Five Tips for Cleaner Writing

Self-editing doesn’t just have to be about the big stuff like plot, characters, or descriptions, and it doesn’t just have to be about fixing sticky grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. There are other things that writers don’t always think about when cleaning up their work, but adding these to your self-editing checklist will help polish your writing to make it shine for publishers and engage your readers.

1. Trim Wordiness

Wordiness can stem from how we would use language in speech, and that’s okay when we have other things to help engage us in a spoken story: facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. In writing, though, we only have the words themselves. Cutting back on “couch potato” words can make sentences more active and engaging. Take the following example:

There were thousands of screaming fans packing the arena.

Though the sentence sounds fine, we can make it better by trimming the generic words “there were,” because those words don’t do anything. Like couch potatoes. We can make it more active like this:

Thousands of screaming fans packed the arena.

Compare these two sentences and see which one is more active and engaging. We see the same results when we trim “there is” from a sentence.

There is an ambulance rushing to the scene.

can become

An ambulance rushes to the scene.

Analyze your sentences to see if any couch potatoes are hanging around, and kick them out.

2. Unscramble Misplaced Modifiers

This is another one that can stem from our use of spoken language in writing. Sometimes a sentence that makes sense when spoken doesn’t quite translate when written. Take this example:

I saw a hawk on the way to work.

Was the hawk wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase? Likely not. Let’s try this:

On the way to work, I saw a hawk.

Now we know who is actually going to work. You might say that the original was fine, easy to understand. Perhaps, but you can’t bet on that. Something like the following is even worse:

At almost 50,000 years old, the archeologists believe their specimens are the oldest ever discovered.

This makes it sound like the archeologists are 50,000 years old. We need to move that modifier closer to the object it’s modifying. A way to fix it would be like this:

The archeologists believe their specimens, almost 50,000 years old, are the oldest ever discovered.

Again you may have though the original was clear enough. But careful readers will stumble and be confused.

3. Redundancy

Somewhat in the same vein as wordiness, redundancy is something that pops up naturally, and because it is so natural we don’t always notice. Careful consideration can clean up some unnecessary junk.

The restaurant offers seven different vegetarian entrees.

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, but in reality we don’t need to specify that the seven entrees are different. It is implied when we state the number of them.

The restaurant offers seven vegetarian entrees.

Cleaner and straight to the point. This can also happen when we feel the need to be descriptive:

I visited the tall, steel skyscraper.

Skyscrapers are usually pretty tall and not made out of wood or brick, so these things are redundant. We need to choose more unique descriptors to help this particular building stand out.

I visited the silver skyscraper with the tall, tinted windows.

Every building is unique, so we need to make it feel as such in our writing.

4. Overcooked Metaphors

As creative writers we sometimes like to use metaphor to help illustrate a scene or a character’s feelings, and this is a wonderful and useful tool. A good writer will use them only when it can truly add to the story, and to aid the reader in feeling more about what is going on in a scene. Occasionally, writers can get a bit carried away with this tool, and something like this happens:

The plan had erupted into a volcano of controversy that had cracked a seismic chasm in the community.

This is a very intense metaphor that certainly describes the tremendous impact the plan has had on the community. But it’s overcooked; a volcanic eruption and an earthquake? We don’t need that much metaphor to illustrate a serious situation. We can choose one of these metaphors and make it work.

Controversy over the plan cracked a seismic chasm in the community.

Sticking with the earthquake metaphor illustrates the impact clearly and tactfully.

5. Rambling Sentences

When I say rambling sentences I don’t necessarily mean run-on sentences. In creative writing, run-on sentences are totally okay—unless you do it too much, then the reader gets lost. Rambling sentences are just that; they ramble on about a subject to the point of confusion, and is usually resolved by cutting it into multiple sentences. Here’s a rambler:

The three-day annual festival SummerBlast is known for its grand concerts, one of the first festivals to host big-name bands, and includes local acts performing cover songs.

This sentence was painful to write, but it is a good example of a long sentence gone wrong. Many writers feel the need to have long sentences because it flows more, keeps things moving. Short sentences are choppier and can affect the mood of a scene. Both are useful at the right time. We can still split this up while keeping enough flow.

One of the first festivals to host big-name bands, the annual SummerBlast is known for its grand concerts. Over three days, fans are treated to their favorite songs, both by well-known bands and local acts.

By adding a little flair to what was already included, I was able to create two sentences that each flow well on their own, and flow together, making this fictitious festival sound more interesting.

Feeling Clean?

Don’t be afraid to clean up, and don’t try to hold onto something that the story might be better off without. We writers tend to get attached to certain ways we have worded things in our stories, but part of self-editing is re-evaluating even those bits we are so confident about. What makes sense in a writer’s head won’t always make sense to anyone else. Got that super awesome metaphor collection or long, descriptive sentences that you just love? Try to see things from a reader’s point of view; can someone else follow your train of thought? When in doubt, get a second pair of eyes to give you a valuable outsider’s perspective.