How can a writer and editor edit her own writing? A book editor and freelance writer gives tips on how she does it.
– February 11, 2004
Editors don't often call themselves writers, and vice versa, because writing and editing are two largely different skill sets that don't always live under the same roof. So where does that leave writers who want to edit their own work a bit, people who prefer to polish their drafts before turning them in? It's possible to edit yourself, but it's not always easy: Editing one's own writing requires the ability to chisel away at work one created and labored over.
Editing yourself—forgive the metaphor—is like making a good split-pea soup. You've got to skim away the yummy chunks, the tasty herbs, all those great ideas you threw in at the get-go—and then blend, blend, skim, and blend, for that nice, smooth finished product. You're sad to do it, because you chose all those good ingredients in the first place, but you also remember that when the finished, blended soup is good, it's really good. Well-edited writing, similarly, is beautiful, and it's worth it to make that first, painful, editing pass on your own.
Good self-editing can start even before the writing does, with good outlines. Many of us writers put together some sort of outline before plunging into writing a piece. But how many of us stick to it? I tend to create an outline and revise it to death—at which point I just write my piece. Perhaps I'm using outlining as a way to procrastinate, but I prefer to think of it as laying a strong framework and base for my piece. Sometimes whatever I end up writing is only inspired by my original outline, containing a hint of the outline that gave birth to it. This risky endeavor sometimes leads to greatness, a piece stronger than I could ever have imagined in the 20th draft of outlining. But usually what I get is a mess of writing that needs a lot of polish before it'll be understood by anyone other than me. But when I actually use my outline as a roadmap, following it point-by-point through the piece, I tend to end up with work that is near-final, needing only minor tweaking and no major structural changes. And this is always helpful when working on a tight deadline. Pre-editing—and sticking to that pre-edit—works.
Once you've cracked into the piece, you might feel compelled to edit as you go. I've heard some writers talk about how they spend lots of time on each sentence, rolling it over and over on their tongues before moving on, making sure everything about it, and about the way it links to the next, is perfect before moving on. For writers who work that way, it often means that once they finish writing, they're finished. Having actively and aggressively edited as they worked, they tend to be quite happy with the end product. But, on the other hand, it's taken them a lot longer to get there, and it's a disaster if you find you're not happy with the end product after all the work you've put in. It's also tough to do this. Those who can edit as they work have a rare talent; they can instantly step back from writing they're extremely close to and look at it from an objective standpoint. I prefer to spew a whole bunch of thoughts onto a page in some sort of order, and then sculpt my creation—but if you can edit on the spot, go for it. Though it might be time-consuming, it usually means less work for you in the end.
Though I can't edit as I go, when writing articles, I do always think about a question often posed by a favorite professor of mine in college: “So what?” It's a simple question, but oh-so-helpful when trying to make a point in writing—and trying to make that point clearly. The technique for applying it is simple: as you work your way through each paragraph, ask yourself what your point is. Become a pain in your own butt about it. You might find yourself a tad cranky and annoyed after going through this exercise, but I promise it'll lead to a stronger piece than you would have written had you not asked the question.
You might also try mapping your writing, especially if you didn't stick to your original outline. I do this when editing other people's writing, and sometimes I'll do it with my own. It helps me figure out the shape of the piece, what should stay and what should go. Basically what you're doing is outlining in reverse; examining your piece and plotting out the shape it's taken, paragraph by paragraph. When I'm looking at just the skeleton of the piece I've written, it's much easier for me to see what belongs and what doesn't than when I'm reading and re-reading the entire piece.
Once you've finished writing, try putting it away for a while. A day, a week—however long it'll take you to nearly forget about it. Most writers I know agree that this is the only way they're able to hack into their writing effectively. This sort of skill is especially handy when you need to somehow hack your 5,000-word masterpiece down to the 2,500 words you've been assigned. You'll have to be able to look at your own writing—your baby—objectively to do it. Revise those metaphors you thought were beautiful when you wrote them but don't mean a darned thing, lose paragraphs that you felt at the time were essential to your line of reasoning but aren't in the least. I can't possibly lose chunks of my writing immediately after finishing; I'm too close to it. If I thought anything I wrote wasn't important, why did I write it? But once I've put it away for a while, and perhaps have started writing something else, it's much easier to get in there. Of course, this takes some advance planning. If you're working against a tight deadline, you might not be able to afford more time away than a bathroom break. But, even so, a bathroom break is worth it. Pause for any amount of time you can take.
And what about doing those 2,500 words of cuts? How to even get started on that? A good place: Take a second look at your original first few paragraphs (or more, depending on how long the piece is), and see if they're necessary. I've seen countless cases of writers taking a long time to get to their point. There's nothing wrong with a nice, entertaining lede, but hooking your reader is key—and a long way to get to your point might cause your reader to lose interest. Try cutting the first paragraph or two, and see what you've got. You might be surprised to find a new, snappier introduction to your piece.
And also be sure to focus on the finale. Ask yourself whether the conclusion satisfies the needs of the rest of the piece and if it will satisfy the reader. There are few things more irritating than too abrupt an ending, or one that doesn't seem to finish a piece at all. Your aim, when crafting the conclusion, is to close up the piece—or, if you plan on writing a sequel, closing up what you've written and leaving a few question for the reader that will pleasantly linger in his/her head. So before you turn your piece in to your editor, make sure you've got this nailed. You'll probably have to nail it sooner or later—few editors will let a weak ending get by.
By doing all this editorial work before your piece goes to Editorial—if you can do it well—not only will you ensure that your piece looks in print much as it did when you turned it in, but you should get more work. Because the cleaner a piece comes in, the less work an editor needs to do on it. And this makes a happy editor—who'll want to keep you on board.
Jen Weiss is a freelance writer and children's book editor in New York.