How to Be a Writer: Edit Yourself

Writing is fun, but editing is work. Getting the story down is the easiest part. Going back and fixing punctuation errors and making sure that place names are spelled correctly are much more tedious jobs, but they must be done. I have some editing experience with Triskaidekan and The Adaptive Fly-Fishing Handbook. Those books taught me that editing demands real expertise. Of course, I edit my own work before I send it off to be edited again. Still, try as I might, I have been known to miss things.

It’s hard to see my own mistakes, because I know what I mean. It’s all perfect, here in my head. Those mistakes creep in somewhere between my thoughts and my keyboard.

When I spotted the opportunity to attend an editing workshop, led by Gretchen S. Hirsch, at the Thurber Center, I signed up right away. Gretchen has decades of experience as a writer and editorial consultant. Here are some of the most important points she covered:

  • Opening lines need to grab the reader’s interest.
  • Cliff hangers at the end of chapters make sure readers will keep reading.
  • Dialogue needs to sound natural.
  • Grammar and usage must be correct.
  • Choose the right word. Do you mean “capitol,” or “capital?”
  • Give it time. Put your work aside for a few days, then return to it.
  • Read your work out loud. You’ll be surprised how many mistakes you find.

 

I would add that it’s a good idea not to try too hard to sound clever. Aggressively clever narration can easily overshadow the story. Trying to write with an accent can have the same affect. A few witty turns of phrase or examples of dialect will provide the desired flavor without distracting the reader from the story or content. Overly stylized writing can have the same effect, like a piece of furniture that is too large and ornate for a small room. I often find that the lines I think are most clever, most elegant, and most impressive are the ones that have to go. I suspect that my editors thank me for getting rid of them. Finally, the work of paring down, cleaning up, and straightening out is worth it when I see my finished piece appear in print. If you want to be a writer, workshops like Gretchen’s are wonderful opportunities to learn and improve.

 

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