Friday, March 12, 2010

Learning to Edit Your Own Writing

Painters carefully choose what to include, what to edit out. I learned this when I studied still life. You may see ten things but you focus on three because it makes the painting stronger.
Same is true in writing. It's called editing. Do you know how to edit your own writing?

Can you easily see what needs to stay, what needs to go? Can you tell when your tendencies, the places you go "unconscious" in your own work, take over, making the writing less strong and the writer more stubborn? In the final revision, do you have the detachment to let go of what's not working, even if you love it more than your first-born child?

Editing is a craft. Trained editors are truly craftspeople in their work. When a writer is able to self-edit, that becomes an art and a craft. Art, because what emerges is often transformative to both writer and reader. Craft, because it requires practice, discipline, and appreciation for how it improves your work.

My training as an editor came in the trenches of a small press in the midwest where I worked for eighteen years, and as I freelanced for other publishers throughout the U.S. as a book doctor. I learned the craft of editing different genres--what adult literary fiction demands, compared to a children's book, compared to a mystery or self-help or memoir. At the small press, a team of four very experienced editors suffered through my early years, as I learned ways to enhance, not erase, the original voice of the writer and bring out what the manuscript could be.

As I learned to edit other people's manuscripts, I noticed my own writing improving. I began to publish more: essays, a short story here and there, my first books. I didn't really connect my editing training with my writing success until a publisher asked me if I worked as an editor, by any chance. "I can always tell someone with editing background," she said. "The writing they send me is so clean."

Wow, I thought. Learning to edit means learning to write?

Self-Editing Toolkit

I began to put together a toolkit of techniques I used in editing, which might apply to my writing. This included my tendencies to expand or contract as a writer, where I went unconscious (usually during a highly emotional moment in the writing) and skipped over important details, where I was overwriting, where my love of sparseness got in the way of conveying a setting, where I explained too much of what was really obvious, where the pacing slowed too much or sped up and lost a reader.

This toolkit was really valuable. In my workshops, I began teaching special sections on editing. I wanted to give writers a new understanding of their own "unconscious areas" and a new appreciation for editing tools as the solution.

One of the favorite writing exercises, one that draws big "ah-ha's" from the class, is called Expansion/Contraction. It reveals, in very short time, where we get too expansive with our words, covering huge territory, and the reader loses track of the point. And where we are so careful with each sentence, crafting it so sparsely, that the story drops big pieces. It's different for each writer. This week's writing exercise shares part 1 of Expansion/Contraction.

Next Sunday, March 28, I'll be teaching Self-Editing for Writers, the one-day workshop I developed from what I learned. I teach this workshop twice a year. It's going to be at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., and it costs $78. There's still room. If you are serious about learning editing techniques, you may enjoy this workshop. More information below.

This Week's Writing Exercise

1. Choose a paragraph of your writing. Read it aloud to yourself and find the one sentence that really is the essence of the paragraph for you--be it action, character, information, or setting. Now rework that one sentence until you have condensed the paragraph effectively. The writing won't be better; don't try to get that. It's just going to help you see where your paragraph's main punch might be.

2. Now do the opposite. Take that one sentence and expand it to two paragraphs.

3. Which was easier for you? Practice again, with another paragraph, whichever was harder. This tells you a bit about your tendencies as a writer--are you more comfortable expanding or contracting?

Self-Editing for Book Writers
A fast-paced, hands-on workshop to explore how to edit your own work, refining it from draft to final revision. We'll cover the art of pacing, line and structural editing, substantive editing (filling holes), and much more. You'll leave with a new perspective on your work and a toolbox full of essential techniques for getting a manuscript ready for publication or submission to agents and publishers. Bring 2 double-spaced pages of your manuscript or story/essay draft to use in the exercises. For all genres and skill levels.

At the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Ave South, Minneapolis, MN,
To register, please call the Loft at 612-379-8999.
Day: Sunday
Date: March 28
Time: 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.

Mary is also offering this workshop:
How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book

Spend two intensive days getting to know your book—what it is about, how to structure it, how to plan to finish it! You’ll learn a step-by-step plan, including flexible timelines, chapter grids, storyboarding, and other techniques. You’ll look at ways to flow chapters, find holes in your material that need filling, organize research and concepts, construct plots, and bring your book into manifestation. You’ll also learn what editors and agents look for and gain essential tips on editing and evaluating your book in all its stages. Designed for nonfiction authors who have a book concept or a work in progress, and for novelists who need a fresh look at their material. Bring an SASE to Saturday’s class and up to fifteen double-spaced pages of work, and the instructor will mail you feedback.
At the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Ave South, Minneapolis, MN
To register, please call the Loft at 612-379-8999.
Fee: $146 for both days
Day: Friday & Saturday
Date: March 26 & 27
Time: 10:00am–4:30pm (both days)


  1. Mary,

    I wish you could offer these courses on the internet for those of us unable to attend the class at Minneapolis. I chanced upon your blog a couple of months back and much of what you say has been an eye-opener and very useful as I work through my book.
    My best wishes

    Savita Narayan
    Pune (India)

  2. Hi Savita,
    Thanks so much for following my blog posts. I hope to offer online classes in the fall of 2010 and will keep everyone informed about when they will begin.
    I'm so glad this has been helpful with your book!

  3. I will also be checking for your online course (travel's a little long from Aus.) Thanks for the great insight!

  4. Thanks for reading the blog, Charmaine, and say hi to Oz for me--I love it there.

  5. Mary,
    I learned about you from Tracy Jackson in an online Writers Digest Memoir Writing group. She said that you are her writing coach. I have written a childhood memoir and queried 120 agents for representation. Although the rejections were supportive, not one chose to represent my book. I wonder if a writing coach relationship would help me get published? I have been writing a blog for the past eight months to further develop my writing skills. I have also written a screenplay recently. Photography is my other passion.

    Mary, I like the look of your blog and the content. I see that you are a wonderful painter also! You must love your life!! Writing, teaching and painting. Congratulations on your successes with writing and publishing your work.

  6. Hi Levonne,
    Thanks for writing! I appreciate Tracy's recommendation. I'd love to talk with you about the pros and cons of coaching. It's something I've done for many years, because so many writers need individual help and encouragement. My coaching is done all by email and postal mail, and I work with anything from whole manuscripts (giving evaluation and editing suggestions) to agent/publishing submissions to biweekly chapter work and motivation to keep going. You can email me at to find out more and we can talk about your specific needs.

    All the best with your writing!