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Self-Editing Success
By Carole Moore

The idea is fresh and innovative, a great premise for that novel, short story, article or column you're planning to write. Inspired by visions of Oprah, the first draft is pounded out and, before too long, the completed manuscript's in the mail. Three weeks later, a contract appears.

The writing life is sweet.

Maybe in the movies, maybe in your dreams, maybe it really does happen on rare occasions, but most of the time, it just plain doesn't. Back to the great idea.

It hits you and you can't wait to get to your keyboard (or legal pad or typewriter).

You slave over the first draft, but it's a willing bondage -- this project is promising.

Finally you're finished. You put it aside and pretend it doesn't exist.  

You work on something else, clean your bathroom, go grocery shopping, attend to the business of living or earning one. Then, once you've let the piece cool, you pick it back up.

Yes, there's something there and that feels pretty damn good, because, as a writer, you know with hard work, good editing and multiple revisions, this piece might have a chance. You might not make it to Oprah, but this little baby could pay off the rest of your college loan. Or at least cover the next month's phone bill.

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?

The answer is complex, but do-able.

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.

"Fortunately, I don't use a chisel when I write, and the computer makes self-editing much easier," Nourie said.

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

"Only edit after you finish the piece," Culbertson-McCaskey, who's written everything from greeting card verses to magazine articles for the Christian market, says.

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.

Although editing approaches may differ, basic rules of grammar and composition still apply, whether the piece is destined for a scientific journal or a folksy newsletter. 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."

A concise classic that covers everything from punctuation to plurals, it should be annual required reading for all writers. Consult it for quick references when composing and editing. And, depending on the target market, "The Associated Press Style Book" or another news service style book can be another invaluable resource when working within the stylistic peculiarities of newspapers.

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."

Barbara Short, whose work has appeared in publications ranging from Better Homes and Gardens to Readers Digest, says she developed her own formula for putting together winning material. Short works with an outline, then rewrites.

"Half a dozen drafts and I am ready to sell," Short says.

The stringent rewriting works for her in a big way. In addition to her magazine articles, Short's also written for more than 40 newspapers and sold poetry, prose and non-fiction in the course of her career.

Short doesn't mind constant rewriting because she knows it only makes her work better. If rewriting a draft six or more times sounds deadly to you, cheer up. Although the process can be frustrating, it's also rewarding to see a rough piece turn into something readable and, more importantly, sellable.

Newspaper and online humor columnist and forthcoming e-book author Sharon Wren says she considers the editing and writing sides of her writer persona to often be at odds with the editor side, chopping away while the writer protests.

"I think self editing encourages multiple personalities," Wren says of the process.

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.

Self-revision can be likened to judging a beauty contest your sister's entered. You love your sister. In your eyes, she's the most beautiful, talented and accomplished contestant in the pageant. But -- is she really all those superlatives-- or are you seeing her through eyes clouded by prejudice?

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 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.

Donna Elizabeth Boetig's excellent book, "Feminine Wiles," offers tips on style, approach and writing non-fiction for the women's magazine market. Published by Quill Driver Books, it's available in softcover.

And for those in the newspaper or non-fiction market, "The Elements of Editing -- A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists" by Arthur Plotnik and "The Elements of Grammar" by Margaret Shertzer, a book any writer could use, provide indispensable guides to the nuts and bolts of writing. Both are published by Collier Books.

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. Carole refuses to give dignity to the rumor that she wears big white cotton underpants and once deliberately dyed her hair the color of a traffic cone. Well, maybe she did, but it certainly wasn't intentional. She can be reached by email at: humorcolumnist@hotmail.com

 

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