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On Editing: Part One — Before the Fact

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© New Yorker

By Charles Degelman

You probably don’t think about editors when you first sit down to write. You’re driven by the strength of an idea, you’re in love with words and eager to see them pour from your keyboard or pencil tip. You may be immobilized, intimidated by a blank page or screen. Either way, you begin to write your story or make your claim and you may realize that you already have an editor — perhaps more than one — perching on your shoulder.

The more you write, the better you’ll get to know these editors. They’ll bark at you, coo at the grace of your prose, haunt you with questions, call you an idiot or a genius. Whoever they are, regardless of your doubts and dreams, you will want to shape them, train them to work for you because — before you submit your work to an editor — you will want to edit yourself.

Whether we’re writing fact, fiction, memoir, or poetry, we’re not looking for a thoughtful fellow with a bowtie, a pipe and leather patches on his tweed-jacketed elbows. Not yet. First, we’re talking about recruiting ourselves as editors, to win our editorial voice over as an ally. The plan? To develop our work as fully as possible before we turn it over to outside eyes.

To best estimate what we need to self-edit, let’s walk around the desk and sit in the editor’s chair. Editors exercise their skills in three areas. First, they scan the long lines of your work, its themes, content, and structure. They ask “what claim do you want to make? What story do you want to tell?” This long-line overview is particularly important in fiction, where writers must define their own format, structure and style. Along the way, don’t waste time with “I want to write in the style of…” Chances are, the author you wish to emulate did not start out with “a style.” Just tell your story. A writing style comes with time and should be dictated by content, not adulation.

Second, bow-tie editors review the lines of your prose, including syntax. What is syntax? Syntax has to do with the way you choose and arrange your narrative, “getting the words right,” as Hemingway put it. Syntax can have rhythm and tone, just like music. Tone in writing is carried by your narrative voice, the way you tell your tale. To self-edit your narrative voice, including syntax and tone, consider developing an awareness of your audience. As you narrate your story or support your claim, you will want to bring your audience with you.

When we write, especially at the beginning, we tend to write for ourselves. We have an idea — vague or clear — of what we’re trying to say, we’ve been thinking about it, we “get it.” But does your audience get it? You’ve been tossing your story around in your head for days, weeks, months. Your audience is reading your words for the first time. Out of consideration for your readers, scan your work for clarity and simplicity. Do I need all those “due to that fact that[s]…” or “To tell you the truth[s]…”? Do I need all these adjectives and adverbs? Sure, some of them add color or essential focus to a description but too many can cloud the picture. You don’t need them. You are the author, i.e., an authority. Have faith in your core narrative and the power of your ideas.

Have your self-editor check for logic, too. Writing is a linear form. Therefore, sequence is a big deal. Do your sentences unfold sequentially, with strong transitions between images, actions, ideas? Stop here, get some distance and ask once again — am I bringing the reader along with me? Clarity, simplicity, and logical sequence will help keep them turning the pages.

As you work, your tone will begin to emerge. By tone, I mean that sense of how your writing would sound. In fact, a great way to gain distance from your work is to read it aloud, or have others read it to you. Listen. You’ll be looking for your work to fall somewhere between too extremes — conversational and lofty. Conversational tone often sounds as if you’re talking across the table from a friend who knows you well, having a glass or two of wine. It’s chatty, full of starts and stops, slang, and “… do you know what I mean[s]?” It’s you thinking out loud. If you’ve ever transcribed a conversation, you’ll know that spontaneous chatter reads like gibberish. “Ahs” and “ums” and “do you know what I mean[s]?” are fine in conversation, but on the page, even dialog needs to be shaped.

The other tonal extreme is the lofty tone. It’s usually the result of authors being anxious or uncertain of their credibility, so they fill the narrative with big words, often incorrectly used, flowery adjectives and adverbs, long-winded introductory phrases. Try to find a middle ground, a thoughtful, personable balance between the two poles of lofty and conversational tone. In time, this balance becomes your narrative voice and your self-editor will recognize when you’re being authentic and when you are not.

Finally, your self-editor will want to check punctuation, grammar, typos. Don’t neglect this stage. Details do count. Nothing will flag writing as amateur as too many commas, sentence fragments or run-on sentences, using “its” when you mean “it’s,” writing “1” instead of “one,” describing an African American man, rather than African-American man. Don’t leave this work for the editor. Don’t expect them to pick these things up. Of course they will, once you get your work to them, but before that, you want to make sure that you have edited your own work as thoroughly as you possibly can on every level.

Now set your work aside. If you can, let it sit for a night, a week, a month. Get up from your desk, stand on your head, run around the block, get a friend to read your work, or simply change type fonts — anything to give yourself a different perspective on your work. Then, go back, and do it all again. Writing is rewriting and rewriting requires editing. The more you edit before the fact, the more control you will gain over your creative process.
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Charles Degelman is a writer and editor. He currently teaches narrative and dramatic writing at California State University, Los Angeles. His most recent novel, A Bowl Full of Nails, a suspense tale set in the counterculture of the 1970s, will be published by Harvard Square Editions in February, 2015. Degelman lives in Hollywood with his wife, playwright Susan Rubin, and four cats.

(originally published in Bookpleasures)

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