Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Successful Editing Summed Up in a Single Principle— Err on the Side of Outrageous

by Edie Melson

Writers tend to fall into two distinct groups, those who prefer to write and those who prefer to rewrite—also known as editing. I fall into the latter group. I can’t help it. I just love the process of editing.

It doesn’t really matter if I’m editing someone else, or my own manuscript.

To me, it’s a fulfilling task of taking something good and making it into something great. But the path of getting from good to great can be a difficult one, unless you follow this single principle. I stumbled upon it early in my writing journey and it’s served me well, no matter what type of editing situation I’m in. So what is it that makes for successful editing?

 Err on the side of outrageous

I can see the puzzled looks from here. But bear with me as I explain.

Saying things the way they’ve always been said is, at best, boring and at worst, a cliché. So when you’re going back over what’s been written, look for something new…something different…something OUTRAGEOUS!

Places to Plug-in the Outrageous
Verbs—first, get rid of the passive verbs that dot the landscape of a first draft. Search for was and were, and be and been. Now go for action. And don’t just stick with boring action, search for something that zings the senses of your readers. For instance, instead of this sentence:

He moved across the busy street to reach his beloved’s side.

Try something like this:

He darted across the street, zigging and zagging toward the one who held his reason for living.

Comparisons—we do want our comparisons to make sense to our readers, but within those parameters, be brave and dare to walk on the path of outrageous. For instance, instead of this sentence:

Her heart pounded like a bass drum as she watched for her love dart through the traffic of the busy street.

Try something like this:

He darted across the street, and the staccato beat of her heart beat punctuated each of steps that brought him closer to her embrace.

Senses—in fiction, as well as creative nonfiction, all scenes should include the five senses. Look for ways to include the senses that also capture the setting or the character’s emotions. Do you want to give us the essence of a hot summer’s evening in the south? Instead of the cool breeze that kisses cheeks and ruffles hair, what if it carried the smoky taste of the grill from the house next door. Perhaps it clogs your throat with the chemical taste of a mosquito truck that just finished its rounds. Perhaps the delicate lace under a brides fingers promised an enclosing mesh of steel, instead of the soft promise of two lives knitted together? These are the things to look for as you take a manuscript from good to great.

Clichés—this is a way of saying something that has become so common place it’s almost invisible. The first few drafts of any manuscript often contain clichés because they’re a good way for the writer to capture the essence of what she wants to convey. Again, good, not great. But the editing phase is the time to tweak those ho-hum sayings and make them great. Sometimes it’s nothing more than turning them on their head. Your reader thinks you’re headed in one direction and at the last moment you dodge and it’s something original. For example, instead of this cliché:

She was decked out head to toe.

Try something like this:

She was decked out toes to nose.

The opportunities for outrageous are plentiful at this stage in the writing process. It’s the act of looking for opportunities to surprise and delight your readers that makes them appear.

What about you? Have you been surprised by an author’s choice of phrase or word? Have you found a new way to say something common-place? Now isn’t the time to be shy. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

And don’t forget to join the conversation!



  1. Edie,
    Thanks for the timely post and examples. SInce I fall into the first camp (love to write, don't love to edit) it's nice ( ducky, pleasant, peachy) to read some easy-to-follow ( obtainable, deft) tips ( cues, pointers, admonitions) on choosing words.

    1. Karen, thanks so much for getting in the spirit with your fun response! Blessings, E

  2. Thanks for these thoughts, Edie! I really appreciate them, especially since I'm getting ready to edit my novel soon. The point about senses is especially important to me, and I've been trying to assimilate advice about it, since it's one of my weak spots.

  3. I enjoy writing the first draft more than editing. Thanks for the great tips. One of my critique partners is always catching cliches.

  4. Thank you for the examples! I'm one of those that has to see it to learn it. lol.
    I'm also one of those authors that has a hard time shutting off the internal editor to get the first draft done. I've got a manuscript I've been working on for almost a year, and it's only 10k words. Granted, I did cut an additional 10k because I realized that's not where the story should have started, but just the same...

    Thanks for a great post, Edie!

    Amber Schamel
    Bringing HIStory to Life!