Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 6

(This series begins with Part 1.)

VI. Look and Listen

Now for the hard part. You've used your computer to find obvious problems such as too many "ly" adverbs, too many "-ing" words, and overuse of commas. That sort of thing can be done almost on autopilot.

But now you have to engage your brain—specifically, your objective, analytical left brain. You have to try to read what you've written as though somebody else wrote it.

This is hard. To do it, you need distance. Put your writing away for as long as you can. Forget about it. Work on other projects. Take a vacation. Get a new job. Do whatever you can to occupy your brain with other stuff.

I have to admit that I couldn't see my own fantasy novels with any sort of objectivity until I'd put them aside for a couple of years. And I'm an editor by training and experience. But even though I should have been able to call on my workday skills to edit my own work as objectively as I edit other people's, I could not do it until a considerable space of time had gone by.

What can you do to get some distance, if you can't leave your work sitting untouched for years? What I'm about to suggest may meet with skepticism from some of you, but if you'll try it I think you'll see that it does work.

Give It a Fresh Look

Print out your manuscript in a different font than you usually use, and with wider or narrower margins than the typical 1 inch. What this does is trick your brain into thinking it's seeing writing it's never seen before.

When you've worked on a manuscript for ages, and read it again and again, your brain begins to believe that the words it's seeing BELONG in certain positions on the page. The third sentence of the second paragraph ends with the phrase "was strong." That sentence has always ended with those words, since the first draft. Your brain now expects to see those words in that position. It doesn't question them.

The whole point of editing your writing is to question EVERYTHING. How can you do that, if your brain is completely comfortable with the words it's seen on the page, reading after reading?

By using your computer to find and eliminate predictable problem spots, you've already changed your manuscript, at least a little. Now change it further. Set it up in a different font and with different margins, print it out, and it will look much fresher to your critical gaze. Your brain will be jolted out of its complacency. What was old will be new again.

Here's a great quote from a therapist that makes the point elegantly:

"Change will lead to insight far more often than insight will lead to change."
-- Hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, quoted in the London Times

Think Efficiency

As you read your fresh, new, changed manuscript, continue to look for unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, anything your "ly" and comma searches didn't catch. Look for wordiness. It helps to read your writing out loud. Your ear will catch some wordy patches that your eye may miss.

Think "efficiency." Be ruthless in cutting unnecessary words.

"Is every 'he said' or 'she said' absolutely necessary? Are three adjectives really needed? How can you delete clich├ęs and create new ways to express familiar actions and ideas? Does each sentence really say what you intend it to say?"
-- Greg Tobin, "Editing Male-Oriented Escapist Fiction," in Editors on Editing, edited by Gerald Gross (Grove Press)
Concentrate on narrative threads and dispose of minor details that hinder strong forward momentum.

"On the re-read, I'm looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I'll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning. I'll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions."
-- Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Next post: Part 7

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