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Self-Editing Your Writing

Much of what I do at my "day job" involves editing what others have
written. Eliminating typos, repairing damaged grammar, replacing
missing or misused punctuation--I relish editing, in a roll-up-my-
shirtsleeves and rub-my-hands-together sort of way.

Often I get to transform a garbled attempt to communicate into
something that's clear, concise and, well, readable. Change a word
here, slice a few there, and I can add pizzazz to something that
started out flat and lifeless. I like to think of myself as a highly
skilled word surgeon, deftly able to remove extraneous verbiage with
my scalpel--er, pen--and often performing complete paragraph
transplants with total success.

That is, until it comes to performing surgery on my own writing.
Then I frequently feel like a word surgeon with fake credentials.

There are times when I simply cannot see how even one of my golden
words could be improved, much less removed. How dare editors impose
restrictive word limits? If I'd thought that any words weren't
necessary, I wouldn't have written them in the first place, right?
Maybe, for me, editors will make an exception. Once they read my
incredibly crafted piece, they'll bend their own rules, run it as
written, even thank me for ignoring their guidelines...

Or, more likely, they won't run the piece at all. If they do,
they'll whittle it down to size themselves, and who knows what damage
they'll cause? Not all editors can call themselves word surgeons,
you know. Some treat our writing with all the delicacy of a
demolition crew clearing the way for a new super highway.

So if we want to keep what we've written intact and adhere to
editorial guidelines at the same time, we need to self-edit. But how
can we objectively view anything that we've subjectively written?
How do we unemotionally apply our editor's scalpel to work that we
poured our hearts into?

I believe the that the first step in self-editing is to leave what
you've written alone for a while, to detach yourself from it.

Recently, I wrote an essay specifically for the "My Inspiration"
section of the National Association of Women Writers' newsletter,
"NAWW Weekly." In its original version, my article weighed in at a
porky 900-plus words. The editor's word limit? Six hundred, maximum.

Eliminate over 300 words? Where? Squelching my first impulse to
submit it in its entirety, and my second impulse not to submit it at
all, I let the essay sit for several days. When I returned to it, I
immediately found several wordy phrases that I could painlessly
delete. Rewriting other sentences from passive to active voice
reduced the word count even further (while grammar sites and books
deal with passive/active voice at length, there's a nice summary here:

Yet, even with these changes, my piece remained too lengthy. Did I
really want to slice it down further, at the risk of losing my reason
for writing it? What, precisely, *was* my reason for writing it?

That's when I had an "ah ha" moment. I reviewed the essay again, and
I began to find entire paragraphs that, although nicely written (in
my humble opinion!), did not *directly* contribute to the main
point. Although these paragraphs provided additional background and
perhaps a dash or two of color, could the essay survive without
them? The answer was undeniably "yes."

So, with nary a whimper, I wielded my pen/scalpel on those
paragraphs, which brought the piece under the word limit. This
enabled me to submit it guiltlessly, knowing I'd managed to walk that
line between respecting the editor's guidelines and maintaining the
integrity of what I wanted to communicate.

Okay, I'll admit that I *did* save the original version as well.
Perhaps I'll submit the longer, more lush essay to another
publication someday. But I'm pleased with the edited one as well.
And yes, the essay ran.

So what did I learn from this exercise that I want to share with you?

1. First, go ahead and just write what you want to write.

2. Then leave it alone for a while. At least a day or so, maybe

3. When you reread it for the first time, eliminate the obvious
flaws. Cut out unnecessary phrases. Rework long, rambling sentences
into shorter, sharp ones.

4. Ask yourself why you are truly writing the piece, and whether
every paragraph contributes to your reason(s) for writing it. Delete
those that don't make the grade. To assist you through this most
difficult step, focus on the fact that you want to get your work
published. This enables you to let go of any sentences that stand in
the way of you and your goal.

Finally, to help ease the pain of self-surgery, save your original
work under one document name, and your edited result under another.
You may be able to use those discarded paragraphs in another piece
down the road.

About the Author

Mary Anne Hahn has written numerous articles on writing, the writing life,
business and career topics. She is also editor and publisher of
WriteSuccess, the free biweekly ezine of ideas, information and
inspiration for people who want to pursue SUCCESSFUL writing careers.
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