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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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

34. Revising Blog Posts

The other day when I told a friend I had to revise a blog post, he sounded surprised. “You mean you edit those posts?” he asked. “But they always seem so effortless--as if you just tossed them off.”


Clear writing should always appear effortless. Unfortunately for writers, however, the smoother writing appears, the more work it usually takes to produce. This is particularly true for short pieces of writing--like blog posts--where every word counts.

I asked the authors of two very different well-known blogs how much they revise. Here is what these successful bloggers told me.

Josh Fruhlinger is the creator of The Comics Curmudgeon, a funny and insightful look at the daily comics. Josh’s legion of followers leave comments by the hundreds each day.

                                Josh Fruhlinger    josh_ms_pacman                     

Josh admits that he doesn’t always have time to do enough re-reading to catch every typo, but:

I do edit my posts, though of course "editing" can span a lot of territory. The way I usually work is that I write my posts in a text editor and then cut and paste into the WordPress interface, then read it over in preview mode and make corrections and rewrites as I do so.  That's the process that I consider editing, though obviously I do also go back and look at what I've already written at various points during the initial writing process.

I've been doing this for almost eight years now and I have it down to something of a science.  A typical post (which could range from 250 words to 750) takes me somewhere between one and two hours to do, from beginning (reading the day's comics) to end.

Michelle Rafter, an author and editor, produces WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age, which covers the business of the writing business for freelancers, entrepreneurial journalists and bloggers. (See below for more information.)

Michelle Rafter head shot Michelle Rafter

Here is her take on revision:

I always edit my posts, some a little, some a lot. Sometimes I see or read something that inspires me and I write a post in a white heat. I save it in Draft mode and schedule it for the date and time I want it to run. Then when I have time allotted to working on the blog, I go in and rework it into a final draft, add an image, category, tags, etc., and either publish or put it in the queue.

Other times I start and finish a post in one sitting. When I do this, I edit as I go, checking a paragraph or two as I finish them to see how they read.

Either way, I always, always, always use WordPress' Preview mode to see what a finished post will look like published. I check spelling, grammar, and sentences that run on too long -- I usually write too much, so I'm constantly whittling down the word count.

Both Josh’s and Michelle’s revision processes are good models for any piece of writing, long or short. Among the things they have In common is that they are well-organized and self-aware as writers. They both know that “Less is More”  when it comes to good writing.

But how, you may wonder, do you become self-aware as a writer? How can you even begin to edit your own work? In the next post, we’ll take a look at this difficult but necessary task.

Note: WordCount, Michelle Rafter’s blog, covers topics including writing and blogging basics, tech tools for writers and media industry news. Rafter also hosts the #wclw writer chat the last Wednesday of the month @ 10 am Pacific, and the annual WordCount Blogathon, a community blogging challenge to post every day in May. WordCount is part of the BlogHer Publishing Network. See it at

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

33. Active revision

There’s no question that revising is the most important part of writing. But I believe that few writers today truly revise. Because we use word processing technology, we no longer go to the root of the word “revision” and literally re-see our work.

In a previous post I mentioned that I wrote and revised Pandora’s Genes on a typewriter. In fact, I went through at least six complete versions of the novel—around 100,000 words. After typing, I made changes in pen or pencil and retyped again.

Something I noticed while working was that EVERY TIME I retyped a page, section, or chapter, I made changes that neither I nor an editor had penciled in. Some of these changes were as simple as fixing a typo nobody had previously noticed, but more often they were subtle changes of word choice, for accuracy or rhythm. Sometimes they were cuts, to avoid wordiness. Sometimes I added a sentence or two, for clarity or verisimilitude.

woman at typewriter

Let me repeat: This sort of change went on EVERY TIME I retyped.

I used to joke that my fingers were smarter than my brain, and there is a grain of truth in this. I think that in some way the fingers access the subconscious—the part of the brain that does most of the work—in a more direct way than the thinking brain does.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, the novelist John Irving says that he writes in longhand, and also revises in longhand. He had previously fed his original copy into a typewriter for subsequent drafts, but prefers the slower approach of longhand. I too slow myself down with longhand, sometimes, even today, when I am confronted with a particularly difficult passage.

Those who write only on word processors never give themselves a chance to slow down, or to re-see their work. Does that mean that today’s published prose is less elegant than that of only twenty years ago?

I’m not sure that question has a definitive answer. In my current work on the sequel to the two Pandora’s books, I’m working from a large stack of handwritten pages I wrote several years ago and then forgot about. I am feeding them into my computer, one page at a time, much as I used to do in the old days. I am editing as I go. In a future post I’ll show some examples of how that is working out. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

32. Three ways to make readers identify with your protagonist

What is the number one thing we novelists want readers to do? (I mean, of course, in addition to actually buy our books.) If you think about it, the answer is that we want them to identify with our main character or characters.

Note that I didn’t say we want them to LIKE our main characters. They may dislike a character, or disapprove of his or her actions, but if you, the writer, can get your readers to root for your characters, they will keep reading.

Here are three surefire ways to get the reader on your character’s side.  

1. Start the character off with a big problem. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is quickly whisked off to the Land of Oz by a cyclone. She’s alone, in a strange land, and has no idea how to get home.As readers, we can’t help but cheer her on.

In the first chapter of Pandora’s Genes, we learn that Zach is faced with a moral dilemma--to do something he knows is wrong (buy a young girl from her family), but feels he must do out of loyalty to his leader. Anyone who has ever faced a conflicting set of choices will root for Zach to resolve his problem one way or another.

In The Ptorrigan Lode, my science fiction novella, Jay Irice, the protagonist, is immediately revealed to be a drug addict who will die if he does not get a fix. I was concerned when I wrote it that readers would find Jay’s situation so distasteful that they would not want to read about him, but apparently many readers became hooked on Jay just as he was hooked on chappa.


2.   Pile on the difficulties. As soon as she gets to Oz, Dorothy discovers she has a mortal enemy in the Wicked Witch of the East. The farther she goes down the yellow brick road, the more perils she and her friends face. In chapter two of Pandora’s Genes, Zach becomes paralyzed by a fly-borne illness, and after he recovers is assaulted and left for dead by robbers. Poor Jay Irice is confronted with one threat  and betrayal after another by a number of other characters, including two that he has deeply trusted. In each of these examples, we as readers want the characters to get out of trouble, and we want to see how they do it.

3. Make the character the agent. This is the most important of the three rules. After going through all the twists and turns of your plot, when the character finally reaches the denouement make sure that he or she SOLVES THE PROBLEMS THROUGH HIS OR HER OWN ACTIONS. Dorothy herself throws water onto the wicked witch. Though Glinda the Good tells Dorothy how to get home, she also points out that escape from Oz was always in Dorothy’s own power. In Pandora’s Genes, Zach undergoes many trials, always escaping from them through his own actions. Where he has help, it is help that he has initiated or earned. He resolves the moral dilemma that began the book through coming to a new self-understanding.

As for Jay Irice, he escapes his seemingly inescapable difficulties through his own efforts in a very surprising way that—for such a short tale-- I cannot give away here. (There is a link to The Ptorrigan Lode on Kindle in the column on the left.)

If there are any writing topics you would like to see in future posts, please either leave a comment here or email me. I will post every week on Wednesdays, and sometimes more often.