Wedded to Your Words: Get a Divorce!

by Erin Brown

One of the greatest gifts that you can give yourself and your book is the ability to self-edit. Well, the gift of a big-time agent and six-figure publishing deal would really be worth unwrapping, but let’s stay focused for the moment. As the saying goes, “There is no good writing, only good re-writing.” But why, when you’ve spent months or years letting your genius flow from the pen (or realistically, the computer) would you want to make major cuts to those beautifully crafted sentences? Well, because the end product will be a gazillion times better. A first draft is an accomplishment, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just the beginning. If every author submitted a first draft to an agent in an attempt to get representation, agents would have no clients. Or clients with really crappy manuscripts. This is why thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of writers are still un-agented. Have you hired an editor to review the manuscript and slash it to pieces so that you can restructure from the ground up? Have you mastered the ability to do this yourself? If not, and you’re still struggling to get your foot in the door, then it might be time to take a break from your greatest love—your words—and hack them to pieces in order to take your work to the next level.

Recently I was hired to edit a beautifully written manuscript that was close to 200,000 words. My thoughts: let’s cut this sucker in half! The author’s thoughts: tell me everything is perfect, and I even have some ideas for additional scenes! This author was incredibly talented when it came to the written word, but was terrible at self-editing. He simply couldn’t let go of even one word of his carefully crafted language; not one infinitesimal nuance of his work could be changed, no matter how many times I suggested cuts or edits to improve and streamline his masterpiece. It didn’t matter my reasoning; he was wedded to his words. And he needed a divorce in order to make his novel the best it could be. In the end, I had to wish him the best of luck as he decided to send forth his tome as it was, almost exactly as he had sent it to me (of course, he changed one scene, which to him, was the equivalent of a full revision). Last I heard, he’d sent out one hundred queries and hadn’t had any bites. His inability to self-edit (or let anyone else edit!) will be his downfall. So beyond the number one rule of learn to self-edit or hire and listen to your editor (and even better, do both!), here are a few tips in order to break up with your unnecessary words. 

Read aloud: If your dialogue doesn’t sound authentic, it isn’t. Cut and rewrite until it sounds natural.

There’s nothing worse than stilted dialogue, except perhaps falling off stilts, and even that isn’t so bad if they’re not very tall stilts. Of course, I’m very tall—almost six feet!—so wouldn’t that fall be worse than a tumble, for say, Kim Kardashian? You have to factor in her posterior cushioning as well, which would help with the landing. Now, perhaps if the stilts were less than ten feet and you had the cushioning of Kim Kardashian, then stilted dialogue would.

Don’t be afraid to cut: Saying goodbye to even some of your favorite phrases or scenes can improve your pacing and story exponentially. Every scene and sentence should have a reason for being in your book. If you can’t justify something, cut it. If it’s repetitious, cut it. You must be humble and know that just because you put the words on paper does not make them essential—or even the best for your story. And if your editor tells you that the story is dragging or that a scene isn’t necessary—listen. He or she has no vested interest in destroying a perfect story.  

Don’t be pretentious: If you think you’re God’s gift to writing and use superfluous language to show your pomp, you definitely need to self-edit. In other words, cut the fancy-schmancy crap and join the real world. Or stick to cocktail parties with fellow Academians, and you can all blow smoke up each other’s -----. Hey, this is a family website!  

Destroy adverbs and repetition: I’ve lost track of how many adverbs I’ve red-lined in my day. Most are absolutely unnecessary. Example: The handsome cowboy took her face in his hands. “I love you more than beans and sausage,” he said endearingly. Let the action and words show his endearing tone. Most adverbs are distracting. Many are an excuse to use weak verbs (“He ran quickly” versus “He sprinted”). They also lead to more telling versus showing. 

Of course, these suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg, and self-editing takes time to master, so don’t be afraid to ask for professional help (call me, cowboy). But the best gift you can give your work is a good, strong edit, so remember to embrace these tips and don’t be afraid to divorce those pesky, gratuitous words before they turn into your novel’s ultimate ball and chain.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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