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Editing Tips for Fuckups
As an academic and an
incompetent amateur writer, I spend a lot of time editing written work — maybe more time than I spend actually writing shit. I’ve torn my own work to shreds and given feedback on dozens of undergraduate and graduate papers, personal statements, and applications; I’ve edited book chapters and academic journal articles and attempted to lend them some coherence and polish. I’ve even taken up some pro-bono fiction editing for other writers on here (it’s great practice, and I highly recommend it as a writing exercise).
I’m also a commensurate fuckup! Typos, weird word choices, insane hyphen usage, overwriting, and blatheringly long pedantic purple-prose pretentiousness are just some of my cardinal sins. Editing helps make my shit less cringe-worthy. It also has the added benefit of feeling like productive “work” without being all that mentally taxing (i.e., it’s pretty easy to do in a tired/cracked out state, unlike real writing).
So far, this is what I’ve learned about effective editing. I think it applies to fiction and nonfiction, formal and informal writing, pretty much anything across the board:
- Read the work aloud. This has two benefits: 1) It slows down your reading, increasing the likelihood that you’ll notice errors; and 2) It shines a bright-ass beacon on anything that is awkwardly written or hard to follow. If you can’t read a piece aloud effortlessly, it will not make sense to a new reader.
- The above is doubly true for dialogue. Read that shit aloud. Hold dialogue to a merciless standard— if it sounds clunky or inauthentic, readers will notice and bristle. (But remember, there are many acceptable dialogue ‘styles’).
- Wait. Don’t edit something right after you’ve written it— you’ll miss the trees for the forest. Let a piece age at least a few days so you’ll approach it with fresher eyes.
- If you find a sentence that no longer makes sense (or that reads awkwardly), try explaining it aloud to yourself. Communicate your point conversationally. Try stating it to yourself a few times in a few different ways. You’ll hit on a better sentence structure eventually.
- If that doesn’t work, deliberately switch the sentence structure around. Go from passive to active voice. Bring the subject of the sentence to the front. Chop a lengthy sentence in half. There are a plethora of ways to skin the rhetorical cat.
- When in doubt, cut and re-word, rather than add. If you communicate your point clearly the first time, you won’t need to restate it seventeen times.
- Make sure you have a good reason for every choice you make and every word you include. Murder your darlings.
- Read a lot. Read good work, read bad work. When you read something that sucks, try to deconstruct exactly why it sucks, and how that suckage could have been avoided.
- Offer to edit another person’s work. This will help you catch flaws in your own writing, and teach you to articulate why a sentence or story doesn’t “work”.
- When reading or editing another person’s stuff, pay attention to their ‘ticks’, and see if you recognize any of their flaws as your own. Is there a sentence structure the person always falls back on? Do they use certain words or constructions too often? What mistakes does the writer make—and do you make them too?
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. The line between a ‘tick’ and a ‘style’ is very thin, and having a unique style and voice is a sign that you’ve mastered the art form!
- For real, don’t be too hard on yourself. As skein told me recently, “you’re more capable than anyone else of seeing the tremendous difference between imagined potential and the reality of your work.”
- Don’t let frustration drive you to abort a piece. Be proud of yourself for taking the time to improve your stuff.
- Know that editing is writing. Everybody has to do it (shut up right now with your bullshit Allen Ginsburg counter-examples). Many, many talented and successful authors wrote shithoused first drafts— everyone from Raymond Carver to Hugh Howey. Editing is an art to appreciate and a craft to master. Your writing and your self-esteem will thank you for it.