Editing and Revision

BY Cindy Maguire

I have been ruthlessly self-editing and revising this post. I broke one of my own rules by not allowing myself the luxury of free writing for as long as necessary to get all of my ideas and thoughts down on paper where I could then rearrange and rewrite and come up with a reasonable finished draft.

I interfered with my own creative process. The result is many pages of half-finished drafts, none of which flow the way I want them to or even tell the story of editing as I have experienced it. I allowed the mechanics of this topic to trump the pleasure of writing from my heart. Push restart; here we go.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the editing process. I like the rush that comes when words flow from your brain to the pen on the page and you feel that you captured something true and maybe even wise and you got it down on paper before it disappeared. Sometimes the flow seems to dry up and you have to practice just writing and writing until your creative spirit works its magic again. And sometimes life interferes and you don’t write for a few days or even a week or longer and you feel guilty because you know you have to make writing a priority if you want to get better at it. If despite all of this, you do manage to finish a story or a memoir or a vignette, the last thing you want to do is think about having to go back and pull it apart and rewrite and make changes or worse have someone tell you it isn’t even worth spending anytime on.

Relax. That’s my first piece of advice. Editing is about looking at your writing with fresh eyes, not to destroy it, but to fine tune it so that it is even better. As long as you start with a piece of writing that you are happy with, that has meaning for you, then editing will only make it stronger.

My second piece of advice: put your finished first draft away and don’t look at it for at least a few days, preferably longer. It is difficult to be objective about something you have been working on for any length of time. You become too close to your material. You need a break.

When you pick up your story to begin the revision, read it out loud. I never skip this step. Hearing the words and the rhythm of your sentences will give you a new perspective. Your ear will pick up discrepancies in tone, tense, or even plot. If something doesn’t sound right, then it needs fixing.

Using a red pencil works well as you read and underline any parts of the story that don’t grab you. Think about your five senses as you read. Have you included not only visual details, but description that evokes a sense of smell, taste, touch and sound?

Is your story filled with long descriptive passages that “tell” rather than “show” your reader what is happening? This kind of writing-exposition- comes naturally to most of us. And it has it’s place. But, overuse can make your story dull and flat. Adding dialogue to a scene can raise the stakes and invoke tension and excitement. It is also a great tool for revealing a character’s voice or personality without you having to explain.

Is your writing clear? There is nothing more annoying to a reader than to have to reread a sentence several times because the meaning is muddy. Say what you want to say in as uncomplicated a way as possible. And check for grammar and spelling.

I have done enough writing now, that I go through the steps above automatically. Practice makes it easier to self-edit. But what I have come to enjoy most, is peer-editing in small groups of 3 or 4 during Sister Writes sessions. Each person reads their story aloud as the others listen and jot down notes. The listeners then take turns telling one thing they really liked about the story and making one suggestion in the form of a question. Asking questions is a positive and effective way to assist the writer to see her story from a different angle. The feedback feels supportive and helpful at the same time. I come away from these sessions feeling energized and excited about my writing.

Editing is a part of any writer’s life unless you intend to keep everything private. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, writes: “I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it.”

Til next time, keep writing.