June 3, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
On this blog, I periodically offer tips meant to enhance the writing process. Today I want to continue in this vein with a focus on editing. In a blog from February, I mentioned that editing can be done at any time in the writing process. You may want to revise as you write. Or perhaps you enjoy filling the page, and then stamping it into shape later. Some writers insert a break (one day, one week) between the writing and editing, and others like to rewrite entire sections on consecutive days, just to remind themselves of the pace, tone, and narrative.
Poet Mary Oliver calls for routine. She writes, “Because the process of writing is not fully understood – we don’t know what part of ourselves we use to write, from what part of ourselves the writing comes – it’s important to nourish whatever part of ourselves that is the writer, to let that part of ourselves know that the conscious self is a reliable partner to the act of writing a poem. So if you say, ‘Look, I want to do this, and I’ll give it a good try from eight to nine A.M. five days a week,’ the shyer, less known part of ourselves hears this and says, ‘Okay, I’ll be there.’” So, celebrate the success of having maintained enough discipline to meet the requirements of a rough draft. Imagine that you have a piece of work in front of you. No longer an intimidating blank page, but a wonderful essay-poem-story. With so many words on the page, it already appears complete, finished. Enjoy this moment, maybe put it aside for a day or week. But do not let it rest permanently.
Next, move into the revision process. Poet Rachel Richardson explains: “The first draft was perhaps a surge of inspiration, and if you were lucky, you got something onto the page that surprised and pleased you. But there might be more to that thought. The best way to find out is to excavate your material further.” Poet Rebecca Aronson introduced me to this idea and I love it. She suggests the “what lies beneath” technique as one way of further excavating your work. Focus on a section, phrase, image or line that you think works particularly well, or one that does not work well at all. Either way, rewrite that line on a blank page and examine it. Why does it work well (or not)? What about it do you love (or hate)? What makes you happy (or uncomfortable)? Are there other suitable synonyms or images that could replace this one? Does the tone fit the message? Etc. Also, consider just beginning with that line and following it with whatever might come next. You may be surprised to discover that the single isolated sentence pulls you in a different direction than it did in your original piece. Investigate that difference.
During the revision process, become friendly with questions. Also know that questioning your own work (or a friend’s) is in itself a friendly act. This helps distill the message down to its main point. Speaking of the poetic process, Richardson continues, “The goal in all of the revision process is not to ‘correct’ or even ‘edit’ poems, which suggests there is a single right way, but to explore them to see what more might be hiding within the rock, available to the persistent searcher. It might lead you not only to revise this poem but also to gather new material for your next and your next.” In other words, if you want a right answer, you might be disappointed. Sometimes, the best writing follows intuition (for lack of a better word).
My favorite of Richardson’s advice reads: “Go through your poem and underline verbs. Do you use versions of to be, to have, to do, and other generic actions? These are your movement words, but if you’re using verbs that hardly move at all, you’re wasting a central opportunity to bring life into your poem. Try replacing as many static verbs as you can with dynamic, specific ones.” I cannot underscore this point enough. You will find that in editing the verbs, your sentences may change structure entirely. That’s okay! In fact, that’s great. It will shake you from your comfort zone, and also catch the reader’s attention. To be verbs quickly become redundant. Furthermore, this advice transcends any style. It fits for poetry, essay, grant-writing, novel, short story, journalism, blogging, etc. In other words, pay special attention to verbs as you edit. If you struggle to find the right word, use the many online tools available. Even Merriam-Webster has a thesaurus function.
Finally, revision is a process. Editing takes time. Different from the purely imaginative process that pulls disparate pieces into a written work, editing lets us use problem-solving skills like those that you would use on a jigsaw puzzle. Your puzzle might have too many pieces, or not enough. It might have them scattered chaotically, which requires a structural reworking. Play with the piece until you feel satisfied. If you have the time and ability, you might begin a peer-editing group. The best way to grow as a writer is to practice. This involves both reading and writing. Incorporate these skills in small ways and soon you will be writing longer pieces and more successfully. Most importantly, maintain a positive attitude and a committed schedule. Best of luck to you in your writing endeavors!
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