Article Archive



Self-Editing Success

(an excerpt)
by Carole Moore 

Self-editing and revision—it's a process most neophyte writers don't like—heck, professional writers don't like it either—but the pros, the ones in this talent-dense profession who consistently turn out smart, polished prose, know it's the editing and revising that separate writers who make money from the writer wannabes.

Consider this scenario: Joe Aspiring asks his friend, Mary Sellsalot, to critique some writing for him. She does and gives him some pointers, recommending he revise certain parts and re-edit the piece. Joe gets huffy, "I'm not changing a thing."

It's nice that he likes it because, odds are, he's the only one who's ever going to read it all the way through. And he shouldn't bank on selling it to pay his rent, either. The only current market for sloppy writing is on personal home pages.

Sorting through the jumble of words and making them sing is a big job, and one requiring as much inspiration and talent as the initial draft. But how does a novice learn to self-edit, pick up on the tricks to successful revision and keep his or her sanity intact?

First, there's no right or wrong approach to the refining process. What works for one writer might be poison to another. Dana Nourie, a San Jose-based freelancer who writes for Family Circle, Walking Magazine, Fitness, Family Life and numerous web sites, says she edits as she puts together her first draft.

Texas-based freelancer Margie Culbertson-McCaskey, on the other hand, completes her first draft, then edits.

The two writers may have different takes on editing initial drafts, but they agree on several important editing techniques. Both say to set the piece aside after first drafting it and let it cool prior to editing. That puts some distance between you and your work and allows you to reconsider it from a fresh point of view. Then edit, edit, edit and, when you think your writing's the best it can possibly be—edit some more.

Another editing technique endorsed by both Nourie and Culbertson-McCaskey is to not only read one's words, but hear them. Nourie always reads her work out loud, listening to what she's written, checking the cadence and flow of the phrases, gauging how they sound to the ear. She also uses Via Voice software, enabling her to dictate handwritten pieces into the computer. But the Via Voice feature most appealing to Nourie is the one that allows the program to read her piece back to her.

"I find a lot of errors in my work that way," Nourie said.

One key to quality self-editing is to acquaint yourself with good reference material, such as (William) Strunk and (E.B.) White's "The Elements of Style."

Manuscripts, both fiction and non-fiction, that are awash with typos and misspellings rarely rise from the slush pile. If you first attend to the mechanics of good writing, you'll greatly increase your chances of distancing the pack.

But writers who dot and cross all the right letters still must work on crafting their work with just the right combination of words, style, point of view, dialogue and quotes.

That's where revising comes in.

The old cliche "practice makes perfect" is a self-evident truth in the writing profession. It may sound like drudgery to walk down the same path time and again, but many best-selling authors have been quoted as saying the art of writing is really the art of "rewriting."

And it's true that revising your work can be a traumatic experience. No one likes eliminating a passage, joke, quote or a character that's dear to his heart.

But revision often casts the writer in the role of mercenary: anything that doesn't advance the story or article is a candidate for excision.

And that's another integral part of editing and revision—the writer must be able to stand outside his work and view it objectively. Without objectivity, revision can't and won't work. It's a difficult trait to master.

When rewriting your own work, put aside any affection you may have for it. Read and listen to it with the eyes and ears of a stranger. You might find that brilliant passage isn't as witty or moving as you thought, and remember, editors [and publishers] looking at your work won't be biased. They're running their businesses with the bottom lines in mind and you should, too.

To grow as a writer and editor, find the method that works for you. There are a number of books designed to help writers develop their editing and revision skills. One of the best, "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by editors Renni Browne and Dave King, is an inexpensive softcover filled with no-nonsense advice and practical exercises. Harper Perennial publishes it.

For list-lovers, try Jack Bickham's "The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes" or Scott Edelstein's "1,818 Ways to Write Better and Get Published." Both can be obtained through Writer's Digest Book Division.

Carole Moore is a writer and humor columnist whose work has appeared in regional, national and international publications. Her humor columns can be found on a number of online sites, including her own eZine: She can be reached by email at: 

Back to Article Archive.