11.14.2017

Hands Off

I have a guideline I follow when I am line editing that may prove useful to you. I’ll call it my hands-off rule. I first read ahead. I might read the next chapter or maybe the next 50 pages. While I am reading, I’ll likely see numerous places where a wrong word is used, a sentence’s meaning is vague, and all sorts of other editing considerations. I feel frequent urges to stop and suggest an alternative. But I don’t. I keep reading onward, letting the momentary impulse drain away. The purpose of the review is to gather my overall impression of what the chapter or section contains.

I have not forgotten all those twinges, however. When I go back to where I left off and start editing, I see all of the places I wanted to correct. Yet the rewrite work dovetails better with the writing because I first have scanned the lie of the land ahead. If I were to edit as I read, I would resemble a gopher, digging up what is directly in front of me, attacking individual obstacles but not integrating my approach with the larger aims of what the author is trying to accomplish.

Now consider your own writing. When you are reviewing your story, what is really your motive behind the editing? If you are like many writers, a common reason is because you’re not in the right mood to write new work. You want to feel inspiration from what you’ve already created. Yet what happens when you have your pen ready at hand? You can always find words that can be improved. You find gaps in story logic and insert a bridge sentence. Pretty soon you find that, rather than reading a few chapters to sense where you want to go next, you’ve barely gotten beyond a few pages.

Now, let’s go to the next day. Lo and behold, upon a second review you find that most of the corrections you made the day before are terrible. What you wrote the first time around was much stronger. What have you done to yourself?

You need to employ the hands-off rule. You cannot make any corrections for X number of pages. None. You will keep reading, amid your growing neurotic misery that what you have written is terrible. And you know what? By the time you reach the end of the chapter, you may find yourself saying, “Hey, that’s not so bad, after all.” Now you’re ready to edit.

Exercise: If you simply cannot avoid your urges, then give in a little. If you see a word you have misspelled, go ahead and correct the spelling. If you see a comma you left out, make that correction. These are momentary pauses that do not interrupt the overall flow of your reading experience. But if the correction takes more than a few seconds? Hands off!

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.”
—Gustave Flaubert

Copyright @2017, John Paine

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