How To: Self Edit

beloved teacher and writer once told me that editing one’s own work requires two things above all else: the ability to be Detached and Methodical. In editing my work (and working as a professional editor where being methodical is practically holy), I think I’ve pinpointed the things that help writers achieve these things:

1. Create some distance. Most parents will tell you that it’s difficult to be objective when it comes to their kids. For writers it’s the same way. They struggle to take criticism and to dole any out because their characters and plot line are perfect JUST THE WAY THEY ARE. But you have no way of knowing that until you can look at your writing with some degree of objectivity. I find the best way to create objectivity to give yourself some time and distance. I put my first novel-length project away–didn’t look at it, barely thought about it–for almost a year. That’s a really long time, but it enabled me to step away from the story and view it as an editor would, with fresh eyes. You don’t have to wait a year to feel this effect: even a few days can help.

2. Create some distance by making it look ‘real’. Get your book printed out and bound. Making it look professional performs some kind of magic trick, making it easier to see the work as someone else’s. Seeing it as someone else’s helps you to rip into it without as much angst, and seeing it on paper can help you catch things you wouldn’t have on-screen. I’ve also discovered the lovely effects of putting your book onto your Kindle. All you have to do is email the document as an attachment to your Kindle account and put ‘convert’ in the subject line, and the thing looks like any other book you’ve got on there. Reading through my drafts this way really helps me get some objectivity.

3. Create an editing checklist. I learned this once the hard way when editing travel guides. Editing–no matter what you’re editing–is hard. In order to become efficient at it, you need to break it down into manageable steps. If I was in the proofing stage, they would look something like this:

  •  check that page numbers are present/correct
  • proof photo captions
  • Make sure that photos are placed correctly
  • make sure that all map icons and headings are correct
  • check that photo credits are present and correctly spelled… etc.

When you look through a manuscript for everything that could be wrong all at once, it’s impossible to catch it all. But when you break it up you miss fewer mistakes, and the ones that are there are clearer to you.

4. Start from the end. I always used to read my stuff front to back, over and over. The problem is that once you get to the end, your editing eyes (and editing brain) are all sorts of tired out. Sometimes reading from back to front helps bring back some objectivity and lets you see your work in a new light.

5. Ask for help. Get someone you trust to read your work. Better yet, have them read it out loud to you. It becomes ten times easier to pick out what’s not working when your work is filtered through someone else’s voice. Find some critique partners. I’ve got two, and I don’t how what I would do without them. They give it to me straight up, without any fruity syrup or dollops of whip cream. Critique can be painful, but it can help you more than anything else can.

Writing Lessons

I’ve been horribly absent these past few months because I got caught up in teaching mode; I  just wrapped up my last day of teaching English and Creative Writing classes, which coincided with the seniors’ last day. I wanted to leave them with something to think about as they start to imagine the shapes the rest of their lives are going to take. I was daunted by the task of saying something that wouldn’t sound trite or hollow.

So I told them what I wish someone would have told me:

As you get older, you’ll find that it’s easy to get lost. Lost in love, lost in work, lost in life’s dramas and complications. It’s easy to lose your sense of who you are and who you want to be. Which is why it’s important to make yourself stop: stop and reflect on what matters to you, on the things you never want to let yourself forget. Writing is a beautiful way to do that. So today I want you to write your future self a letter. Tell yourself what matters to you now, and what you want to make sure you never lose sight of.

It was a nice class, and a really nice moment. They all put different “open me” dates on their envelopes, and it was interesting to see what dates they picked. The first week of college. The last week of college. Their 25th birthday. I found myself fervently hoping that they hold onto their letters, and that whoever they turn out to be is an even better version of themselves than they can currently imagine.

Understanding Active vs. Passive Voice

Last semester teaching in Australia, if I wanted to get my students looking itchy and just a little scared, all I had to do was mention passive voice. Most of them just didn’t get it – even after I made up a little passive/active man dance.

I got frustrated by how many of them STILL didn’t get it come exam time–what about the dance?? But it’s not always an easy one to spot, and an even wilier one to try to really understand. So here’s my attempt to explain the difference between active and passive voice (and why you should care).

What do I mean by ‘voice’, anyway? We’re talking about a grammatical category that indicates the relationship between the subject (agent) of your sentence and your verb (action). If you’ve got an agent carrying out an action in your sentence, then you’re using active voice. Verbs are our language’s ‘doing’ words: when an agent is performing what you’re describing in your verb, then you’re using active voice. If the action of the sentence is happening TO your subject, then you’ve got passive voice.

Now for my running man example (minus the dance): when I think of active voice, I think of a man out for a jog at 5AM. He’s being ACTIVE – going out and actively carrying out an activity. In order for a sentence to use active voice, it has to do the same thing. Your agent (subject) has to be the one carrying out your verb. For example:

I (agent/subject) once created (action/verb) a fake wedding invitation marrying my brother to one of my friends. (true story)

This is what the passive version of this sentence might look like:

A fake wedding invitation marrying my brother and one of my friends was created by me.

So we’ve got a difference in emphasis here. The active voice emphasizes the subject, and the passive voice emphasizes the object or receiver of the action. More examples:

Active: Hope bit her Dad in the leg.
Passive: Hope’s Dad was bitten in the leg by Hope.

Active: Last night I dreamed about that hunky anesthesiologist from the show Offspring.
Passive: Last night the hunky doctor from the show Offspring was dreamed about by me.

So here’s where my students’ eyes start going fuzzy. Because, yes, these sentences are saying the same thing. But they are saying it in different ways, and that’s why we care. The passive voice is generally more difficult for a reader to understand. It’s wordier, more roundabout, and often puts space between the actor and action. Sometimes it puts the subject at the end of the sentence so that you don’t know who is actually biting Dad’s leg until just before the full stop, which can be really confusing. Sometimes the actor doesn’t appear in the sentence at all. Passive voice makes for more garbled sentences and, 99% of the time, weaker prose.

It’s not that passive voice is always bad. Sometimes you don’t want the emphasis on the agent like, for instance, in a press release from a company that has spilled massive amounts of oil into the sea. They’ll say something like “this oversight is regretted”, instead of “we regret this oversight.” They don’t WANT their grammar to sharpen the obvious: that they’ve done something quite naughty. Sometimes the object is more important than the agent.

When it comes to writing clearly, active voice is almost always the way you want to go. I’ve seen many writers use passive voice without meaning to and then look distraught when they can’t figure out how to make their sentence stronger. When you’re reading your work, ask yourself: is the subject of your sentence the one who is doing/has done/will do the action? If not, you’re probably using passive voice. And you may want to think about revising for clarity.

Photo of the Week

I recently went down to Charleston, South Carolina to attend the first annual YALLFest event. It was a great weekend and gave me a chance to eat pie and soak in some southern charm. I’ve always been interested in old graveyards, even though it made my high school photography teacher worry. She wanted me to take pictures of kitties. But there’s something about the rich layers of history and memory that keep drawing me to headstones and family plots. Sorry Ms. Arnold.












Photo of the Week

A tree floating on water at Patuxent Research Park, Maryland.

Grammar Girl: battle of its vs. it’s vs. its’

It’s true: grammar rules can be awfully confusing. Even those of us who think we know all about things like misplaced modifiers can end up frustrated enough to burn our reference books. But then there are those rules that seem so commonplace that surely everyone’s getting them right? But it’s precisely because they seem small and inconsequential that we get them wrong.

To use it’s, its or its’: that really is a useful question. It’s one of the mistakes I see most frequently made in emails, presentations and company correspondence, where every word can either add or take away credibility. It’s also an easy rule to master. Read on and I promise you’ll never get it wrong again.

It’s: This form is used exclusively as a contraction of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. When making contractions, the apostrophe takes the place of any missing letters (in this case, the ‘i’ in isand the ‘ha’ in has). That’s it, folks: only use it’s when you really meanit is or it has. Easy trick: read the sentence back to yourself, replacingit’s with it is or it has. If the sentence no longer makes sense, you’re using the wrong form.

Its: Usually, possessive pronouns are made using apostrophes, as in ‘Sarah’s boy toy’ or ‘the man’s love of necrophilia’. But not with its. When you are making its possessive, you leave out the apostrophe: ‘its weakness or ‘its pumpkin face’. Remember, the apostrophe-using it’s is ONLY used when you mean it is or it has.

Its’: Its’ does not exist. We see it all the time, and we’ve probably all used it at some point, but there is no such thing as its’. So delete it from your memory bank.