Friday, March 5, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

II. Using Both Sides of Your Brain

But, you say, you're terrible at editing your own work. You just can't see the mistakes. You wrote it, so you think it's wonderful. You can't see anything to change or any reason to change it.

Go Inside Your Skull

I suggest that the first step toward shaking yourself out of this notion is to take a look at the structure of the human brain. This may help you to better understand the resistance that you're encountering inside your own skull. We humans are split-brained creatures.

We have a creative right side:
  • The right side of the brain is the intuitive, imaginative side. It trusts gut feelings.
  • It works randomly, jumping from task to task.
  • It sees the big picture.
  • It forms mental images or impressions that may be hard to break down into their constituent parts and put into words. If you can see images of your story inside your head and you think it should be so easy to describe what you're seeing, easy to translate those images onto the paper because the pictures in your head are so vivid, but you find yourself having a terrible time capturing that imagery with words, then that's an indication that you may be a strongly right-brained person.
We also have a logical left side:
  • The left side of the brain reasons things out. It's analytical and critical.
  • It works sequentially, doing things in order.
  • It sees the parts, the details, piece by piece.
  • It uses words easily. It's the side that memorizes the rules and mechanics of grammar.

There's a quick and fun Hemispheric Dominance test you can take online. Answer the questions honestly without trying to skew the results, and it'll give you a pretty good idea of which side of your brain is dominant. I answered 11 of the questions as a right-brain thinker and 8 as a left-brain thinker. That means I'm fairly well balanced.

It's that balance, I believe, that's led me down the career path I've had. With a journalism degree, my first job out of college was as a newspaper copyeditor. That's analytical work. Then I moved into magazines, as both an editor and a feature writer. And these days I write long, complicated fantasy novels for fun and, I'm hoping, profit. I've got three nonfiction books to my credit, but my new novels are my first adventures in fiction.

A Bit About Me

Quick aside here: I'd be crazy to come to a writers' conference and not mention my own books. That would be unnatural. So here, briefly, are the books I've had published: two of Texas history for adults, The LH7 Ranch and A Century in the Works; one for young readers, Trail Fever.

And my novel-in-progress, with no cover to show off yet because it's not published yet. But I have to brag on it. Waterspell has done well in contests, it's won me a bit of money and gotten good comments from the judges. Its performance in contests has attracted some interest from agents. My hopes are high.

OK, end of shameless self-promotion. I'm a writer by choice, but to make the main part of my living, I edit. For 25 years I've been a freelance editor for the publishing arm of a national nonprofit organization. And in my editing work, I use my logical left brain.

Nuts and Bolts

Examining the details—the individual word choices, the spelling, punctuation, grammar—that stuff is left-brain work. Notice that the left side tends toward memorizing and applying "rules" of grammar. But the right side says: "Don't bother me with rules. I want examples. I want to see things in context. I wanna see examples of mistakes alongside the right way to do it."

This is how I think. I long ago forgot the rules of grammar. Couldn't tell you what a participle was if my life depended on it. But show me an example of a participle, and I'll say sure, I see those things all the time.

Some examples from Barron's Essentials of English are in your handout.
  • Present participle: "Arriving early, they smiled with embarrassment."
  • Present participle in the perfect form: "Having arrived early, they decided to wait for their host."

Don't we all see sentence structures like these all the time? And don't they usually make you cringe? They may be grammatically correct, but they can be clumsy.

So here's the deal. To follow and understand the editing tips and tricks I'm about to go over with you, you do NOT need to know what the word "participle" means. You don't need to know what the word "gerund" means. I'm going to assume that most of you have long ago forgotten the terminology that grammarians apply to the language you use every day.

It is perfectly possible to know grammar without knowing about grammar. Do you see the distinction? You can know, through your personal experience with the language, that you can't write: "Verbs has to agree with their subjects." You know that sentence is wrong, even if you don't remember some English teacher talking about "agreement of subject and verb."

All I ask today is that you know what I mean when I talk about nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. If you're attending a writers' conference, you probably do know what nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are. But just in case, and to avoid embarrassing anyone with a show of hands, I've put the definitions in your handouts

Next post: Part 3

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