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Lessons Learned on Self-Editing

By Donna Volkenannt

Turning off my internal editor was one of the hardest writing habits I had to break. Early in my writing career I plodded along, editing as I wrote, with little to show for my efforts. My excuse was, “I’m a slow writer.” Then one day I received a freelance assignment with a short deadline. With no time to spare, I switched off my internal editor’s voice and listened to my creative writer’s voice. To my surprise, the words flowed freely. I finished my assignment with enough time to complete a thorough edit after my draft was written.

The write-first, edit-later method has worked for me, but it might not work for everyone. Here are some lessons I’ve learned, along with words of wisdom from well-known writers and members of Coffee and Critique, my writing group.

Nobody gets it right the first time. When I started writing professionally, I put pressure on myself to get my words down perfectly the first time. It didn’t happen. I became frustrated and suffered from writer’s block. According to Margaret Atwood, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”

Finish it. Once I gave myself permission to write less-than-stellar drafts, I felt free. I finished more of what I started—and my writing quality improved. Neil Gaiman recommends, “Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.”

Let it sit. Now, after my draft is complete, I put it aside overnight, and sometimes even longer. Critique member Jane Hamilton suggests, “Let it simmer.”

Break it into chunks. Self-editing is more than correcting grammar and punctuation mistakes; it’s a process of examining every part of a manuscript to make sure it’s polished. Tackling an entire work-in-progress at once can be overwhelming, so I don’t attempt it in one sitting. Critique partner Doyle Suit advises, “Take a break. If not you’ll lose concentration.”

Print it out and read it out loud. After my manuscript has simmered, I print out a hard copy then read it out loud away from my desk. During revisions I examine my work with new eyes—and ears. Reading from a printed copy helps me spot mistakes, and it also lets me enjoy what I’ve written. Joyce Carol Oates once said, “The pleasure is the rewriting.”

Start at the beginning. I ask myself: Does the title grab the reader’s attention? Does it hint of what’s to come? If not, I ask my critique group for suggestions. Sometimes publishers change titles. Here are some famous book titles that were changed: Atticus became the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Tomorrow is Another Day is better known as Gone with the Wind, and First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice.

Look at the big picture. During my initial reading I concentrate on the broad scope, adjusting my focus for fiction and non-fiction.

For short stories some questions I ask myself are: Who is my audience? Have I oriented my reader to the setting? Are my characters unique and interesting? Does my main character grow or change? Have I used the appropriate point of view? Is the pacing right? Is the tone consistent? Are there gaps in the plot? Does my story have conflict? Is my story engaging? Is there a beginning, a middle, and an end? Have I started too early or too late? Have I wrapped up all the loose ends? Is the ending satisfying?

For nonfiction I ask: Who is my audience? Is my opening appealing? Is this the idea I meant to convey? Is it logical? Is it clear? Is it concise? Is it engaging? Does it have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Are my facts correct? Is the ending satisfying? As I read, I make notes on the printed copy so I know which areas to correct later. Critique partner Alice Muschany recommends writers “Polish, polish, polish.”

Focus on sentences and paragraphs. Next, I examine sentences and paragraphs, looking for: repetitions, awkward structures, telling rather than showing, passive voice, lack of transitions, wordiness, lack of white space, and other flaws that need to be corrected or eliminated. Elmore Leonard offered this advice, “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” On the topic of revision, Truman Capote once said, “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Use clear and concise words. During this review, I ask myself: Have I used concrete, specific words which convey clear images? Have I included words that evoke emotion or appeal to the senses? Have I used the best word? Ernest Hemmingway rewrote the last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times to get the words right. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Check for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. I check the publisher’s guidelines to determine which style manual the editors prefer, or if they have their own specific guidelines. My last step in the self-editing process is proofreading. During this phase, I catch spelling errors, typos, missing words, double words, punctuation, and other hiccups. I’ve learned not to rely on Spell Check, and I limit my use of semicolons and exclamation points. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, authors Browne and King suggest, “Even editors, when they are writing, need editors.” Critique partner Marcia Gaye, agrees, “Don’t be the last set of eyes on your work.”

Ask for help then use what works. If I hadn’t joined a critique group I might not have found the courage to become a professional writer. While I value their advice and use many of their suggestions, in the end, I use what I feel works best. Coffee and Critique member Charles Rogers has taken his own advice to “Join a writers’ group.”

Study and learn. Here are a few writing and editing books I’ve found helpful: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the AP Stylebook. The Purdue Online Writing Lab is another useful resource.

Find your way. There is no one-size-fits-all, this-is-the-only-way-to-do-it self-editing method. Turning off my internal editor has done wonders for me, but it might not work for everyone. I suggest finding a method that works for you.

Know when to quit. It’s hard to let go after I’ve worked on a manuscript for days or even months, but at some point I realize it’s time to quit fiddling, hit the Send button, and move on to my next project. Critique member Jack Zerr knows it’s time to quit when, “I keep cutting stuff out until I have to start putting stuff back in.” Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite writers, said it best, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God.”

Happy self-editing!

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