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Rewriting and Editing—So Many Possibilities

April 19, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 21, 2016

When you’re faced with a sentence, phrase, or paragraph that needs work or a bit of tweaking, does it sometimes seem as if rewriting is an impossible task? You know the phrasing isn’t quite right, but when you stare at a sentence for a few minutes (and maybe much longer), sometimes the solution hides from you. Maybe it actively runs from you.

Or at least it may seem as if that’s the problem.

Even if that’s not one of your worries today, let me remind you that there are always multiple ways to rework a section of text.

Granted, one way might be perfect in terms of rhythm or tone or word choice. One change may use words that fit a character like the proverbial second skin. One option may address several issues at the same time—and don’t we love it when that’s the case.

And sometimes a number of options carry equal weight, and any one out of half a dozen might work as well as any other. When that happens, you can happily choose one and put that section of text behind you.

The point is, there are always options.


When you’re trying to perfect a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph, don’t limit yourself to the same kinds of solutions every single time. Allow yourself to look for options from different categories of changes, maybe several options from several categories.

Remind yourself that there are always multiple ways to write a sentence and multiple ways to rewrite one.

So if you tend to look at ways to tweak the emotional impact when you search for a stronger sentence, nudge yourself to try a different fix, perhaps to examine word choices for a better fit for the character.

If you usually search first for a change based on the rhythm of the words or phrases, consider looking first at verb choices.

If your answer to problem phrases typically involves choosing different nouns, try looking first at the length of the sentence or phrase to determine whether or not a change in that length wouldn’t produce the perfect string of words.

Just as we all have our go-to preferences for diction and syntax, we also have go-to preferences for fixes. All these habitual choices that we make again and again are part of our style. Yet if you only rework your sentences and paragraphs the same way every time you rewrite, you limit yourself. You certainly impose limits on the text.



Fixes to text can be achieved by manipulating punctuation and grammar as well as through changes to story elements. So you may want to consider changing the structure of a sentence or you may want to look at word choice. You may want to substitute narrative for dialogue or dialogue for narrative.

~  Try switching the object of the sentence to the subject position or the subject to the object position.

Tobey picked up the discarded book.

The discarded book looked lonely to Tobey.

~  Combine sentences or divide sentences. Be aware of rhythm and impact.

The Camry sailed off the side of the bridge. It dropped into the water with a plopping splash. The watching crowd fell silent. Then several children began to yell.

The Camry sailed off the side of the bridge and dropped into the water with a plopping splash. The watching crowd fell silent before several children began to yell.


Tina grabbed Shauna’s wrist and dragged her along Timberside Lane, both girls tripping repeatedly as they struggled to stay ahead of Palanteer and his goons, men unencumbered by three-inch heels and frothy ball gowns.

Tina grabbed Shauna’s wrist and  dragged her down Timberside Lane. Both girls tripped repeatedly as they raced to stay ahead of Palanteer and his goons. The men, unfortunately, weren’t encumbered by heels and balls gowns.

~  Use only one verb rather than stringing together a handful of them. Sometimes a memorable verb can get lost when it’s merely part of a list. On the other hand, linking a series of verbs could create a striking effect.

The two of them slid, twirled, and cartwheeled across the ice.

The two of them cartwheeled across the ice.


Lauren lashed herself to her desk, studied until she’d memorized every page in the textbook, and failed her final when she snoozed through her alarm.


The injured dragon flew erratically before shuddering, diving, and then crashing to the earth.

~  Try gerunds in place of nouns or pronouns. Or use a more accurate—a more pointed—noun.

~  Change euphemistic, vague, or circuitous wording to concrete or explicit words.

Tom needed to go to the bathroom before he got into the car.

Tom had to piss.


The boy wasn’t quite sure whether or not he should smoke the joint.

Johnny dithered over his decision to smoke the joint.

~  Do use hemming and hawing and beating around the bush when doing so fits the characters and the circumstances and you haven’t used the same kind of wording for the last half dozen paragraphs.

~  Use repetition purposely for dramatic effect.

~  Look for ways to use assonance, consonance, or alliteration.

~  Rewrite to eliminate clichés.

~  Add similes. Or cut similes if every character uses them or if there are too many too close together. Cut similes if a character isn’t in the position to come up with clever phrases. Finesse similes to make them clearer.

~  Use connecting words—when, where, so, since, but, yet, otherwise, however, still—to smooth the flow and to help guide readers. On the other hand, don’t spoon-feed readers too much or too often. Allow readers to make some connections on their own.

~  Use a sentence fragment.

~  Turn a fragment into a full sentence.

~  Link back to an earlier event, including a scene of dialogue.

~  Foreshadow.

~  Consider making a character confused about what another has said.

~  Consider cutting a scene short rather than allowing it to drag out.

~  Consider pushing the emotional components of a scene.

~  Consider including more of a buildup before a character explodes.

~  Consider giving a different character the final or the most dramatic line of dialogue.

~  Consider giving a different character the viewpoint duty for a scene.

~  Consider having a different character explode in passion.


Ask Questions

Should you maintain tone or mood or is it time to change direction with either or both?

Does the scene or paragraph require more detail? Less?

Do the words sound right for the impact you need to create? Do they fit with surrounding words? That is, do meanings mesh or do they perhaps set up a jarring contrast? Do words match in terms of their sounds? What about the visual look of words on the page?

It is time to deliberately create a contrast? Think contrast in terms of character behavior, length of the scene, focus of the scene, topic of dialogue, location of the scene, time of day, weather, or even the grouping of characters in the scene.

Is it time to introduce a new element or a change of direction? Is the passage so similar to the one before and the one before that that readers might start snoozing or looking ahead for something different?

Do word choices put too much distance between reader and character, between reader and events, or between reader and emotion?

Can filter and hedge words be cut?

Is the focus turned to the best object, character, or element to create the effect you want to create and to move the plot forward?

Have you given readers another section of explanation, not trusting them to get what you’re saying with hints?

Should narration be rendered as dialogue?

Should dialogue be presented as summary instead?

Does pace change with the intensity of story events?

Is it time for a big event? Is it time for character introspection?

Is it time to introduce a mystery? Is it time to solve a mystery?

Is it time to introduce a new character or perhaps say goodbye to a character?

Is it time to pile on emotional upheavals?

Is it time for a betrayal? How about a tougher challenge for the protagonist? Is it time for a setback?

Is it time for a revelation?

Is it time for a short scene? A long one?

Is it time to slow story events? Speed them up?


When you’re not sure how to change a word, a sentence, a paragraph, or even a longer section of text, consider some of these options and questions. If the scene is especially important—maybe it’s a turning point or even the black moment or climax—consider an option you’ve never before considered as a fix. Look for ways to combine multiple changes in order to ratchet up emotional levels even as you streamline passages of text.

Explore possibilities. If one doesn’t work, try another. Don’t always rely on the same kinds of fixes. Yes, you may be adept with certain techniques, yet you might discover that you’re adept with more than one once you start playing around with possibilities. And you may discover one option works better as a fix for certain problems.

Take a few risks and see if you can’t produce some powerful writing that surprises even you.

Take a few risks and give readers stories that are fresh and vibrant and memorable.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699


Tags: , ,     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Craft & Style, Writing Tips

5 Responses to “Rewriting and Editing—So Many Possibilities”

  1. Deborah says:

    Excellent advice to print and keep on the wall over my writing desk. I’ve spent six months reworking one sentence. If I spend similar time on each subsequence sentence of my 90,000 word novel, it should be ready to publish in 2357 A.D.

    • Deborah, I hope each sentence doesn’t take quite that same length of time. But it’s true that a single sentence can take forever to get right. Especially if it’s the first or the last of a novel.

      I wish you success and a speedier rewriting time—here’s to strategies that help you write, rewrite, and edit creatively as well as efficiently.