Self-Editing: The Hallmark of a Good Writer

In his classic book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser opens with a personal story about his participation in a panel discussion about writing at a school in Connecticut. The panel consisted of just Zinsser and one other writer. As they responded to questions from students, two drastically contrasting viewpoints emerged. The other writer said that writing was easy and fun. Zinsser said it was hard and lonely. The other writer said that rewriting was unimportant. Zinsser said it was essential. What about days when the writing doesn't flow? Don't write, said the other author; set the writing aside until you feel inspired. Write anyway, said Zinsser; writing is an act of craftsmanship and discipline, to be practiced whether the inspiration is there or not. "So the morning went, and it was a revelation to us all," Zinsser wrote. "As for the students, anyone might think we left them bewildered. But in fact we gave them a broader glimpse of the writing process than if only one of us had talked. For there isn't any 'right' way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you." No doubt that's true, but I think Zinsser gave the more realistic picture of what good writing involves for most serious writers. Certainly he speaks for me, and I relate particularly to his stance on rewriting. Writing for me is largely about self-editing. I don't know how not to rewrite. I'm addicted to tweaking, and I do it in flight, adjusting material I've already written even as I'm slapping down new stuff. You know how some experts say you should just throw it all out there as is and not worry about editing it, just keep that flow going till you're done, and only then should you go back and rewrite? I can't do that. For many writers and quite possibly for you, it's the best approach, but I'm not made that way. My inner writer and inner editor are too intimately connected; their partnership is too strong. So I edit when I'm writing a piece. I continue to edit once I've got all its elements roughed in. And I keep fine-tuning until what I've written is the best I know how to make it. Rewriting is how I write. And how I live. I'm liable to change something I've written--add a comma, massage a phrase, swap out a word--months and even years after I've published a post here or in my other blog, Stormhorn.com. Weird, huh? Obsessive, even. But then, I consider obsessiveness a virtue, at least when it comes to editing my own writing. I'm in good company, too. In a 1958 interview in the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway had this to say:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do? Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied. Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you? Hemingway: Getting the words right.*

I'll say it plainly: rewriting is normal. No, it's more than normal: it is, as William Zinsser has said, essential. Editing your content, and reediting it, and re-re-re-reediting it, doesn't mean you're a lousy writer. It means that you are a writer, and a conscientious one, possibly even a damn good one. You genuinely care about your writing. You understand instinctively that excellent writing involves more than simply keying words into an electronic document, just as great art entails more than merely daubing paint onto a canvas. There's a refining process involved. And something within you won't rest until you've done the job right. Now, if you're one of those rare persons with a gift for cranking out fabulous content with nary a rewrite, bully for you. Really. I know you're out there and I envy you. A friend of mine once showed me a collection of short, humorous reflections she had written about her experiences as a new mother. Each piece was a perfect jewel, and I laughed myself silly reading them. How long did it usually take her to write one, I asked. Oh, about half an hour, she said. Uh, huh. Well, then, how much time did she spend rewriting her stuff? None, she said. She just plonked it out there and let it set. And it was great. It really was. However, that conversation happened quite a few years ago, and in retrospect, I think I was favorably predisposed. Had my friend's material been accepted at the publishing house where I worked, it would have been assigned to an editor, and that editor would still have found plenty of adjustments to make in order to bring a superb start to perfection. So you and I might as well make every effort to perfect our writing by being our own toughest editor. Let's dispel the myth that good writing is anything other than hard work. It may sometimes be fun; it may occasionally be inspired; but it is always demanding and time-consuming, and it involves lots of travelling back and forth down the same road, filling in the potholes as we refine our material. The post you're reading right now wasn't written just once. I've probably written it five or six times, and I'm sure I'll tweak it a few more times once it is published. Right now, though, it's time I ended it. I've made my point. I hope it will help you to make your own content a little better, whether you rewrite it once, or nine times, or thirty-nine times on the journey to "getting the words right." _______________ * Thanks to editor Katya Covrett for bringing this excerpt to my attention in her December 27, 2012, Facebook post.

Writing Quick-Tip: Weed Out Empty Verbiage

Ten miles from where I live lies Shaw Lake fen, a rare and beautiful wetland where wild orchids and carnivorous plants grow and tamarack trees ring the tiny lake like an emerald necklace. When I first began visiting the place many years ago, a trail led over a rise and directly into the fen. Access was easy. But today the trail is overgrown, and poison sumac guards what had once been my entry point. I no longer take that old footpath. Too much stuff gets in the way. Empty information is like that for your readers. It clutters up a sentence and hampers access to what they're after. What do I mean by "empty information"? Here are a few examples. Case one

I remember a time when I was a boy and I climbed a big tree near my house.

Of course you remember. When you tell about something that happened to you, you're remembering. Readers understand that; you need not tell them. Just say, When I was a boy, I once climbed a big tree near my house. See? No underbrush to clutter things up. Case two

From these examples, it's easy to see that shoulder harnesses and seat belts save lives.

Let the reader decide how easy something is to see. Go straight to the core: These examples demonstrate that shoulder harnesses and seat belts save lives. Or maybe just, Shoulder harnesses and seat belts save lives. Case three

As has already been stated, unforgiveness hurts the person who refuses to forgive at least as much as it does the person who caused the hurt.

Readers will recognize when you're restating a concept, and if they don't, then from their perspective, what you're about to say hasn't already been stated. Either way, the opening phrase adds nothing useful. Omit it and begin with unforgiveness. The above three examples all contain material that is peripheral to the topic. It's non-news that requires no explaining, often arising out of an impulse to pad one's writing with filler cliches.

Now, here's the balance: don't interpret any of the above dogmatically

The point of this post isn't to set inflexible rules but to help you think about why you write what you write so you can weed out redundancies. Context suggests what is relevant and what is not, and you're the one who must make that judgment. Just remember, your readers are savvy enough to figure out the obvious and the implicit. Trust their intelligence. Doing so will help you keep the path to what really interests them tangle-free.  

Of Giraffe Tests and Swan Meat

Besides Fox's World, since 2007 I have also maintained a blog called Stormhorn.com dedicated to storm chasing and jazz saxophone. Ironically, two of that blog's perennially favorite posts have nothing at all to do with either storms or jazz. Both are quirky, off-topic, humorous pieces. One is titled The Giraffe Test: You Only Fail If You Pass It, and the other, The Smart Shopper's Guide to Swan Meat. Because readers enjoy them, and because I'm too lazy to write anything original right now, I'm using this post to direct you to those posts. I hope you have as much fun reading them as I did writing them.