Tag Archives: writing tips

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Editing Your Writing

editing

editingOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

One of the main strands in my portfolio career is my work as writing coach. Which means that in addition to thinking a lot about the craft of writing, I’m also constantly proffering advice on how to edit.

Most people hate editing. Unlike writing, where you can and should let your ideas flow without judgment, editing is all about discipline. I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases of the writing process best when he counselled: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travelers who have something you need to edit – a poem…a short story…heck, even an office memo – and need to find your mojo.

Here are five tips for editing your writing:

1.  Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take four to six weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that, if you can manage it, you should take even longer. The reason for waiting is that you want to be able to open your manuscript up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. That’s the only way to figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin. You may even surprise yourself. As a screenwriter friend once told me, “There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.”

2.  Find ways to make the material new. When you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. I particularly liked this piece of advice from American novelist Christina Baker Kline. Kline recommends that if you wish to jumpstart a revision for fiction, you write three new openings. In each opening, you start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. What a great idea!

3.  Trim excess words. We all know that editing requires cutting excess verbiage. But how to wield that axe is another story entirely. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. Boy, does that exercise help you to discover what you love most about your writing. Another good tip if you’re looking to be more concise comes from the Write to Done blog: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went through the intro of this blog and cut out loads of words that didn’t need to be there.

4.  Read your writing out loud. On the topic of reading your work aloud, David Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition, you can also hear whether you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. I’m sure it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5.  Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” What he means is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, and give short shrift to the “open door” phase. Here’s Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon:

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

Yikes. What works for you when you’re editing?

Image: Mistakes editing school via Needpix

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons to Start Journaling

fountain pen

fountain penOn occasional Wednesdays I offer tips for adulthood.

Re-entry is always difficult. This is true when you’re coming back from a trip and you need to get back into your daily routine. And it’s equally true when you’ve been laid off and need to create a new space to accomplish your goals, whatever those might be.

In my own case, it meant returning to my book project on swimming and adulthood.

At first, I felt overwhelmed. I was terrified of even peeking at my book, let alone writing a blog post. All the familiar writers’ fears plagued me: What if I had run out of ideas? What if, when I dared to look back at my book draft,  it was all sh#$? What if, after all this, I really wasn’t meant to be a writer after all?

I knew that it in order to get back into the swing of things, I would need to create a system. And although I already had a fixed morning routine back when I was working full-time, in this new, uncharted territory, I felt like I needed something else.

And so, following the guidance of creativity Guru Julia Cameron – I’ve started keeping what she calls “Morning Pages.” Morning pages are three pages of longhand, morning writing about absolutely anything. They are to be written first thing in the morning, and shown to no one. As Cameron puts it, “I like to think of them as windshield wipers, swiping away anything that stands between you and a clear view of your day.”

So now every day, before I do anything else, I sit down and write three pages of whatever is top of mind. With a pen.

I’ll have more to say about what else I’m learning from Cameron another time. Today, let me focus on five reasons journaling can be so useful:

1. It’s therapeutic. If, like me, you often wake up in a panic-driven sweat, consumed by anxiety from your dreams, a current life crisis, or simply the latest episode of Homeland, keeping a journal helps. It lets you get out all of the bile that’s sitting in your system – not just your anger and frustration, if those are there, but also your fears and your worries. I often spend about half of my 3 pages on my dreams alone, just narrating what happened in them, how I felt, and which random characters from my 50 years of existence happened to wander in and pay a visit. Dear God, is it cathartic to get all that down on the page and out of my head and my body. If you can’t afford a therapist, journaling can help.

 2. It will stimulate your creativity. This is why Cameron recommends it. And it’s true. In the past two weeks since I started journaling regularly, I’ve not only had ideas for my book, but for blog posts, creative non-fiction, op-eds and short stories. They come to me, unbidden, without needing to brainstorm. They just jump out of my unconscious. And every time that happens, I jot them down and save them. It’s fantastic that by actually taking time away from writing, I am fortifying my writing. But you don’t have to be a writer for this to help unlock your creativity. It can apply to all manner of creative endeavours: sculpting, painting, dancing, singing. Whatever it is that’s inside of you and wants to come out.

3. It will make you more productive. This isn’t the primary reason I’m journaling every morning, though I suppose I am hoping that in sparking my creativity, I’ll also become more productive. But others swear by journaling as key to helping you prioritize, clarify thinking, and accomplish your most important daily tasks. It’s worked for the likes of Albert Einstein, Reid Hoffman and Leonardo Da Vinci. It might also work for you.

4. It will help you focus on the big picture. In my own case, in addition to all the writing ideas journaling is generating, it’s also helping me to zero in on what I really want to do next with my professional life. At this point, those insights come more in the form of verbs and feelings than in concrete job descriptions. But they are beginning to cohere and take shape, pointing me in the direction of me.

5. It’s fun. I mentioned earlier that one of the key, non-negotiable aspects of keeping a journal is to do it long-hand. That initially feels very old-school for we of the key-board generation, but once you get the hang of it, it really does help you to feel more connected to what’s on the page. Right before I left my previous job, my colleagues bought me a really fancy fountain pen as a good-bye present. While I was delighted with the gift, I didn’t initially know exactly how and when I’d be able to use it. Now I do.

So try it. And let me know how it goes.

Image: Fountain Pen via Wikimedia Commons

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

Every Friday I point you to some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

1. Here’s a very funny post by Bill Maher in The Huffington Post about why we need to start carding all Republicans.

2. Also in the realm of political satire, here’s a great post by my new colleague Andrew Cohen at www.PoliticsDaily.com on what would happen if the Supreme Court justices started using Twitter.

3. I was very moved by this reflection over on Big Little Wolf’s Daily Plate of Crazy about what happens when your kids grow up and travel alone.

4. Also moving is this essay by Ingrid Maitland in the New York Time’s Modern Love column about adoption. Warning: it has a surprise ending.

5. Finally, for the writers out there I wanted to plug these two fantastic resources for writers: C. Hope Clark’s Funds For Writers as well as Erika Dreifus’ Practicing Writing blog. Be sure to subscribe to their *free* newsletters, chock full of inspiration, tips and job listings.

And please do follow me on Twitter!

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