I am by no means at the professional level at this point, but I do get a lot of compliments on how professionally written and well organized my short stories and writing is when I turn something in. I am a perfectionist, first of all. I don’t just wait until the end of a piece to edit, I edit as I go along in the rough draft. (Generally, I would advise against doing that though–especially if you are in a creative slump–because sometimes, I damn myself in the creative process by being too choosy with my words and thus causing myself to lose a thought that could have been literary “gold”.) My only critique of myself is that I wish I could I write more freely–you know–without holding back so much. But that is easier said than done for me, especially now, because I am writing a piece on self-editing. Anyway, now that the bad things are out of the way, I will explain to you what I think the good qualities of my self-editing and general writing technique are, and suggest (but don’t insist) that if you are having troubles organizing your writing or having your writing understood by your readers, that you try these suggestions.
(I will mention that I am extremely scatter-brained, so I keep track of this process by envisioning it in the form of a check list, so I will also share my process here in the form of a check list.)
The point within the piece I would be at when I’d break out this list would be right after writing the last sentence of my rough draft. Generally, I tend to write my rough draft with pen on paper in a bound journal or on loose-leaf notebook paper. (Journals are my favorite options, because they are portable and there’s no risk of losing pages, so if I am sitting in the cafe waiting for my boyfriend or a friend to meet me for coffee and I have an urge to write something then I can just take my journal out and get some work done on a story while I wait.)
1.) Shut the notebook or set aside the stack of papers and do something else that isn’t writing or writing-related for at least 20 minutes to an hour. Chances are, I’ve just spent 3 or so hours writing this story out–intensely debating whether or not to include a sentence, scratching boring words out and replacing them with better words, and pausing to re-read the paragraph or scene I’ve just written and deciding to add some more details to that scene in the liner notes. Constructing a mere rough draft for me is as intense as editing the final draft, if not more intense at times when I am unsure about where the direction of the story should go because I am writing based on a character’s voice which has been haunting me at random times of the day when I should be doing something else other than writing. After 3 hours of this vigorous self-doubt and creative process, I need a bit of a break before I come back to the project. I also like to clear my mind and approach it from a less hostile point-of-view when it comes time to re-write and turn the story into something publishable. Sometimes, I even wait a day or two before I return to the writing out of a lack of free time or just my not feeling the piece at the moment.
2.) Re-read, re-read, and re-read some more. I would suggest re-reading it 2 or 3 times. However, I sometimes end up re-reading a rough draft about 10-12 times and finding myself staring for large amounts of time at a particular scene that either bothers me or strikes me as the possible focal point of my story.
Concerning the scene that bothers you, you may be tempted to take it out. DON’T DO THAT. Don’t be too hasty. Let it stay there for a while, at least until the 2nd or 3rd re-write–and if you still don’t like it then, take it out of the document and put it aside for later. On one of those rainy days when you have the day off and feel like writing but have no ideas, you could always flip through some of these rejected scenes and find a way to re-work it into a new short story. I say, let a potentially unnecessary scene stick around in case you happen to find a way to re-work it and make it work better with your story. About 8 out of 10 times, I’ve found a way how to re-work a scene that was bothering me so that it actually added something to the story instead of being either redundant or irrelevant, and there have been very few occasions when I’ve had to completely scrap an unused scene or story fragment. Typically, they get turned into something different and better on one of those rainy days.
Concerning the scene that sticks out to you, I’d like you to take a special interest in that scene now, and keep it in mind when you start re-writing, particularly if you are writing a story that is intended to have a central theme. The subject matter or action of that scene just may be the theme you are looking for.
3.) Find your computer and open up a new word processing document. Start typing what you’ve just written, keeping a careful eye on what exactly you have written in your notebook/journal. Now would be a good time to work out where your liner notes and “carrots” should go in the story. This step would also be a good time to decide between the two adjectives you’ve written down to describe the hair of the woman who has entered the cafe and will end up being trouble for the narrator and other such sentences involving adjectives and descriptions.
4.) At this point, you should have a full story with a beginning, middle, and end typed in a word document. Hopefully, you were able to do this before the day ended. If not, well don’t fret. Typically, it takes me two or three sessions at the computer to type out my 1st formal draft. (Note: I consider a rough draft to be Draft 0, so the first draft to me would actually be the typed version of the rough draft including your liner notes and after-thoughts.) Now, this fourth step has a few micro-steps within it, so I will list the micro-steps individually. But they are all a part of the 4th check on my check list.
- Re-read what you typed either earlier that day, the day before, week before, or however long you’ve waited between the 3rd and 4th steps. Never under-estimate the necessity to re-read your work multiple times. Your eyes and your brain do not always work perfectly in sync together every time you read something, and you may have missed a typo or a place where you accidentally hit the space bar twice or something. (Also, our brains tend to do a nifty thing where it will just fill in the missing letter of a word we may have mistyped subconsciously, without us even realizing that it did so.)
- Try moving some sentences around if you find yourself confused or unsatisfied with the narrative of your story. It could be that your second sentence might make an even better beginning sentence to your story.
- Remove words, which don’t affect the meaning of the statement , that you see too much in the story (like “but”, “however”, “just”, “likely”, to name a few “problem” words I often come across when peer-editing other people’s work in writing workshops and writing courses). There are other better and more interesting words out there. Broaden your narration palette.
- Look out for dangling modifiers and misleading use of pronouns! Sure, that particular description about a tussle between a Hungarian countess, two Austrian Ladies, and all of the Countess’ chamber maids may have made complete sense to you, because you can see it in your head. You dreamed it that Saturday night of the hiking trip to Čachtice where you envisioned such a situation taking place. But the description of the incident may involve the usage of far too many pronouns or far too many proper nouns. In cases like this, where you are looking for a perfect balance between pronouns and proper noun usage while at the same making sure that the description makes sense to your readers, it is a good thing to re-read and re-read and re-read, and maybe even send that section to a beta reader or two. In the writing workshops and peer-editing sessions I’ve participated, I nearly always encounter a draft that contains confusing pronoun usage in a complex scenario. It’s just something I would say definitely look out for, particularly if you are writing something with a lot of action.
5.) Final Re-read (at least, until I receive a response from a literary magazine 6 months later letting me know as a courtesy that it was rejected because it just wasn’t a “good enough fit” for the magazine): at this point, I will re-read what I’ve corrected and maybe continue to change some words around. A work is never really “perfect” or finished for me. I need to just stop myself at some point and force myself to move onto another project, because I have literally re-written a few narratives and short stories about 20 or so times. This happens to my stories that I have put in a massive amount of time, effort, and passion, and they have been rejected by numerous literary magazines. I would like to think that I’m getting better at rejection, but I feel like rejection is just making me more obsessive about my revision process.