How to polish a turd

Hand-written pages with x'ed out parts
Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

I’ve been there. You’ve spent four hours crafting the perfect article. You’ve read it four times already. You just wanna hit ‘publish’ and be done with it.


Your article isn’t done yet. It’s not as good as it could be. If you release it now, all of your hard work will be wasted. It doesn’t matter how well you tried to make it perfect. You just didn’t. I’m sorry. It’s almost impossible to nail a piece of writing on the first pass. I mean it’s possible, but those are the people we like to call “genius.”

If you are a genius, you have my permission to stop reading now. Don’t forget to tip the staff.

I’m glad they left. They had important genius-level writing to do. Maybe there was an airplane that needed landing. A puppy to save?


Now that the poindexters are gone, we can work together to improve your writing.

Almost any piece of writing can be improved (even if you’re a genius, but don’t tell them). There are 3 types of edits for any piece of writing, long or short. You want to put your best foot forward. Some readers are ultra-snobby. They’ll bail the second they deem you to be less-than-professional. One mis-spelled word, and the claws come out.

When you’re done with your article, the first thing you need to do is give it some space to rest. Different authors recommend different lengths of time. The longer the piece, the more time you should spend away. For shorter pieces, I take at least a day away. For something novel-length, I take about a month. Take this time to write something new.

If you’re anything like me, you’re sick and tired of a piece after being so close to it. Not sick of it yet? Start by revising it four times.

When I was editing my first novel, I did not want to read the same plot again.

Danger, Will Robinson! When you’re at this point of frustration, you will let small errors go by without fixing them. You will also miss silly errors. You will start to read what you meant to say and not what you actually said.

If you’re sick and tired of your piece, go away for awhile. Come back when you are excited about it again. If you’re not excited, your reader will not be.

Structural Edit

1 The first type of edit for a story is a structural edit. This is a broad-strokes edit. Come at your piece with a hacksaw or a hedge trimmer. Maybe an axe?

In this phase, you’re looking at your piece through squinted eyes. Does it “work?” If I was a publisher, do I see a diamond in the rough? What would make it really “pop?” What would make it “snappy?” What would make it “better?”

Here’s where you kill off characters, rearrange the story, and change the plot. Any changes you make early on will cascade through your whole work. You should do this with fresh eyes. You need to note every little detail, and where in the book that is located (for a novelist).

Bring some dry britches, too. Sometimes the plot will surprise you.

This is where you “kill your darlings.”

If something is a little funny, make it hysterical. If something is kinda fun, turn it into an adventure. This is your chance to turn up the intensity to 11. Pretend you’re a Hollywood producer. Everything is BIG, baby! It’s like The Rock had a baby with Chuck Norris… on a cruise ship! Did you get that package I sent you? Have your answering machine call my machine! Who loves you, baby? THIS GUY!

Oh no. I’ve done it again, didn’t I? I was channeling a Hollywood producer again. I hate that!

Back to our structural edit…

See how much you can trim off and still have the story work. Backstories? Kill ‘em. Extra characters? Give ‘em the axe. Shorten your sentences. A really, really simple first step is to kill every “-ly” word. If a sentence doesn’t work when you pull out the “-ly” word, you have a chance to make your words stronger. Show, don’t tell. You will also pull out those awkward kinds-sorta-word. Is exasperatedly a word? It is (yes), but don’t use it (no).

(Starts rolling up a magazine…)

That is a BAD writer!

Line Edit

2 AFTER your structural edit, next is the line edit. This order is very important. You want to make your broad changes before you come in with the fine details.

At this stage, the editor will take a piece line by line and offer suggestions. This is usually cutting words, using different words, and rearranging sentences.

I made the rookie mistake with my first novel. I paid an editor to come in and perform a line edit without first performing a structural edit. This was wrong wrong wrong for two reasons:

1. I had my rose-colored glasses on. This ended up costing more than the novel profited.

2. I made major changes to the plot and order of the story. This ended up making the line edits largely useless.

It’s like making a perfect steak and then grinding the whole thing into hamburger.

Decide on the house structure before you start buying curtains.

I bury my head in my hands to think of mistakes I made on that first novel. That’s how you learn, right? It’s not fun to waste time and money. Get a mentor who can show you the ropes.

Back to editing…


3 AFTER the line edit, you can start laying out your masterpiece. For an article on your blog, that means doing a copy-and-paste and finding a good image. You can use an app like Hemingway to suggest changes. This would at the line-edit stage.

If you’re writing a book for Amazon, you will be doing the layout and submitting it online. There are tutorials a-plenty on how to do this magic trick. I won’t cover that whole business here. It’s good practice to go through once. After that, you’ll forget the complicated process. Know that you can pull it off when the time comes again.

Did I digress again?

The final edit is proofreading. This is taking a very close, very detailed look at your final copy. This should be on a printed version (a printer will give you a “proof”). If it’s an online article, printed a copy on your dot matrix printer.

This stage is looking for fine details and mistakes. This could be a spelling error. This could be missing punctuation. This could be a totally lame mistake that you just never saw before. If an actual printer is involved, it might not even be your mistake.

Shit happens.

I produced my whole novel and then realized that my software didn’t include the footer (with page number). This is no big deal for an online article. This is a huge deal for a 500-page book.

Of course, this was all user-error. There was a simple checkbox to include a footer (shouldn’t that be the default?)

How much should I expect to pay?

Professional editors are expensive. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but most writers are starving. Most of us don’t have two nickels to rub together.

I spent around $700 on my line edit. I don’t have to remind you what a waste of money that was. Not because it was sub-standard, but I was green. Any editor worth their salt should be able to tell if a piece still needs some structural edits before a line-edit.

Think of the thesis paper you got back in high school. If it said, “Needs Improvement” then the piece needed a structural edit. If it got a “B” then it could have used a line edit. If it got an “A-” it just needed a proof.

Editors usually charge by the word. That makes the bill range from mild to ridiculous.

If you’re poor, you can always do a self-edit. Take some time away from the piece and then perform the edits with the three phases in mind. If you’re a fiction writer, I recommend the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (no affiliation). I got a lot out of it. In fact, this is the book I read after my very expensive line-edit. It helped me with the structural edit, too.

I still keep in mind some of the lessons I learned from that book. It has been absorbed into the collective. I am MW of borg!

I am now releasing a new and improved version two of my novel. Check it out!

It’s a fun combination of science-fiction and fantasy.

The world looks forward to reading your masterpiece!

Just make sure you put the final touches on it first.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.