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Razor blades and the pain of self-editing

October 1st, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I can’t argue that body dysmorphic disorder (or body dysmorphia) ¬†isn’t a disturbing and serious condition, though I’m not one to prescribe using razor blades to modify one’s self. (Anyway, that’s why plastic surgeons do what they do.) That’s not what I’m talking about when I mention self-editing. As a writer, being appropriately self-critical of one’s own work is one of the most difficult steps of the process to experience. I don’t only mean a simple grammar or spell check. Self-editing includes that plus pacing, character development, plot, sentence structure, word usage, active versus passive and on and on (and on). Unfortunately, the editing process covers a lot more than I have the space for here.

While I’m not an expert writer or editor, I want to share my process for self-editing that I use even before my first beta reader gets a glimpse.

First Draft

For short stories (and I’ll stick to short stories for this post), I usually write a first draft in a single sitting and I mostly do it in one (sometimes rapid) stream of consciousness. (For reference, I feel lucky that I can carve up 2,000 – 2,500 words in less than an hour once a story is straight in my head.) I try to stay away from deep edits at this point. I want to get the concept out and saved before my short-term memory eats another idea (and it’s a hungry beast), but I’ll admit that I do simple spelling corrections though I shouldn’t. After the first draft, I’ll set the story aside for a period of hours or days.

Second Draft

Once the cooling off period is over, I read the story from beginning to end and try to see the work with a reader’s eye. I note terse structure or words that might not fit and take note of things I’d like to expand or add. Notice that I didn’t say delete. No. At this stage, I hope to let the story grow and not get too bogged down with the dreaded razor blade that is the Delete key.

Third Draft

This is the point where friends and neighbors think I’m a little crazy. I print stories out and walk around reading them aloud over and over. I read sentences backwards (I’ve tried upside down, but all the blood runs to my head and I pass out.) Of course, I can’t take credit for this idea. Almost every mentor, teacher and advisor says to read one’s own work aloud to find mistakes. Why? Because it works.

I’m a minimalist by nature and I like using rhythm and cadence in my fiction. Reading aloud is the only way I am able to incorporate those things. This is also the point where I decide (tentatively) if I should move paragraphs or scenes around for stronger impact. Sometimes an ending works better as a beginning.

Final (hopefully) Draft

I’m careful to call this stage a final draft. I have three very trustworthy and invaluable beta readers that aren’t afraid to point out things that need to be fixed. No, this stage isn’t the last of the work, it’s merely the point where the real work begins (and that’s something I might blog about another time). I do break out the razor blade during this edit and have been known to cut huge chucks. Everything should drive either character development or plot. If not, it dies to the sharp edges of the Delete key.

I recently got suckered into doing a few audio recordings and podcasts. This is new for me, but it has helped me as a writer more than¬†anything. While I’m recording a story, passages or words that will be difficult for readers stand out like a pink nail gun at a flamingo dance party. I pause and fix as I go. Plus, listening to myself read a story over and over allows me to focus my limited brain power on the writing itself (versus reading and editing). I’ve caught more issues with this new method than I could have hoped for.

If you’re a writer, don’t be intimidated. Most of us don’t like to hear our own voice recorded. It’s natural to feel this way, but no one has to hear it unless you want them to. So, get a $3 microphone and use your computer’s built-in audio recorder (or use a digital handheld recorder if that’s easier). It’s a simple and inexpensive way to record your stories and incorporate this method into your editing process. You’ll find things you might have missed without it.

(I only use one razor blade for editing. It’s old, it’s rusty and it’s not really that sharp. I do have an up-to-date Tetanus shot, though. I think. And no, flamingos and nail guns, pink or otherwise, don’t belong at the same dance party. Then again, you might not know flamingos that well.)

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