I'm teaching my editing class for journalists at New York University this winter. It's gratifying to get back to the very basic elements of editing; the more I teach, the more I learn. And even though journalists are crafting stories rather than creating art, I am reminded this term of how all writers benefit from the help of a skilled, objective person who is able to elevate their work. (Of course a bad editor could make a poor scribe want to jump down an elevator shaft, but that's another story.)
There are a few really helpful books out there for writers who can't afford an editor or who simply want to master the art of self-editing.
Susan Bell's, The Artful Edit mixes practical tips with erudite prose and should sit on your book shelf, right beside agent Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees. Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato is less philosophical and more directive than Lerner's book and offers up some terrific assistance to nonfiction writers in need. Below, I have put together my top five tips for writers who need some help with self-editing. Read on!
TOP FIVE TIPS FOR SELF-EDITING
1. Practice Non-Attachment.
If your ego is embedded in your work, and you cannot separate the book from yourself, then put it down for awhile. You are too close and need some perspective. When you don't need anything from your reader, that is the best time to revisit your work. But if you are seeking external validation to make up for your years of rejection and heartache, get thee to a meditation class, and don't trust your own red pen!
2. Narrative Momentum -- strong, weak or non-existent?
I've been running my own editing business for several years, and the most consistent problem I run across in manuscripts is a lack of narrative momentum. The scenes are strong. The prose pops. But where is the darn thing going? If your book feels like it's stopped in traffic then get behind that car and give it a push!
3. The So-What Factor
Sure, it's good. It's got some interesting elements. But who cares? Why would someone who isn't your wife, your priest, your dentist (huh???) or your best friend read it? What are you saying or doing in this book (or story, essay, etc.) that's original, that's unforgettable? Don't settle for a work that just works. Make it masterful and seductive, delicious and divine!
4. The Gong Factor
Whatever you're saying you are saying just a little too directly, without grace or subtlety. No reader likes to be told what to think. Give your reader room to use his imagination. Don't provide him with your own pat answers about the meaning of life or who killed the train conductor. Let him partner with your work.
5. Clarity Rules
A clear sentence is a thing of beauty. A clear story is such a simple concept, and so incredibly hard to pull off. But if you are relentless in trying to discover "What is the essence of this story?" you will find it, and your readers will find moments of transcendence that will stay with them for years.
So back to work, Bucko.
For more on the craft of writing, please check out my book
Bang the Keys, and visit the website, www.bangthekeys.com. There's even a Bang the Keys App on iTunes now. And until next time (when we return to the interview format), I leave you with this question: what's the biggest challenge you face, editing your own work?