9. Learning to Edit Yourself
People sometimes ask me how to edit. Being naturally detail-oriented helps. Reading good articles (online and in print) and books—really paying attention to how paragraphs move and build on each other—can teach as much about editing as it does about writing. But when it comes to tightening your work sentence by sentence—because tightening almost always improves drafts—an exercise can help.
Give yourself an assignment to write about 500 words. In a class I taught, it was a review of a book or movie, but it could be a profile or an account of a meaningful experience. (A review works well because you don’t have to do much research for the exercise—just pick something you read or watched recently!) As long as it’s not free writing or a journal entry. It should be something with a beginning, middle, and end. If it’s a bit more or less than 500 words, no big deal.
My students didn’t know what was coming next as they wrote the review, but it can still work. What comes next; Write a new version of the piece that’s no more--not a word more—than 250 words. It should have as much shape and intent as the original.
This is a forced march in making every word count, figuring out how else to say it without losing your voice, and, yes, fulfilling the assignment. Which in life can mean getting the job.
8. Throw Away the Map
When you’re writing a piece of creative nonfiction, have an idea of what you want to say. Or, perhaps less intimidating—especially with a personal essay—what you want to explore. Keep in mind the direction you want to go in. Jot down points, examples, details, anecdotes you’d like to include.
But don’t work toward a particular conclusion or, even worse, a specific last line.
Smart readers (they’re the ones you want, right?) can always tell when the ending is one the writer was planning all along. No discovery for the author = no discovery for the reader.
Go where your story or essay wants to take you. Listen to what it’s telling you.
This isn’t stream of consciousness. It’s consciousness.
When you come to what feels like an end, take a deep breath. Then go back and edit, delete, change, reorder, add, flesh out—and maybe end up in yet another place entirely.
Your own careful thought is your best outline.
When submitting to a publication, avoid phrases like “I have the perfect article for you.” You may. But editors have a better idea of the perfect article for their readers—even if they don’t know it’s yours till it’s in their hands. In other words, you may have written that story, but don’t sound like you know a publication’s audience or editorial plans better than the editor does.
If you’ve written the article—an essay, for instance, which it’s better to submit complete, because with a piece like that it’s all in the execution—send it with a brief description. Mention previous publications, sure, but don’t send links to clips; the essay will speak for itself.
If it’s a pitch for a reported story, keep the query to a few paragraphs describing what you want to write, whom you’ll talk to, what you know so far, and an idea of length, along with—in this case, yes—clips. End with something like “I hope you’ll agree...” Then let the editor get back to you with how he or she envisions the article—maybe shorter, maybe longer, maybe focusing on just one angle.
Or maybe, in fact, precisely as you described it.
6. I'm Having Contractions!
I’m on the stickler end of the grammar scale, but in some matters, sound and tone trump the “rules.”
I strongly believe that in real life most people think and speak in contractions (“I’ll” instead of “I will,” “don’t” instead of “do not”). Yet I constantly come across writing that contains barely a single one. I personally don’t recall ever being taught that contractions were to be avoided (and I went through 12 years of Catholic school back in the day), but it appears plenty of others have—particularly, I’m guessing, in college and grad-school journalism classes, which, for better or worse, I never took.
Assiduously avoiding contractions makes writing sound unintentionally stodgy or stilted—academic. Justifiable exceptions include keeping the words separate for emphasis, say, or rhythm. In dialogue, that more formal approach can be a useful way to suggest the speaker’s voice, temperament, or even age. But in general, contractions bring the reader closer to the narrator, to the characters, to the story itself.