by Steve Laube
No one knows your work or what you are trying to accomplish better than you. In that sense you can be your own best editor.
In a 1958 interview with The Paris Review Ernest Hemingway was asked,
“How much rewriting do you do?”
Hemingway replied, “It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”
The stunned interviewer asked, “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?”
Hemingway said simply, “Getting the words right.”
Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, said, ““By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”
It is the same for both fiction and non-fiction since the principles are similar.
Does your book have a natural flow? Do things build toward a goal or do they flit about like a confused rabbit?
Recently I heard from a number of professionals who have started having someone else read their work-in-progress out loud. This is better than reading it out loud yourself because an objective reader could put the wrong emphasis on the wrong word and change the meaning of the paragraph.
Could you rearrange things better? Recently I suggested a client remove three chapters from their non-fiction proposal to bring the total to 13. Thirteen weeks equals a typical quarter of a year which fits many small group and curriculum requirements.
Consider “numbers” when structuring something like a devotional. 365 days. 90 days. 60 days. 31 days. All work. And remember that 40 days is the number of days in Lent. But having something with 112 readings doesn’t add any sort of marketing hook to the project.
Look for repetitive words of pet phrases. Recently I noticed a client’s proposal talked about the number of years they had been doing something in consecutive chapters. Most likely the repetitive sentence crept in during some previous cuts and text rearrangement, but when I read it the first time the information jumped out as being completely unnecessary.
Years ago I worked with a great writer who loved to use the word “very.” I crossed nearly every instance of the word. After sending him the manuscript I received an email with the word “very” repeated 500 hundreds times. He said he was trying to get them out of his system.
In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, captured on YouTube, comedian Jerry Seinfeld discussed how he can spend up to two years developing a joke. No matter what you think of him as a comedian you must admire this attention to craft. The seeming simplicity of finding the right “funny” word consumes his creative process.
One of my favorite tools for word choice is The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale (the hardcover edition). Often looking for the right word spurs new inspiration.
Today is Your Day
It is quite possible to tinker with something until it no longer works. But today release that fear and tinker away. Insert a different anecdote into your presentation. Try a different opening to your story. Give yourself a few hours of dedicated revision.
What are your favorite methods for effective self-editing?