The Meaning of Words – Editing Tips

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.
– Robert Cormier

Writing is story telling. Writers, regardless of our discipline, need to pick not a correct word but the best possible one. In the legal profession, there’s a growing trend calling for plain writing. Courts have held that the word “solicit” is ambiguous because it has more than one meaning. “Exclusive” can mean “concurrent.” No wonder the English language is so hard. My writing must express what I mean clearly and effectively regardless of who reads it. Making my meaning clear is part of the editing process.

So how does the word “shall” end up meaning “may”? Context. When a sentence read as a whole expresses an option rather than a directive, “shall” means “may”. What does this quirk of the courts have to do with editing? Everything. Word choices matter.

When talking about writing and editing, Lisa Scottoline,, says to give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft. Do this. It’s easier to finish a story if you’re not worrying about “perfect.” Errors are fixed when you finish the first draft. Editing transforms that crappy first draft into a polished project. So how do I edit to take a diamond in the rough to a polished gem? I usually follow this line-editing procedure:

(1) Spell check

An obvious step, but people forget to do this.

(2) Search for :

a. common homonyms to ensure I used the proper word;

b. the verb “to be” in all its forms and passive voice;

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than acting. Passive voice will often use a “to be” verb. Examples:

The ball was thrown – passive voice with a “to be” verb
Pete threw the ball – active voice

c. words ending in “-ly”.

I don’t have any objection to “-ly” words, but often a stronger word can be used. “He slunk around the corner” is a stronger sentence than “he walked stealthily around the corner.”

d. pronouns to ensure who or what they refer to is clear;

Be careful with pronouns. Writing clearly means ensuring the reader knows what each pronoun refers to. When two same-gendered characters. or characters with unisex names interact, you will need to be mindful that your pronouns refer to the character you intend them to.

(3) similes.

A common writing “rule” is to avoid similes or clichés. There’s nothing wrong with a good simile. But good is the key word. Entrenched similes become clichés. “In for a penny, in for a pound” is one.

Using a cliché can help you if you turn the saying on its head. Instead of saying that “every cloud has a silver lining,” you could say, “every cloud has a lightning bolt with my name on it.” By changing the meaning of this tired expression, I’ve added interest to the writing.

(4) Read for description enhancement by word choice, and context to ensure I haven’t inadvertently changed meaning.

The sentence “Pete walked into the room” conveys a different image than “Pete stumbled into the boardroom.”

Specifics matter. The first example – Pete walked – gives the reader no additional information. The sentence paints with just a pencil.

“Pete stumbled into the boardroom,” on the other hand, triggers associations. It’s painting with oils. He stumbles and the reader wonders if Pete’s drunk, injured or been pushed. By placing Pete in a “boardroom”, I can see Pete in his a suit, and imagine the large mahogany table surrounded by a dozen black chairs and dark paneling on the walls. I can add a twist by changing the ordinary images the words convey. I can grab the reader’s attention if Pete is wearing rags when he stumbles into the boardroom. Similarly, if the room is a “board room” full of surf boards, the words convey different images. The subtle differences in meaning we can convey with the right word is why writers are always told to “show, not tell.”

(5) Grammar check.

I know it seems like a lot of work, and it is, but the finished product will be better for the effort. Once I’ve line-edited, I can strengthen the story by context editing for plot holes, character inconsistencies, tension and other craft issues.
Plain writing doesn’t mean boring. It means using each word to its maximum advantage to produce clean, clear and professional prose.

About Nancy

I'm a mommy, writer and lawyer. I've been a lawyer for over 20 years and live on a horse farm in Virginia with my Hubby and two boys. A "normal day" starts at 5 am and doesn't end until 11 pm during which I take care of farm animals, run a law practice, get a bit of writing in and spend time with the boys. When I say I have a normal life, people look at me funny. I'm not sure why.

4 responses on “The Meaning of Words – Editing Tips

  1. Colette

    I think the book, “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print” is a great resource as are Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl books, and the ever-popular Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” I think every writer needs to read at least a couple of these at least once before they’ll be ready to sell anything. Yes, yes, I know there are exceptions, but it’s still a good idea to read a good book on grammar.

  2. clancy

    Having just read an email from someone that had no punctuation and cringe-worthy grammar, can I just say – YES! Editing is crucial to a book (and to e-mails – if I may get on my soapbox). I’ll stop reading a book if I find too many editing mistakes. I think perfection is an unrealistic expectation, but give it your best effort. My favorite quote applies here – “Excellence, not perfection.”

  3. Frank Morin

    I agree with what you’ve said. I’m editing a manuscript right now and going through this process. Part of me wants to believe that what I wrote is really what I thought I wrote. Life would be so much easier that way.

    One question: You mention that you context edit after you line edit. How does that work for you? I tend to go the other way: finish a draft, identify plot holes and issues, usually with the help of beta readers who can handle the rough text. Once I fix the holes and the story is what I think it should be, I move down to the detailed line editing.

  4. Nancy


    I don’t really read when I line edit. A lot of the line editing is done by using Word’s “search” function. So I’ll search for “there” and make sure I meant to use that version of the word. rather than a homonym. My issue spotting is limited to the particular item I’m looking for. I’ll probably make 7 or 8 passes of the whole document that way. Whatever reading I’ve done is disjointed.

    Once I’m reasonably sure the draft’s mechanics are reasonably clean, I can then read for content and ignore all but the most glaring technical issues. I find if I try to do the content edit first, I get stuck on details like comma placement (which is always an issue for me), and don’t actually read.

    Whatever works best for you is what you should do.

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