On Tackling the Art of Self-Revising

In the past few days, I’ve been doing lots of revision to two of my newest short stories, and it’s hard for me to gauge how the process is going.

Revisionland is a place I really learned how to navigate while I was a student at University of Michigan. I had the amazing experience to take a one-on-one writing “tutorial” with my professor, Laura Thomas, where each week, we’d meet in her office and I’d alternate between crafting a new piece or editing an older draft. I came to trust Laura’s eye for proper story arcs, improvements to character development, voice inconsistencies, and minor grammatical proofreading. My first-draft writing style tends toward the overwriting than the underwriting. Which is great in some ways because I have more to work with. The catch is that there’s often TOO much that is unnecessary to the central plot and there’s little I hate more than killing my linguistic darlings. Before I met Laura, the revision process looked to me a bit like the precipice of a giant roller coaster, where all you can see is open sky and a suspended track and you pray to whatever’s out there that there is track attached to the other side of the bell curve and that you’ve said “I love you” to all who care for you deeply in case you don’t make it. For the three years I spent with Laura as my own personal editor, I felt like I figured it out. I knew what to look for when I read back through my own drafts. I knew how to expand, how to cut, how to be ruthless, how to rephrase, and how to add details that progressed the story and didn’t distract the reader. I felt like I could release my grip on the roller coaster’s safety bar and raise my hands up high.

Now that I’ve been out of school for a year without my own personal beta reader and editor, I’ve had to fill that role myself and I feel like I’ve had to reteach myself everything. Which is funny because I don’t feel that way at all when I read other people’s work. I’ve been part of workshops in the past year and have received gracious compliments on the feedback I’ve given to others. In fact, I have many writing buddies who seek me out to read their early drafts and cover letters. And yet, I have so much difficulty looking at my own writing with those same critical eyes. It must be something about the distance (or lack of distance) we have to our own writing. We can justify every single word on the page and bicker with ourselves about why we put it there and why we HAVE to keep it. And all too often, we give in to our persuasive word hoarder part of the brain.

Another tricky part about self-editing is knowing when you are done editing. In contrast, when I paint, I can see and feel when something is done. It’s all there, on a neatly contained canvas, so I can see it all at once and acknowledge that yes, this project is finished, it is complete. But it’s so much harder when you have thousands of words, spread upon a number of loose pages, and you have to look at each detail piece by piece. It’s as if you had a book, but printed on each page you have a whole lot of white space and one single puzzle piece to a 1,000 piece puzzle. You must flip to each separate page to discern the piece. How do you know when all pieces are accounted for and the puzzle becomes an intelligible image, not just clusters of colored cardboard shapes? Ahh, the great mysteries of art-making (but isn’t it these mysteries, these challenges, that keep us at this work we love?)

This is what my counter looks like right now:

I know I am not the only one who struggles with editing, which is why I’m┬ádetermined to tackle it head on. This is what seems to work for me:

  • Printing out all of the pages of the story so I can see them clearly and all at once.
  • Lay them out on a large table or the floor.
  • Use your favorite editing pen (mine is a PaperMate Flair M Felt Tip in Purple)
  • Read through each page out loud. Mark phrases that are too wordy, hard to pronounce, or don’t seem to convey what you intended.
  • Pretend it’s someone else’s piece. If you hate criticizing your own, take on a new identity for this task!
  • Just as if you were marking up the margins of your favorite book, write anything that comes to mind. Stream of consciousness, questions, musings, doodles, etc. The more you mark up and get down on paper, the better your next edits will be. Unclog your mind while editing. That’s where the anxiety lies, I’ve found: when you are trying to store too many things in your brain because you are ashamed to write them down. Remember: these edits are for YOU and your eyes only.

I’m curious as to what other people do to help them triumph over the editing hump and proceed through Revisionland unscathed? Leave a note in the comments!




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