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Crucial Self-editing and Advanced Brain Trickery

A subject that often goes by the wayside until too late.

People say, I write for myself, and it sounds so awful and so narcissistic, but in a sense if you know how to read your own work—that is, with the necessary critical distance—it makes you a better writer and editor. When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it.

  - Elissa Schappell


Twenty years, several novels, a room full of edited manuscripts, and hundreds of workshops later, I'd like to share three self-editing techniques for narrative that I've effectively utilized on a spectrum from foundation to final milkshake cherry.

First Multi-Part Editorial Phase

After pounding out a few pages on any given day, I devote a hour or so at the end to clean up, i.e., I read over what I've written and immediately make corrections to the most obvious flubs. It's easy. I don't want to have to deal with the rudimentary stuff when I return weeks later to engage in deeper second stage editing.

Three to six weeks later (recommend no less than a four week hiatus) while continuing to push forward into the story, I come back around to the pages noted above. How many at a time? It varies. Let's say I'm second staging with a full scene, three to five pages. Sufficient time has elapsed that I cannot avoid spotting the necessary line edits. I rearrange sentences, swap words, zap any excessive "to be" passives, and make certain my narrative verve and cinema is up to grade, among other things.

It's odd that you cannot see the second stage edits right away. Your eye is like a stone skipping over water if you attempt to revise too early. You just need time away. I cannot explain it, though I'm sure an explanation exists. Nevertheless, it's written in stone, even if it does skip over water: you must put the pages out of your sight for a sufficient time, thereby giving your brain time to reboot.
Writers who are new to this mind-altering process will inevitably engage in even more edits as they work towards a reasonably well-edited manuscript. This assumes, of course, they pretty much know what they're doing in the first place.
So this process continues. First stage immediately, second stage later, looping and looping.

Once the manuscript official second draft begins (I personally don't count the first two editing stages as constituting anything other than an overall first draft of the novel), days or weeks after second stage editing is completed for the final scenes of the first draft, I am able to once again see the novel opening hook after a hiatus of at least a few months. And guess what? I see MORE EDITS.

Now I find myself in the third stage. More time has elapsed. I see edits to the previous edits, and other edits I missed previously. How did I miss them? Don't ask me. It can be maddening, but I'm grateful I can spot and fix them.

Will this ever end you ask?
Your eye is like a stone skipping over water if you attempt to revise too early. You just need time away. I cannot explain it, though I'm sure an explanation exists.
Writers who are new to this mind-altering process will inevitably engage in even more edits as they work towards a reasonably well edited manuscript. This assumes, of course, they pretty much know what they're doing in the first place. Do they? More often than not, they don't. I once edited my first scene in All the Dark We Will Not See over 35 times. No kidding. And guess what? That's not unusual.

Back to the ms. As I progress through rewrites, the third stage continues, all the way to the end of the novel. Things are looking pretty good... but wait. I decide to add a third viewpoint. What happens? Hold back the tears, here comes a lot of writing, rewriting, and the necessity of engaging in the three editorial stages yet again, necessary to polish that huge new helping of words just plopped onto the novel plate.

So you see, brace yourself for a jerky forward movement, especially if your veteran status is not yet earned.

Phases II and III - Rerouting of the Editorial Brain

Once I've polished the ms using the stage technique above, I switch techniques.

I role play a game wherein I'm giving a reading of a portion of my new novel to a group of writers and readers. In the scenario, the writers are excellent writers known to me, perhaps one or two publishing house editors, and several readers who are fans of this particular genre, plus at least one severe critic who despises me.

I'm standing behind a wooden lectern upon which rests my manuscript pages. I'm at a Barnes and Noble, or another local bookstore. My eyes glance up only long enough to catch a glimpse of the onlookers I note above. I begin to read. I either hear the words in my throat or I actually read them out loud, all the while existing in the fictional reality.
Because upon using this final editorial screen, by placing separate passages through yet another filter, I see edits never before witnessed. Necessary edits.
By some twist of consciousness I do not understand, I hear the necessary edits as I read. I've rerouted my brain to digest the words in a different manner. Utilizing this effective method, I'm able to apply 99% of the final editorial coat. I hear the edits for every 100 words or so (it can vary) and stop to correct the ms, then I continue like that, reading, halting, editing, and moving forward.

Following on above, I have one more technique to share.

This is a second brain reroute for the final nitpick edits. Again, I fail to comprehend how it works, but it succeeds. First, I choose a few slices of narrative, say around 200 words each, and I ask myself, "Which one of these passages is sharp and clean enough to appear on the novel back cover as a shining example? Answer? Zero... Why? Because upon using this final editorial screen, by placing separate passages through yet another filter, I see edits never before witnessed. Necessary edits.

How had I missed them previously? Don't ask. I cannot answer.

It matters not. Again, it works. So now you have three phases of editorial technique at your disposal. Precisely how you utilize them while you evolve as a masterful fiction writer will create customizations, no doubt, so keep that in mind.

Scimas Via



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