Tips for Self-Editing, With Words from EVENT’s Editor
Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, Sir. — Emily Dickinson
From Writing to Editing
Self-editing is surely a monster’s craft, something forged from the other side of the looking glass. You can spend months working on a piece of writing, refining its images, placing sly metaphors among sugar-dipped descriptions. You can open your heart, old wounds, splinter boxes of faint memories and splay them across the page with the final catharsis that is true art-making. After all of that work and upheaval, you may have a piece of writing that is readable, perhaps even publishable, and at the very least it is finished and you can walk away. Right?
But writing is only the first step. To create a truly publishable piece of work—before approaching a professional editor—you need to refine and edit your piece. Self-editing is a skill that all writers, whether emerging or established, have to master if they want to market their work to the public.
Self-editing is your first line of defence before you send your work off to a professional editor. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, and tense issues will ideally be corrected before you ask for professional help (see: ideally). If you have trouble with any of these issues, consider installing a program like Grammarly that can help you catch pesky GPS errors at the start. For everything else, there’s proofreading.
To better understand editing techniques, I spoke with writer, professor, and editor Shashi Bhat about her experience editing, self-editing, and teaching editing to students.
How to Edit Your Work
1. Take a Step Back
Shashi says that one of the biggest challenges that she faces when editing her work is not having enough distance to view it objectively. She suggests that if you have been spending a lot of time on one project, it may be best to take a break. Once some time has passed you will be able to see your errors more clearly and understand where to cut down. The trick is to “look at the story as though it belongs to somebody else.” Take yourself out of the picture and try to look at your work through the eyes of your audience.
It is also good to move away from editing as-you-go. Instead, make editing a job of its own. Write better by editing later! If you want to get any writing done, you will want to stay away from scrolling up, line by line, and editing the sentences that you just wrote (although it is very, very, tempting to do so).
2. Cut! And Then Cut Some More
You’ve likely heard the famous quote from William Faulkner, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” This refers to the honoured method of cutting scenes, phrases, or characters that you may be emotionally attached to but which are not contributing value to the story.
Good editing means that the story is an intentional creation and that every detail leads you into the overarching message. One way to be sure that you aren’t clogging up your story with extra details is to ask yourself, “What is this story about?” Once you know what you want to portray to the reader, you can take out any extra scenes, sentences, or characters that don’t relay that message.
Shashi Bhat on learning better self-editing techniques: “[Over the years] I’ve learned to revise more drastically, to be willing to drop a story on the ground and let it shatter into pieces to see what happens, i.e. to not be too attached to the original draft.”
3. Get Physical
It can be useful to view editing as a multimedia task. Reading the same lines over and over again can be dizzying and may even be the reason that you miss important details. Try printing out your work physically and reading it. If you are planning to publish in print this can be especially helpful, as you want to know what your work will look like in its final form.
From there, you can begin to cut out scenes with scissors and lay the project out flat. This allows you to see what the story would look like in different arrangements, which can help with the flow of a story.
Shashi says, “If I’m revising a sort-of modular story with many subplots, I like to use scissors to physically cut it up, then try removing sections and moving sections around to see how it affects the narrative shape. What doesn’t work for me (in the earlier stages of revision) is just looking at a draft on my computer and going through line by line—the changes end up being simply cosmetic. Once I’m at the polishing stage, that kind of process makes more sense.”
4. Read Out Loud
Reading your writing out loud is one of the best methods of finding errors. Most people speak more than they write. That means that most of us will have more experience with spoken language than we will with written words.
Reading your work out loud can help you to understand the rhythm of the language, find sentences that drone on too long, or descriptions that don’t quite hit the mark. This method can also help to weed out redundancies or passages that don’t connect with the rest of the piece.
More Tips from Shashi
“[When teaching students editing skills] I give them a variety of exercises like the one above, to shake things up. With my poetry class, for example, I’ll have them re-write a poem from a different point of view, or re-write it with the last line as the first line, putting the whole poem in reverse chronological order, or re-write it with extreme changes to the line breaks. I tell them that these are just experiments, ways of seeing the poem with new eyes and that if they want to go back to their original draft, they always can. In a beginning writing class, there’s sometimes the belief that spontaneous thought makes for the best writing, that editing is the enemy of creativity. As a counter-argument, I like to show them the editing process of professional writers, like in this New York Times article.”
Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.