categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Here’s a few thoughts on editing your own work:
1. “I hate it,” isn’t an uncommon reaction when returning to a piece of writing after a time away from it, just as “This is the greatest thing ever written” isn’t uncommon when in the throes of inspiration. The trick is to come back to a piece with a mindset somewhere in between the two extremes. That is to come back with a “new head,” calm, practical, aware that what you are approaching isn’t either the worse or greatest piece of writing ever produced, but something that can be tackled, re-worked, improved.
2. It’s easier to have a “new head” when there’s actually another head. That’s the reason that editors exist. You simply can’t see everything yourself. Is there another individual, hopefully a writer who knows something about craft, who can read for you consistently? Sometimes a single external sensibility (that is, a person) can help as much as a class. (I know this one contradicts my title.)
3. What really irked you during your workshop/criticism from editor? Not just stupid comments but ones that hit home…”Honesty is the first step in greatness,” said Samuel Johnson and one thing that revision is about is honesty. It’s worth asking yourself a question you can pay a psychologist to ask you: What am I avoiding? Other questions to ask yourself: Where am I being dishonest? Glib? Taking shortcuts? Where am I inserting an opinion/generalization/idea that I haven’t really thought out? Why did I include this? What does it mean to me?
4. Often our own writing is interesting to us because it happened to us. Is it interesting to a stranger? Don’t come to your work with an overly critical attitude–“It’s all boring”–but do ask yourself why someone else would be compelled to read it. It never hurts to ask: Am I being self-indulgent? (I usually answer yes, and continue on.)
5. Make the verbs active. Unless you have a specific mood in mind, think movement.
6. Is there a reason you aren’t turning something into a scene or at least a mini-scene? Is that reason laziness?
7. Use earthy details to deflate pomposity. It’s worth remembering that for every glistening lily we see there exists a can of Alpo dog food.
8. Smell, taste, touch, sound. Is your piece taking place in a a sensory vacuum? Overdo it–you can always scale back.
9. To paraphrase Bernard DeVotto, “Revision separates the women from the girls.” Remember revising doesn’t have the la-la nearly hallucinogenic thrills of some first drafts. It is about work, craftsmanship, thought. But it can be very satisfying in a different way.