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Better Self-Editing: 3 Easy Techniques

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Writing can be a long and tedious task after the initial rush of creativity and enthusiasm. Once the glow fades, Pegasus drops the once-enchanted writer from the skies and—horrors—the writer now has to mount a pack mule to trudge the slopes of rewriting.

In today’s post, we look deeply into 3 techniques for better self-editing—obviously there are many more but these three are a start for a short post.

I have been a memoir editor since 1990. In that time, I have worked with hundreds and perhaps thousands of memoir manuscripts.

A few manuscripts have come to me requiring only slight tweaking. The texts are clear, coherent and concise. They are nearly ready for publication. Their authors have created an interesting and well-crafted piece of writing. They have clearly mastered better self-editing.

Too many other manuscripts, however, have come to me at a stage that reflects tired or exasperated writers. They seem to be saying I’m-ready-to-have-this-writing-over-with!

The challenge of self-editing

Writing can be a long and tedious task after the initial rush of creativity and enthusiasm. Once the glow fades, Pegasus drops the once-enchanted writer from the skies and—horrors—the writer now has to mount a pack mule to trudge the slopes of rewriting.

“But, I want to do inspired writing,” the writer bemoans, “not pick-and-shovel work!”

But, pick-and-shovel work cannot be evaded. Every writer—you—must eventually take up trudging the slopes of rewriting and self-editing—in fact, better self-editing.

Not to worry: I have many tips for self-editing techniques! Rather than write superficially about them in the short space here, I will group my tips into several posts. These are easy tasks that clients might undertake both to the great benefits of their manuscripts and to the relief of their billfolds.

Here are Three Action Steps for better self-editing

# 1. Implement the 10% Rule

Every manuscript can be improved by applying the 10% rule—and I mean “every!”

The 10% rule calls for deleting at least one-tenth of any text—10%. It’s a cinch to calculate the number of words that need to be excised: find the number of words in your document and move the decimal point up one digit to the left. If your memoir manuscript is 70,000 words long, 10% adds up to 7000 words. Your goal becomes to eliminate 7000 words and end up with 63,000 words.

Yes, you can do it! Yes, your manuscript will be better for it!

I learned this well when I was doing freelance newspaper work. One day, my editor called to ask me to upload my latest assignment. When I had done so, she said, “Doesn’t your article begin on paragraph four?”

“Well,” I thought, “I’m onto this one. She can’t get me here! I’ve taught the 10% rule in my workshops.”

I began to reread my piece. The first paragraphs were indeed stellar, full of deathless prose, but when I got to the fourth paragraph, it became clear the first paragraphs were stylistic play while the gist of the article began in paragraph four! Out went the first three paragraphs.

If my writing had been an airplane taking off on a naval carrier, I would have dropped into the ocean—so slow was my launch!

Just as an airplane must take off immediately so must your story vignettes and chapters. The 10% rule is often about beginnings and endings. Unlike an essay, a memoir doesn’t start by revealing to the reader what the memoir will contain and then present what it contains and lastly end with repeating what the memoir contained. Your memoir needs drama not explanation. See my several videos on drama in a memoir.

The BIG question to ask yourself: “Is this piece of writing (this word, this phrase, this paragraph) necessary to the story?” If it is not, excise! As so many professional writers have enjoined, “Kill your darlings.” It’s always good advice.

#2. Avoid Redundancies for better self-editing

Redundancies are two or more words that mean the same thing. Here are egregious examples: round circles, dead corpses, and first beginnings. Only the second words in the previous examples are necessary: circles, corpses, and beginnings.

One of my horrors is: “I personally.” Yuck! Just say “I.”

You will be surprised at how many redundancies appear in your writing. Less obvious are redundancies such as “as a young girl, I loved grade school.” The redundancy here, of course, is, when you write, “I loved grade school”, you are describing your experience as “a young girl.” Few people attend grade school as adults. The phrase “as a young girl” is therefore redundant.

Reread your text for both the evident redundancies (“very unique” is not more unique than “unique” nor is very sincere more sincere than “sincere”) and the hidden redundancies (“because he was poor, he had no money.” “He had not money is sufficient.

Eliminating redundancies is, of course, another application of the 10% rule. Economical prose is satisfying to read.

#3. Beware of “I remember”

Another self-editing technique to implement in a memoir is to use “I remember” very sparingly. If you are writing a lifestory, obviously you remember. Autobiographical writing is about remembering.

The use of “I remember” can be valid however as it can sometimes add meaning. Here’s an example from a piece I wrote: “As I stood at the edge of the road looking at the house where I had grown up, I remembered the day when my grandmother had planted the nut trees. My brother and my sisters and I had stood around her as she worked, but what it was exactly I was remembering I was not sure—other than the heat of the day and understanding that there was something she needed from me, but I could not remember what it was she wanted.”

Now obviously this sort of lead into a story points to writing that will be about memory. The writer will employ as many bits of memory as he can to reconstruct the story to arrive at learning what it was he did not remember. In this story, we will likely read about the process of remembering and perhaps about its role in identity. In this case, it is completely appropriate for the writer to use the phrase “I remember.” The same is not true if one writes “I remember how my grandmother had a green stuffed chair in the living room.” Here.most likely, it would be better to write “My grandmother had a green stuffed chair in the living room.”

The above lead paragraph is also an example of how a memoir does not have to be linear—“this happened and then that happened.” As you edit your story in preparation for sending it to a professional editor, ask yourself if you have exploited all possibilities for making the story interesting to the reader.

There are many analogously unnecessary phrases that can be eliminated: “in conclusion,” “Let me start with,” “In other words.” As an author, you do well to suppose your reader is intelligent enough to make the connections without you having to point them out.

I will not delve into proofreading here—that is, spelling or grammar as these are really for a later stage in the process of preparing a manuscript for publication.

In conclusion

Before you engage an editor or proofreader, do necessary rewrite using better self-editing techniques and save on fees.

What are your favorite “must not overlook” self-editing techniques that pertain to words and phrases? Please share below any self-editing suggestions that you have implemented to save fees—and, of course, to improve your text.

If you would like to view this post as a YouTube video, click here.

I’m also sharing a bonus link with you: a link to our video Write the Best Memoir Titles. While you’re self-editing, why not look at your title also!

Remember: “inch by inch, it’s a cinch; yard by yard it’s hard.”

Good luck writing your stories!

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