Peggy Bechko: A Few Tips on Editing For Writers


by Peggy Bechko

…Yes, I mean your own work

Editing your own writing can be difficult. There’s a lot to pay attention to and there is frequently the ‘flavor of the week’ in regard to the continually evolving dos and don’ts and ‘forbidden words’. Most of the time I tell folks not to go crazy every time a new trend or a new word to be avoided is announced.

However, there are things you can keep an eye out for – many things. Today I’m offering just a shot list of things that just might smooth your writing, make it flow a bit better and help to draw your reader in. And readers don’t try to pretend you don’t want to be drawn in – it’s why you read and why you have ‘favorite’ books and authors.

So, writers, time take heart. Don’t worry if there are a lot of the so-called forbidden words scattered throughout your work. After all there are plenty of the classics and lots of current best sellers that are peppered with them.

With the goal of improving everyone’s writing, here are a few thoughts.

One well over-used word is “Very”. There are times it’s necessary, but those are ‘very’ rare indeed. Just leave it out or reword. If you said, “The detective, a very tall man, stood close to the accused” how about “The detective loomed over the accused.” Or search your thesaurus and find another descriptive term that fits your style better. Or just sit and consider for a few moments. Something else will come to you.

Another reminder; shed clichés like a ‘duck sheds water’. Unless your character is one who spouts them or there is another compelling reason for you to use one remember clichés are just boring and worn. Their time is past. Come up with something new and fresh of your own. Be creative. That’s what you’re here for.

The words ‘up’ and ‘down’ are generally greatly overused in writing and storytelling and can be pretty much eliminated. Example: “Elizabeth put her book down on the bedside table.” Try “Elizabeth set her book on the bedside table with gentle respect.” Or: “The drought dried up the earth to the point of cracking.” Eliminate ‘up’ and we might get: “The drought dried the earth into deep fissures.” Just think about it. Simple eliminations can add a great deal of punch to your writing.

More on the elimination front: consider eliminating phrases like “John could hear,” or “John could feel.” This is where showing your reader something is much stronger than telling. Instead of “John could hear the train in the distance.” Try making it more direct. Bring in the senses and put your reader right there. How about: “John heard the distant rumble of the train.” Or, “The sound of the approaching train reverberated in John’s head.” Another example: Instead of: “Jane could see the vultures circling in search of their next meal.” Try “The vultures floated in widening circles in search of their next meal.”

Verbs ending in –ing can get to be a bit trying. That’s not to say you need to eliminate them altogether from your writing, you can sprinkle them in occasionally, in fact I doubt you could eliminate them altogether. But watch out for excess. Things like, “Joe was watching the parade while tapping his feet to the rhythm of the band.” Better: “Joe watched the parade while tapping his feet to the rhythm of the band.” Or “Joe tapped his feet to the rhythm of the band as the parade moved on.” Experiment, turn things around a bit and try to stifle the –ing urge just a little.

Don’t repeat words with great frequency. Scan your written page. Does any one word jump out at you? Does it pepper the page or reappear frequently throughout a chapter? Grab your thesaurus and have at it or visit

And remember while it’s a bit distressing, it’s still true what William Faulkner has been quoted over and over as having said regarding writing, “you’ve got to kill all you darlings.”

Most of us writers believe whatever we first put down on paper or type to computer screen should be fabulous, complete, amazing. One gets a bit of a pain in the gut when thinking of pruning the words so carefully written, but, while we may spare a few of our darlings here and there the truth of the matter is Faulker was right. His point was on track. Writing the work is just half the battle.

Many times you’ll find as you write, that your original ‘great idea’ is overwhelmed by the actual story. By that I mean you’ll range far afield from the beginning inspiration that got you moving. And you’re going to find that many of your truly great thoughts and ideas will occur to you when you’re actually writing – sitting at your computer or with your legal pad in your lap – not just daydreaming and thinking about writing. So, despite your greatest hopes that your material will emerge complete and awesome at the first stroke, don’t count on it. This tripping off in other directions creates a great story, but it does leave some bumpy writing that needs tidying and ideas that need completing or revising.

Many self-proclaimed ‘writers’ want us to believe they carry all their ideas around in their heads until they can get the time to spew them down onto paper – no doubt in pristine form. However, how many of them actually do it? Presuming you’re one who actually writes, don’t get caught in that ‘romantic, artistic’ web of silliness where you believe you can work it all out in your head and write it all down later. There may have been one or two who could do it, but frankly I think they’re fibbing too.

So don’t wail and weep when you confront your rewrite, celebrate. You’ve got the guts down on paper, now is the time to really shine and turn that heap of guts into a god.