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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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:
www.thehumorwriter.com. She can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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