Recently I plucked from the shelf The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, by Susan Bell. Already I can tell that Susan Bell’s approach to editing has less to do with comma-spotting and more to do with staying attentive and open to more important matters: ponder the piece to comprehend its purpose and meaning; listen to determine the pace and sound of the writing itself.
Editing anyone’s writing in this way calls for objectivity while shepherding both the author and his words. Actually, it requires the same thing when self-editing: objectivity.
Bell says this:
We are loath to put an objective ear to our subjective selves. But to edit is to listen, above all; to hear past the emotional filters that distort the sound of our all too human words; and to then make choices rather than judgments. As we read our writing, how can we learn to hear ourselves better? (2)
We gain time and objectivity to shepherd our own words by listening. But how can we hear past the “emotional filters” she mentions? How can we “learn to hear ourselves better”?
Thankfully, Bell offers some suggestions.
To hear with greater objectivity, try to create some distance from the draft. Figure out how to make it sound less familiar. Here are some of Bell’s recommendations:
- Leave your WIP at desk. Don’t sneak pages into a bag or peek at it on your phone. At the end of a writing session, walk away and don’t look at it until you return for your next session.
- Resist continual re-reading and revising. Many writers obsessively pore over their previous work as they write instead of pushing past the existing words with a promise to deal with edits later. Resist re-reading the previous session’s output and you’ll force the story to progress. If you ignore the words on the screen (or printouts) you can simply write whatever’s next.
- Write longhand. When you forgo the screen and write by hand, you can’t so easily go back and delete, insert, or move sections around. Instead, you just keep the pen moving to get the whole thing out, start to finish. It creates distance and helps us pour it all out at once without fussing over each little segment.
- Set it aside. Create emotional distance from the work by building in a substantial break from the time you finish the draft and the time you return to begin editing.
- Change the font or size. It’s such a simple trick and so easy to do with our current technology. Get a fresh look at your words by simply changing the font from Times New Roman to Georgia or from Arial to Garamond. Then pump it up from 12 point to 14. Changing the way it looks changes the way you see the words you so faithfully churned out the first time. Chances are, you’ll notice typos, missing words, repetition, and unneeded punctuation you overlooked before.
- Send it. Yeah, go ahead and publish the thing somewhere, on a blog or social media. Send it to a beta reader and ask for input. That’s when it gets real. Knowing we have a reader on the other end forces us to run our words through a different filter, think differently about it, and get it ready for prime time.
By far the best way to learn to listen and “hear ourselves better” is to actually…hear ourselves. Read your work aloud. I know you will be loath to do this, to borrow a phrase from Bell—no one seems to like the sound of his own voice. But try it.
- Read it aloud.
- Read it to a friend.
- Read it to your dog.
- Read it in public.
- Record yourself and play it back.
- If you need some distance from your own voice, have someone else read it aloud to you.
- Or, if you want to go high-tech, most computers have some way of reading text to you.
In the book, Susan Bell quotes Samuel Butler, who is reflecting on Molière reading aloud his plays to his housemaid:
If Molière ever did read to her, it was because the mere act of reading aloud put his work before him in a new light and, by constraining his attention to every line, made him judge it more rigorously. I always intend to read, and generally do read, what I write aloud to someone; almost anyone will do, but he should not be so clever that I am afraid of him. I feel weak places at once when I read aloud where I thought, as long as I read to myself only, that the passage was all right (22).
When we read aloud to anyone at all, we’re “constraining [our] attention to every line,” which Butler contends makes us “judge it more rigorously.” Read it aloud, and we hear ourselves much more objectively. This helps us edit with greater confidence.
Bell goes on to note that we could stage a public reading to force us to realize we have an audience, but we don’t need to. Instead, she agrees with Butler that “it is not the audience’s critique, but the author’s revitalized attention to his words through uttering them and hearing them uttered that brings clarity” and therefore simply hearing our voice should do the trick (22).
When you get the draft done and you’ve built in some distance, return to it, ready to revisit and revise your work. In that stage—the self-editing stage—it’s time to lean in and listen close. One of the best ways to get “past the emotional filters” and “hear ourselves better,” is to read it aloud.
When we take “listening” literally, we’re more likely to make good editorial choices and shepherd our words well.
- Source: Bell, Susan. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.
- Ep 140: Listen for the Music – More Self-Editing Tips from The Artful Edit
- All podcast episodes
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