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How to edit your writing, part 3

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And on with part 3 of thoughts and tips on self-editing.

All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.

Filter words

These words stand between the author and the reader, creating distance. If we want to deepen point-of-view, immersing the reader in the character’s mind and thoughts, these words should be cut away. Consider the following.

She started to run away from the man, and saw an alleyway coming up ahead. She ran into the alley, feeling her heart racing in her chest. She heard his footsteps behind her. She felt as if she could not escape, and deciding to stand her ground this time, she turned to face her attacker.

She ran from her attacker and ducked into an alley. Her heartbeat kept pace with the footsteps racing ever closer. He would find her, it was a dead end, no escape. She took a breath, and turned to face him. This time, she would stand her ground.

The words in italics describe the woman’s sensations and thoughts. The second example is not perfect, but we are much closer to the character and her reactions. It feels more immediate. Emma Darwin describes filtering very clearly in this post on her blog This itch of writing. Well worth a read.

Passive vs active voice

The boy was hit by the ball. (passive)
The ball hit the boy. (active)

Passive voice is disliked by modern writers. (passive)
Modern writers dislike passive voice. (active)

Passive voice uses the construction object-verb-subject. Sometimes it is the right choice, but usually starting with the subject, or active principle, sounds and reads better. As the examples show, active voice also gives a shorter, punchier sentence. Once again, the Hemingway app is your friend. You don’t have to accept all its suggestions, but they are often correct.

Reading aloud is the second way to find what works. Remember, the reader is essentially reading silently in their head. Anything that causes them to stumble, risks pulling them out of the story.


If you have read craft books, or advice blogs, or lists of what not to do in stories, flashbacks are always mentioned. The truth is, writing rules are guidelines. You can do almost anything, as long as you do it well. That means you must know the rules, before you break them. A character muses, or remembers events from the past that have a direct bearing on the present. This is backstory, and it needs careful handling.The main thing is to take the reader with you. They must be certain of where and when the events took place. You can start with past perfect tense.

“She had not thought about that day in years.”

Then switch to simple past tense to describe the events.

“He looked so handsome in his tuxedo that night, and she couldn’t believe she was going to the prom as his date.”

At the end, signal that this past time is over.

“The telephone rang, pulling her from her daydream. She tore the photo in tiny pieces and dropped them in the bin, consigning them to the past where they belonged.”

A flashback should not be an information dump. Huge chunks of backstory are indigestible and stop the narrative flow. Find a way to work it into dialogue or action. Don’t let characters spend too much time introspecting either. It’s boring and rarely advances the action.

When two characters discuss the past they must avoid telling what the other should already know. But it’s a great opportunity to slip information (or misinformation) into the story, and show characters in action. Once again Emma Darwin goes into detail here.

Next time: beginnings, middles, and ends. See you there.

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