I’ve heard the expression “put every word on trial for its life” several times in referee to editing, but the most recent was in Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. She writes,
as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.
There is much to be said in favor of turning off your inner editor and just writing your first draft. But after that initial act of putting words on paper (or into your computer), each word must prove it has a right to stay where you wrote it.
I’m currently re-editing the novel I previously wrote about as (almost) finished. I’ve found a critique partner. We’re only two chapters in and he’s already providing feedback that is truly helpful. I’m really starting to believe this story will be ready to start submitting in the not-too-distant future.
If you’re in the process of editing one of your own stories, I highly recommend putting “every word on trial.” Be a ruthless critic and cut or replace every word that doesn’t fit just right. Easier said than done, I know, but for me at least it’s starting to get easier now that I’m working on the umpteenth edit.