I was reading a blog post earlier tonight about “5 Tips to Becoming a Writer.” It wasn’t bad advice, if you want to write for yourself and never be published. If you do want to be published, you must learn to self-edit. Very simply, a writer writes, a published author re-writes.
A friend who has published several books sums it up this way: bash it out now, tart it up later. She gets the first draft done, and then goes back to clean, polish, and prune the prose.
Nobody sits down at their word processor and writes perfect final copy. Yet in critique groups that I’ve participated in, there were people who were loath to change their first draft. (A playwright I knew claimed to write final copy, back in the typewriter days, but he was helped by a couple of people who retyped his manuscripts and corrected the mistakes they found.)
Getting the story down takes about a third of the time I devote to writing. Editing what I’ve written (tarting it up) takes the other two-thirds. The following suggestions may help if you’re trying to self-edit:
1) Let the story age. Once you finish a story (or an article or a novel), put it aside for a while. Get some space between you and the story, so you can look at it objectively. Letting it age will allow you to see what parts are fine wine and what parts are rotting garbage. Then it’s time to take the garbage out.
2) Less is best. Look at each sentence and play around with how it’s constructed. See if cutting out words or changing the order of the sentence makes it clearer.
3) Read your work out loud. Using your auditory sense lets you experience the story in a different way. You can hear what sounds awkward or forced and then correct it.
You should find yourself cutting well-written paragraphs and phrases, parts you may be proud of, because they don’t serve the story. That’s how it goes. They’re a necessary sacrifice on the road to being published.
To use medical imagery, this isn’t slapping a Band-Aid on a scratch. It’s radical surgery, but it’s what the patient (your manuscript) requires to get healthy.