I've got writing on the brain these days. I've recently joined a writing group and I'm about to turn back to my own manuscript in a few days. (Drumroll, please...)
So I'm thinking again about the craft of writing. Not the initial creative burst that yields a blog post, an article or a novel, but that potentially stomach-churning, roll-up-your-sleeves and stare-the-beast-in-the-face process commonly known as editing. (I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases best when he said: "Write drunk. Edit sober.")
Fortunately for me, many of the blogs and e-zines I regularly peruse are devoted to precisely this topic: the craft of writing. So I'm constantly being bombarded with new ideas about the writing process, which I dutifully file away for when the time comes.
Accordingly, this tips list goes out to all of you fellow travelers who have something you need to edit -- it could be a poem, a short story, heck, even an office memo -- and, like me, you need to find your mojo.
Here are five things to keep in mind when you edit:
1) Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, "On Writing." (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take four to six weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I'd say that if you can manage it (considering deadlines, etc.), take even longer than that. The reason for waiting to begin the rewriting process is that you want to be able to open your manuscript up and read it like anyone else would. You don't want to be able to recite it line by line. And there's another reason to let your story sit. As a friend of mine who's a screenwriter once told me, "You'll surprise yourself. There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse." And that's exactly the point: to be surprised. Because that's the only way you'll figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin.
2) Find ways to make the material new. If you're like me, you find writing the first draft of anything far more fun than slogging your way through the edit. That's natural. The first draft is all about throwing stuff out there, while the second (and third, and fourth...) drafts are about refinement. (See again, Hemingway.) So when you're in re-write mode, it's really important to come up with devices that help you make the old draft feel new. If you're writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive -- again. One of my favorite writer/bloggers, Christina Baker Kline, has a host of suggestions for how to jumpstart a revision. My favorite? Write three new openings. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story, maybe even the very end. Wow! What a great idea!
3) Trim excess words. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. But while we all know that cutting excess verbiage is one of the cardinal tasks of the second draft, how to wield the axe is another story entirely. In a guest post on the amazing Write To Done blog (a must for all you writers out there), Fekket Cantenel offers very specific advice for how to clean up your narration. Under trimming excess words, she offers the following remedy: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went up to the intro of this blog and cut out several words.
4) Read your writing out loud. This tip is brought to you by none other than David Sedaris, whose views on the writing process were generously shared by another great writer/blogger, Lisa Romeo Writes. On the topic of reading your work aloud, Sedaris says, "When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don't hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I'm trying too hard, or I'm being repetitive, I make a mark." Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. And I'm sure that it took a lot of re-writing to get there.
5) Don't send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing "with the door open" vs. writing "with the door closed." I think what he's getting at is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page however they come out. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to read what you've got and offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make (Lord knows I'm guilty of this) is to spend endless amounts of time on the "closed door" phase of writing, but fail to spend enough time on the "open door" phase. And this can be catastrophic. Here's the blogger/writer/editor Victoria A. Mixon with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon, taken from her own life. Read it and weep (I've set it apart because it made that much of an impact on me):
You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel? "I love this paragraph." Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified. I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), "See what I had to wade through?"
What works for you when you're editing something?