Do you want to improve your writing? If so, you must identify and fix specific problems with your prose.
You must learn new editorial techniques and incorporate them into your writing toolbox, deliberately applying them through practice until you internalize their use. Then you’ll be able to write better first drafts.
How I Learned the Process
When I discovered what a dangling participle was, I noticed I was dangling them in much of my writing. Finally recognizing the issue was like switching on a spotlight. I saw them everywhere. I was shocked.
It took me a few years to consistently catch and fix this problem in my writing during the self-editing process. It took a while longer to catch myself making the mistake when I was writing—and correct it on the spot.
I still goof up at times, but I’ve trained myself to recognize the issue and eradicate it from my prose. Better yet, I taught myself to stop making the mistake when writing first drafts.
Over the years, I’ve crystalized the process we go through as writers learning the craft—or anyone learning a new skill. Here’s how to use it purposefully to make your writing better.
Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-step Writing Improvement Process
1. Write without restriction.
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, this initial phase is when you tell your inner critic to take a time out and sit in the corner for a while.
Write with abandon and don’t worry about whether it’s any good. Simply get the words down as fast as you can.
You will, of course, be using techniques you’ve already internalized: the proper way to spell “accommodate,” making your subjects and verbs agree, and attributing your dialogue with “said” and not “opined.”
2. Revise your work.
Now it’s time to read your work with a discerning eye. Have you said what you meant? Have you said it the best way?
Revise to include everything that should be there and exclude anything that shouldn’t.
To learn more about revising and editing, I recommend these books:
- Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King
- Revision, David Michael Kaplan
3. Learn about problems you need to identify.
Read about dangling participles, cutting unnecessary details, using commas properly, eliminating little words, ferreting out filtering phrases.
Some excellent texts about editing on my library shelves include:
- Getting the Words Right, Theodore A. Rees Cheney
- Editing Fact and Fiction, Sharpe and Gunther
- The 10% Solution, Ken Rand
4. Examine your writing critically, like an editor.
The links and books in the previous points should help you do this. But what if, even after studying, you’re blind to what your issues are—mistakes that keep you from getting published? What you don’t know can hurt you.
Although I learned by reading dozens of writing texts as well as trial and error, it took me thirty years to discover what I know now and am sharing with you. Do you have that time? Most writers don’t.
What you need is an editor who will teach you how to self-edit your work. I can help you identify your issues and provide advice that will enable you to find those problems in your work so you can fix them yourself. To learn more, see Professional Editing Service.
5. Identify issues in your writing.
Once you realize what your issues are, you must go through your writing carefully to identify those problems you’ve learned about. Cast a critical gaze at what you’ve drafted.
This could be a struggle when you’re learning to implement a new technique. But you’ll get better with practice. There’s no way around this (see side note below).
When you’re learning an editing technique, it’s too hard to fix every mistake in one pass. I recommend going through your work a story or chapter at a time, looking for only one issue—whether it’s dangling your participles, creating unnecessary distance with filter words, or overusing adverbs. Flag each with a comment that pinpoints the matter.
This approach lets you concentrate on that issue alone. It’s the best way to learn how to identify a newly discovered problem in your writing.
(Side note: For each new technique I discovered, I went through every unpublished short story on my hard drive and corrected each of them for that issue. I did this time and again, editing some stories over 500 times. That’s how I learned. In other words, practice makes perfect.)
6. Edit to correct those issues.
After identifying issues, go back and correct each one. Apply what you’ve learned in your reading. Or contact me to edit some of your work to identify issues you’ve been missing—and teach you how to fix them.
Use everything in your editor’s toolbox to improve and polish your work. Make several passes.
7. Internalize the process of identifying and correcting those problems so that every time you edit your work, you catch and fix them.
If you’ve followed the process so far, you’ve learned to identify, find, and fix your recurring issues. It’s hard work at first, but you’ll get better as you continue to practice.
You’ll eventually reach the point where you’re able to find and fix multiple issues on the first or second pass of self-editing. You have internalized the new technique; it’s now committed to your editorial toolbox.
8. Train yourself to write better so that you don’t make those mistakes in the first place.
Although you should write without restraint and not let self-criticism hamper your efforts to get the story down (step 1), you’ll experience moments when you stop to think about what you’re going to say.
These are the moments to insert the new techniques you’ve learned, applying what you’ve internalized during the editing phase to the writing process. Why forever make the mistake of dangling your participles only to fix them during editing?
Move mastered techniques into the drafting process and train yourself to write it right the first time.
Use the Process
Now that you’re aware of this process, consciously employ it to master editing skills more quickly. All it takes is dedicated practice.
Over time, you’ll continue to adopt new methods that you’ll incorporate into the writing phase, and this will make your first drafts better. Good luck!
Copyright 2021 Lee Allen Howard.