Word by Word Editing

When we edit our manuscripts, it’s important to take a step back. Once ‘The End’ is typed, shove it to the side for a while, at least a few weeks, then bring it back out and begin the editing.

One thing I’ve learned is most crucial to my own editing process, and might work for yours, as well, is to break it down into pages.

Take it page by page, paragraph my paragraph, line by line, word by word.


It can be a time consuming process, but is always rewarding in the extreme. Depending on your genre and style, the type of vocabulary, syntax, formatting, and structure will vary. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

We should look at each word, each sentence, and say to ourselves, “How can I make this sharper? Deeper? More intuitive?”

This process will not, and should not, happen in a first draft. We may have sparks of wickedly good insight and dialogue, but first drafts just get the ideas down on paper. Editing is where the real work begins, and where our genius should rightfully shine.

Say you have a paragraph that looks like this:

Sara walked home from school, lifting her foot higher every so often to avoid tripping on uneven cement. In her backpack was her report card, and she was nervous to show it to her parents. She’d never gotten a C before and wasn’t sure how her dad would react. So she slowed her steps and took the long way home to put off the uncomfortable confrontation as long as possible.

Now, is this paragraph terrible? Is the grammar and sentence structure atrocious?


But it’s not exactly gripping, either. Do I really care what happens to Sara?

Not particularly. Nothing about that paragraph has me intrigued. So she’s afraid to show her report card. That’s something a lot of kids can relate to, so why don’t I care?

Because the paragraph is boring. With a capital B.

How about a revision? And maybe even swapping sentence order to make it more intriguing?

Instead of walking, why doesn’t Sara slunk? Instead of lifting her foot, why doesn’t she sidestep or vault? Instead of being nervous, why isn’t Sara petrified? Why would her dad react poorly to the news? And why didn’t she take the scenic route instead of the long way home?

Tell me if you think this new paragraph works better.

The report card burned a hole in Sara’s backpack, making it weigh a thousand pounds. She slunk home at a snail’s pace, prolonging the inevitable blow-up she’d encounter once there. Wincing at the thought of her dad’s murderous expression over the C she’d received in Calculus, Sara sidestepped a broken slab of sidewalk and veered to the right. She’d take the path through the park, instead. Hopefully she’d brainstorm a way to avoid her father’s wrath and the backhand across her face that would inevitably follow. She slowed her pace and steeled her nerves as the steeply angled pitch of her house came into view over the tops of the trees.

Whoo!!! This is a much more powerful and potent paragraph, don’t you think? It uses more verbs, calls on our emotions, and reveals a secret about Sara’s dad we never would have guessed from the initial paragraph.

Which one would you rather read? Which would you rather write?

Editing should never be done too quickly and without sufficient thought. Take your time, go line by line, word by word, and always remember you should be writing the book you want to read.

Happy writing!


“Merely because you have got something to say that may be of interest to others does not free you from making all due effort to express that something in the best possible medium and form.”

[Letter to Max E. Feckler, Oct. 26, 1914]”
― Jack London


“There is a saying: Genius is perseverance. While genius does not consist entirely of editing, without editing it’s pretty useless.”
― Susan BellThe Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself


15 thoughts on “Word by Word Editing

  1. Great post! It’s so hard to take the time to edit the way manuscripts need to be edited, but that’s a perfect example of how a close edit can really make your words leap off the page and into the heart of your reader. Thanks for motivating me to jump back on the editing horse!

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