Murdering your darlingsisn't enough.
It's hard to edit your own work. When you write something, you spend time with the piece and become too intimate with it. You can no longer see your work as an outsider would. Here are a few things you can do to break that familiarity and make improvements to your first draft.
Let it sit. You'll be less encumbered by intimacy if you give yourself time to forget the details, the process, and how it felt to spin each turn of phrase. After you've written something, put it away for a week if you can.
Take out the first paragraph. That's where you get up to speed and figure out how to begin. The reader is already up to speed and doesn't need it. If that's too much for you, just take out the first sentence. Try it, and see if the piece suffers.
Look to the left. Look to the left of that, which, and prepositions like of or to. You might just find an in the case of or a due to the fact that to replace with a when or a because. You can often find useless phrases near words like area, aspect, case, consideration, degree, factor, and situation.
Seek and destroy adverbs. Not every adverb is bad, but you should force every adverb to earn its keep. If an adverb can be removed, do it. Look for adverbial phrases such as in general that don't look like adverbs but do act like them.
Minimize expletives. Expletives are phrases like there are, it is, there will be that often appear at the beginnings of sentences. You can get rid of them in most cases. For example, change there are stairs that descend to the crypt to stairs descend to the crypt.
Get rid of 5-dollar words. Don't say utilize if you can say use. Don't say comprise—you know what it means, but your reader doesn't. Don't say concision unless you mean to be unfriendly. Write plainly.
Take out words about the piece itself. If you can, get rid of things like this document will or the sections below describe. Make the structure of the piece obvious so you don't have to say such things.
Check every pronoun. Every he, she, it, they, them stands for a noun that comes before. Is it absolutely clear which noun each pronoun stands for? Make sure.
Thin the adjective herd. A strong noun is better than a weaker noun loaded with adjectives. Any time time you can change big, tall tree to oak, do it. Keep the adjectives you need.
Take care of your subject and predicate. In English, every sentence centers on a subject and a predicate. Simplify your sentences. Break up anything over 30 words. Don't make it hard for the reader to know what verb goes with what noun. Simplify everything!
Add topic sentences. A topic sentence is a summary of what the rest of the paragraph is about. If you find that a transition between two paragraphs is rough, you're probably missing a topic sentence.
Seek and destroy ambiguity. Look for words that can be either nouns and verbs. Look for dangling dependent clauses or participles. If that's too much grammar, read each sentence and ask yourself whether there's a double meaning.
Use the passive voice intentionally. The passive voice has several specific uses. If you're not doing one of those things, rewrite in the active voice. Use the passive only when you need to.
Read it out loud. Does it sound weird when you read it? Can you imagine yourself saying these words? Reading the piece out loud can help you find and fix problems. The goal is to write as you would speak. For bonus points: read aloud the topic sentence for each paragraph, in order, to make sure the flow of ideas is good.
This is not a complete list, of course, but if you do these things you can make great improvements to something you've just written.
"Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings." —Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944), On the Art of Writing, 1916.
#15. Read good writing, so you know what you are aiming for!