How to Edit Your Own Writing III: Put It Away

During orientation of my first year of college, my advisor told his group of quivering advisees to rewrite each essay three times. “And then,” he added, “when you’re sure it’s perfect, rewrite it again.”

This recommendation made little sense to me. I was very nervous about college, particularly with all the writing expected, and this made me even more anxious. Nevertheless, I tried it. Once. I dutifully copied (by hand; we didn’t have PCs then) an English essay three times, writing basically the same thing over and over. I think I changed some punctuation and a word here and there. But the third copy was essentially the same as the first. This process seemed pointless.

And it was pointless—because I didn’t understand what revision was.

Let’s look at the word, re-vision: to look at again, to see in a new way. I wasn’t doing that when I copied the English essay over and over. For one, I didn’t put the essay away. I didn’t leave it, forget about it for a while, let my subconscious mind work on it. When you leave a piece of writing (or of any type of creative work), part of your mind still mulls it over. I didn’t give myself a chance to either be surprised by anything I had written or to go any deeper. Nor did I get the chance to see if maybe the fifth paragraph might work better earlier in the paper, for instance.

I’m not sure how I learned to revise, really. Some of it is developmental; your brain has to be cognitively mature enough to visualize the flow of your argument (all essays of arguments of a sort). Some of it is practice; if you write enough and pay attention to the feedback you get, you learn to see your work through your audience’s (often your professors’) eyes. Some of it is getting help. Take your half-written essay to your professor during an office hour and share it; he or she will help you figure out where to go (and likely tell you if that fifth paragraph should be earlier).

You know how people often say they think of the perfect retort too late to say it? Well, when you’re writing, give yourself enough time for that perfect word, phrase, sentence, idea, example, argument, whatever to be included. Put it away for a while.

How to Edit Your Own Writing II: Listen to It

Shortly after we learn to read, we’re taught to read silently; this is considered a great milestone. And it is. But reading aloud is a useful tool. Plus, it can be a lot of fun. When you read your own writing aloud, it sounds very different than it does in your head. Yes, some of it may sound stupid, silly, trite. But some of it will sound wonderful; you’ll be amazed that you wrote that sentence!

Most likely, your first draft will contain more of the poor writing than the astounding writing, but that’s to be expected. (That’s why we write and rewrite and rewrite and so on. More about that another time.) What you’ll also find is your own mistakes. When you read aloud, you’ll catch your fragments and run-on sentences. You may even find your comma splices. Plus, you’ll hear the phrases that don’t work, that are awkward or contradictory.

If you feel idiotic reading aloud, do it anyway. Find some privacy: close your door, lock it if necessary, whisper if you have to. If you find that you can’t listen while you’re reading, record your writing or have a friend or family member read it to you. In all cases, keep a draft of the writing and a pen or pencil with you and mark down any- and everything you want to come back to (don’t fix it then; just put enough so you’ll know what you mean). Imagine the money you’ll save with your editor, too!

How to Edit Your Own Writing I: Look at It Another Way

When you’re writing, it’s easy to get stuck. So you look back at what you’ve already written to get moving again, jogging yourself to your next word or sentence, example or point. But after a while, you know what you’re going to read, so your eyes tend to skim over the words. You push yourself to focus with little success.

What to do? A useful step is to change how you’re looking at your writing. If you are writing by hand, type it up; if you’re typing, print it out. It seems minor, simple, but it works. It’s amazing how different your writing looks in typewritten form. Shorter, yes, those even fonts tend to shrink most peoples’ writing, but neat, formal, clean, glistening on the screen. And when you print it, it becomes solid.

Writing and Blogging

The internet and blogs in particular are an interesting phenomenon. They have most people writing more: emails, status updates, comments, etc. This writing may not be complete sentences or even complete words, but it’s still writing.

When I was growing up, I don’t think I wrote on a regular basis. Oh, there were the times I tried to keep a diary or a journal, but they were short-lived and far between. I wrote letters, mostly in the summer, to my parents from summer camp and to friends from wherever I was to wherever they were. And thank you notes to grandparents and other relatives. Apart from that and assignments for school, I wrote very little.

I resisted the blog phenomenon. When I started this blog nearly two years ago, I decided it was going to have a theme; I was not going to just blather about my ingrown toenails and that I needed to buy cat food. I found that I regularly read blogs that had a focus, like
Television Without Pity ( and Go Fug Yourself ( These had the added benefit of being snarky and funny, something I don’t guarantee in my entries. (And you can see my resistance in the paltry number of entries so far!)

But think about it! So many people writing their lives and sending it into cyberspace for almost anyone to read, sharing very personal information, issues they might not talk about directly to family or friends. There’s a safety in writing it to the faceless public; even if this public judges us, we won’t know, so we won’t care.

And those people close to us, the ones we struggle with and complain about, we write about them, share information they wouldn’t want going outside the family. No, they may never read it, it may never get back to them, but is it really safe? Is it really fair?

What is it about writing and sharing that seems easier these days than writing and keep, as in a journal? Why is it that we are okay with writing (and not revising, me included) and posting, with all our various errors that we haven’t checked for, yet we are shy about seeking help with writing for school or professional writing?

Once again, this entry seems to have ended in a different place than it began. There are no clear answers; personally, I think more writing is good, but I’m not crazy about the texting shortcuts creeping into non-texting writing. As for the blogging, again, writing’s great, but I wonder about the great laundry room in cyberspace.

Don't Think About It

Have you ever had the experience in which words just flow from your fingers? Essays or poems or other work just seems to appear on the page? You don’t struggle for ideas or for words; they just come. It’s easy, like a swimming stroke you’ve mastered or a sport you excel at. And you expect that all writing will be like that from now on. I think I was in 11th grade the first time I remember experiencing this. The essay was on The Return of the Native or maybe Pride and Prejudice, a classic, in any case. It was a Friday evening (no comments, please) and I decided to see what I could do on this essay. And it all came out. And it was good! I was amazed and excited and relieved. And kind of looking forward to the next assignment.

But the next essay didn’t come so easily. I didn’t know what to say. The supporting examples didn’t jump from my pen to the paper. I had to think. Hard. It wasn’t fair! I thought I’d gotten past that problem. After all, when I learned the crawl, I didn’t have this much trouble with it, even on an off day.

I continued and continue to struggle with writing, but I’ve learned a few tricks to handle it. First, sometimes you just have to do it, just write and don’t think about what you’re writing. Freewrite. Write about anything. Write the same word over and over. This has become increasingly popular and recommended over the last decade or so by people like Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg. “Don’t take your pen off the paper,” they say. “Keep your pen moving.” Excellent recommendations. Of course, much of what come out is crap; that isn’t the point. The point is that in that crap, you very well may find a gem—and uncut gem, but a gem nonetheless. When I’m using a computer, I find it’s easier if I have the writing either take up the whole screen or be dimmed completely out, so I’m not tempted to delete and correct errors and instead just keep moving. And what emerges surprises me. And different things emerge when I handwrite and when I typewrite. (I can’t be completely sure of this because there is no way to do a proper experiment, but I’m quite sure.)

Freewriting is a type of prewriting, of preparing to write, usually and essay or a narrative, of getting ideas and associations down. Other types of prewriting involve lists and mind maps and outlines (broad ones work well for me; heavily detailed ones don’t). There are many others that I’m not going to get into now, mostly because I can’t remember them right now.
All this writing sets your mind in motion. And it keeps going even when you’re not paying attention to it. I call it percolating. So you may feel like you’re procrastinating, but if you’ve put some conscious thought into what you have to write, your subconscious will help you out, so that when you return to your assignment, you may be surprised to find that more flows than you expected. But this rarely happens if you don’t do any of the prep or pre- work.

So enjoy those times when the writing emerges fully-grown—and expect to work the rest of the time.

The Difficulty in Writing!

If anyone has looked at this, he or she can clearly see that it’s been nearly two years since I made my last entry—and that was the second of only two! Sad, but not uncommon. Some writers can’t help but write; others will do anything to not write! I’ve known some to actually clean the house instead. That’s not me, but I manage to avoid it in other ways.

However, I didn’t totally avoid writing. That would be impossible. I’ve written emails, birthday cards, filled out forms, the basics. But I also wrote a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I was determined to do it this year—and I did. NaNoWriMo is an ever-enlarging program in which people, anyone, writes a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. It started just over 11 years ago among 25 or so friends in July and has grown and grown. There are many local groups, many of which have “write-ins” and support their members both during and after November. In fact, it’s now international. And everyone who writes at least 50,000 words in those 30 days is a winner. It doesn’t matter how little sense those words make or how many of them are crossed out; they’ve been written, they count, and you win. There’s still the small matter of rereading it, deciding if it’s worth revising, revising, and getting it published—that should take you the rest of the year! Because mine adds onto a series created by someone else, I need permission to try to publish is. That’s okay, the important thing is that I did it. And it’s pretty good, too!

This is all to say that I hope to find my list of jotted-down blog topics and pursue some of them here, and I hope that some of you will read them. Maybe I’ll even figure out a way for people to leave comments (thought I’m not it’s possible with my pagemaking program; sorry).