Wednesday, June 27, 2012

35. Self-editing I: Five Ways to Get Distance from Your Work

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to edit other people’s writing than your own? This is because you start out with an automatic distance from another person’s work. Here are five ways to distance yourself from your own work, which will make editing easier and more effective.


1. Be a reader, not a writer. Try to read what you have written as if someone else had created it. I used to do this by pretending I was reading it in a magazine. As I read, I pictured my words in one of my favorite magazines already set in type. Very often, in that frame of mind, the “non-professional” parts of the writing became apparent to me. I would see, for example,  that I had started the piece too slowly, or that I was digressing--both common writing flaws of mine. I did this both when I was first writing professional nonfiction, and then again when I made the leap to fiction. To tell the truth, I still do it sometimes.

2. Let some time pass before you start to revise. By “some time” I mean “as much time as possible.” Ideally, wait at least a week or longer before revisiting material you have just written. This is not always practical, and certainly not for material that has a deadline, but even setting something aside overnight can give your subconscious time to rework the material.

3. Don’t revise as you go along.  I have a friend who is working on her first novel. She has spent over a year on the first chapter. I quizzed her about this, and as I suspected, she goes back and revises the beginning over and over. For each new sentence she adds, she probably spends time honing six previous sentences. No wonder she hasn’t moved on to chapter two!

This is a common problem among new writers. I believe it is caused by insecurity, and the belief that what you write MUST BE PERFECT. Guess what? No writing is perfect. The most you can hope for is the best you can do. But you won’t know what that is if you don’t finish it. In most cases the best way to finish a piece of writing is to write it as quickly as you can, and only then go back to make changes.  

4. Read out loud. In the comments to my post on revising blog entries, two commenters mentioned reading their work aloud. Journalist Jennifer Willis, who does this with all writing, points out that “It's amazing how many typos and awkward turns of phrase I'll pick up this way that my eyes alone might miss.” Reading aloud is a technique I use also, for both fiction and nonfiction. It is particularly helpful if something just doesn’t quite seem to work and you’re not sure why.

5. Recopy in a different medium. I discussed this technique in a recent post. If you wrote your first draft by hand, type the second draft. If you composed on your computer, try recopying problematic paragraphs or sections by hand. Or use voice-recognition software to re-enter the material. I’ve been experimenting with the dictation software that came with my computer, and find it gives me a completely different perspective on my work.

Next post:  Self-editing II: revision checklist

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  1. Having written poems exclusively, I thought I'd try my hand at a (very) short story. I wish I'd had your third point as a guide. I fell into a black hole of revision/honing and never climbed out.

  2. Great tips, and particularly #4. Someone suggested that to me long ago, and I find it invaluable to read my work aloud. Unfortunately, I rarely take the time to read my blog posts aloud, and that's one reason that more "misteaks" sneak through.