Three unmistakable signs you need to revise
Between bouts of hating what we write, we may secretly admire our creations. And we’re entitled to. But there’s a difference between these feelings and excessive love of our own words. Such love blinds us to editorial blunders, judicious cutting, and revision, and reduces the possibilities of publication.
Over two hundred years ago, the author, literary critic, editor, lexicographer, and fierce intellectual Samuel Johnson (1791/2008) admonished, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
Many writers know of the similar and more recent decree, first uttered by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1916) and widely attributed to Faulkner. Stephen King choruses the declaration with a flourish in On Writing (2010): “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings; even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” (p. 213).
For effective and publishable work, we must learn to edit our work with less parental pride and more outsider objectivity. We must combat that self-enchantment–and cut courageously.
If you find it impossible to know what to cut and how to develop that critical eye, here are three undeniable touchstones, gleaned from my own and other writers’ red-faced experiences.
1) Your body tells you.
As you look at a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph, you feel something. Maybe it’s an uneasiness, a slight nausea, a moment of dizziness, a sudden flush, a sinking stomach.
Listen to your body. It’s telling you, first, that the passage needs work, and second, that you’re too invested in it. Soothe your forehead with a cool wet cloth or papyrus, take a sip of cucumber water, and face it. It’s time to jump in and cut.
2) Your mind protests.
The moment you admit that the passage could require cutting, your mind springs into action. It defends, reasons, and rationalizes:
- “This section is needed! It’s explanatory, descriptive, lyrical, mood-setting, eloquent, graphic, moving, exciting, powerful . . . .”
- “It proves my genius!”
- “Look at all the drafts I’ve produced and jalapeno chips I’ve consumed! Look how hard I’ve worked!”
These defenses may seem unalterably logical and reasonable, but they’re not. The first cry shows the extremes of your runaway ardor. The second attests every writer’s ultimate fantasy—you’ll be acclaimed and rewarded without having to pay your dues. The third betrays you as writer-victim.
And face something else: No reader—parent, partner, friend, colleague, editor, stranger—cares how much time, effort, and calories you’ve put in. All they want is to be entranced into continued reading.
3) Your emotions blind you.
This condition is a little subtler than the others. The offending words may still captivate you with an ill-fated overattachment. You love the passage for the wrong reasons and will go to astonishing lengths to hold onto it. A few of those lengths . . .
- Having received a rejection with that part singled out, did you already start an angry letter to the editor denouncing her oafish sensibility?
- Would you gladly rewrite the entire piece to preserve this section?
- Are you rarin’ to throw out everything else and start a new piece around the passage?
If you’re blushing or reluctantly nodding, you’re in trouble.
I speak from sad experience. Recently, ready to email an essay to an editor, I glanced at the opening sentence. Having reworked it countless times, I loved its witty originality and sparkling alliteration. Only then did I see, shocked, that this all-important sentence conveyed the exact opposite of what I wanted to say!
I cursed, raged, and rationalized. Finally, I sighed, and for the next two hours rewrote the entire first paragraph. (Glad to say the piece was later published.)
When you’ve finally performed the expunging surgery, bind up your wounds with one or more of these soothers:
- Save the passage. Tuck it in a file labeled “Lost Loves” or “Cut But Not Forgotten.”
- Tell yourself (repeatedly) how much better your piece is without the passage.
- Praise yourself for being such an incisive editor. Think how proud your mother would be, and your old English teacher.
- Leave the piece alone, for a day or more. You’re not abandoning it but letting your subconscious simmer without interference. Why this detachment works remains an eternal mystery. But use it. When we go do something entirely different, preferably a rote activity, we come back with more distance. We see what to do (those signals again), cringe at what we see, and immediately operate.
- If the hole left by cutting still seems unfillable, or you can’t nudge out a decent transition, just start writing. You’ll eventually get into the flow of the piece.
- Read some of the best literature. Notice the conciseness and freshness, the economy of words, and how your imagination fills in the spaces. Be inspired. Model.
- Read some of the worst literature(!) Observe the flaws and clichés (television is good for this too), and you’ll be more able to spot them in your own work—and edit them out .
- Congratulate yourself for having finally developed that precious and elusive faculty all writers covet, editorial distance.
- If you’re still suffering from abandonment of your lost darling, keep in mind that someday, somewhere, that rejected passage may reappear, ready to grow up. It may float unbidden into your head while you’re working on another piece. You’ll rapturously find that, with a few judicious adjustments, this now-mature passage will fit exactly where you need it.
As you listen to your body-mind-emotion messages, you’ll demonstrate tough love toward those too-favorite passages. You’ll resist the mighty urge to defend, rationalize, alibi, or hang on. Like a great parent, you’ll be proud of your disciplined and well-worded work, and your acceptances will increase.
Boswell, J. (1791/2008). Life of Johnson. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford, England: Oxford
King, S. (2010). On writing: A memoir of the craft. 10th Anniversary edition. New York,
NY: Pocket Books.
Quiller-Couch, A. (1916). On the art of writing. New York, NY: Cambridge University
© 2018 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
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