See how to say it better, or perhaps don’t say it at all. I am sooooo happy for the delete button. Look how much crumpled paper I don’t have any more!

    #2 and #3 make me think to tell you: self editing must, for me, come from my editor, who across these few years has taught me to do lots of what I used to pay her for. But her eyes and her listening ears are invaluable to me. I still send her stuff and say, “look at this. Send me a bill”. In the long run it saves money.

    • Dave writes:

      Hi Barbarann,

      I love the idea of sketching in out and filling it in later. Don’t do that myself so much any more but I used to. Gives you the idea of the shape/feel of the book before all the nitty-gritty work.

      Thanks for the comments. David