I'm delighted to welcome a very special friend and one of the most talented and exciting writers I know to the blog today... Maura Jortner.
Let me begin with a thought:
Editing is all about being open to change, not fearing the unknown, but embracing it.
I teach a course on academic writing every semester, and often I’ll find myself saying to a student, “Think about editing that section of your paper. It doesn’t quite work.” The student then, wide-eyed, beads of sweat popping into existence around the temple, takes in a quick mouthful of air. I put out a calming hand. “It won’t be so bad.” I use my reassuring voice. “It’s just one section of your paper. It’s not working. It needs to be edited.”
The student, visibly shaken, might say, “So do I need to add a sentence somewhere, or…?”
This example is exaggerated, but it hits on the truth. My students often don’t want to edit—really edit—their work. They’d rather cut a useless phrase, make their topic sentence stronger, or alter the punctuation. Tackle the small stuff. But that’s not what I mean when I ask them to edit a section. I want them to, if necessary, cut the entire part that isn’t working and start again. Or, better yet, to critically think about why that section isn’t doing what they want it to do and figuring out what needs to change for it to be effective.
Editing, true editing, takes a leap of faith. It takes being willing to cut a lot of material, and we all hate doing that. But cutting and starting from scratch, or at least looking at the work with hedge-trimmer rather than surgical-scissor eyes, is always the best. And in the end, cutting chunks of a manuscript—even large ones—can ultimately save time. I might agonize over small changes for days, rewriting various sentences or changing their placement. Hours! And when I reread it, it still doesn’t work. Cutting and starting from scratch, at times, is simply the most time effective way to handle a problem. We can wring our hands over it, but often it’s that leap of faith that’s needed.
When my finger hangs over the delete button, I comfort myself with: “I wrote it once; I can write it again.”
And for students and writers everywhere, I give this tip: Cut the part that’s not working. But don’t delete it. Paste it into a new document. You can save it, and if the new stuff isn’t better, you can always go back to it.
This advice often works for my students because saving their old words is a kind of security blanket. 99% of the time, they don’t go back to the old. Why? Because they know what needs to happen and by cutting the whole part, they’ve given themselves permission to begin anew. And, again 99% of the time, the new writing is stronger.
I once got 40K into a novel before I decided I had to start it over, trash it all and start from scratch. Even my writing friends gasp in horror when I tell them that, but it was the right decision to make. The novel wasn’t working. The idea was a good one, but the main character I’d originally chosen to tell the story was all wrong. And, unfortunately, I didn’t realize it until I was 40K in. My bad. But at least I realized it.
And the manuscript is better today for that leap of faith.
Because that’s what editing is—being willing to jump into the unknown. We don’t like cutting words that are already on the screen because they’re known. For good or bad, we’re familiar with them. But if we cut them, we have the blank page. And yet, that leap of faith—that jump into the unknown—often makes the work stronger.
Maura Jortner grew up in New Hampshire but she now lives in Waco, Texas with her patient husband, two amazing daughters, and one unruly cat. She teaches literature and writing classes at Baylor University. A lifetime ago, she used to direct plays and put on puppet shows for kids, which led to a Ph.D. in Theatre History. Currently, when she's not writing, she's spending her time like every native-born Texan: worrying about how many chiggers might be hidden in the grass outside the house or if she put enough sunscreen on her kids.
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