First appeared on Uncommon YA on September 30, 2014.
I joke that, because Parlato means spoken in Italian, students can count on my ability to talk for eighty minutes without breathing. Of course I attempt to self-edit in class, with moderate success. For instance, did I need to reveal my deep-rooted spiritual connection to deer—or its origin in my stage role as Bambi’s Dad? Well, yes. My verbal tangents may seem like meanders, but they generally carry a relevant point.
Since I’m a writer, I’ll focus on self-editing fiction, rather than on my tendency to ramble. Thing is, in fiction as in life, we often say more than we need. We over-explain; we rely on verbal shorthand, what I call habit words. We ramble, hence the need to self-edit. On paper, we don’t have the luxury of tangents. Readers demand that pages propel a story forward, rather than just accumulating.
My biggest self-edit occurred while writing my debut, THE NAMESAKE (Merit Press, 2013). Without warning, my then-agent—I’ll call him O.B. Stacle—said the manuscript needed cutting. BY ONE THIRD. This was the first sign he was anything less than ecstatic over it. I was shocked, but eager to start. Unfortunately, after promising precise edit advice, Mr. Stacle went dormant.
Following repeated efforts to solicit his guidance, I accepted I was on my own. I went at that manuscript, firm in the belief it was good, but with the new realization it was also bloated. Equally ruthless and delicate, I trimmed the story from 346 to 295 pages. It was meticulous work, tweezing out individual words, slicing away one dead-weight chapter. That chapter cut was painful; it meant losing a character I loved. Happily, I was able to bring the chapter—and character—back in my latest novel, TEDDI ALDER.
The solo trimming of my first manuscript taught me volumes. Though I determined a one-third cut was ludicrous, I surrendered the idea that my words were too precious to slash. If it served the novel, making it tighter and more readable, sacrificing stretches of good writing was a no-brainer. I continue to apply this philosophy to everything I write: If it’s in good shape, let it sit. Then cut something. There’s always stuff to be trimmed, and pruning the excess allows the essential to bloom. Identifying the excess can be challenging, but like anything, practice helps.
Even proofreading our own work can be difficult, because our minds have this amazing auto-correct capacity. We sometimes see what we intended, rather than what’s actually on screen. That’s one reason my self-edit process generally involves working from hard copy rather than monitor. Another practical tip: Use “find all” to spot repetitive writing. This simple tactic has helped transform a draft heavy on weird (one of my fallback words) with relative ease. Sure, you may cringe to spot forty uses of a word within thirty pages, but recognizing a writing issue is one key to remedying it.
Okay, no one wants to be told their post on self-editing needs edits, so I’ll close before slipping into meander mode. Otherwise, I might be tempted to explain how playing the Scarecrow taught me to be patient while “my thoughts are busy hatchin’.”