You CAN Edit Yourself Without Losing Your Voice

2 years ago

I would love it if everything I wrote passed through a gifted editor's hands before I sent it out into the world. Unfortunately, I can't afford to keep one on retainer and am forced to edit my own stuff frequently. Over the years, I've learned to focus on three things to retain my voice even as I'm massaging a piece for publication.

Image: Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Remove extra words, but not your extra words.

Editing rockstar William Zinsser wrote in his iconic On Writing Well that clutter is the disease of American writing.

Clutter words are extra words, fluffy words, and in other words words that you don't actually need to make your point very well.

I am a habitual abuser of the word "actually" verbally and in writing. I am also a habitual abuser of the word "natch." When I edit myself, I remove "actually" but leave "natch," because it makes me think of Nancy Drew, which then makes me laugh. "Natch" is totally a clutter word, but it's a voice-y clutter word. You'll have to decide on a case-by-case basis if your clutter is worth keeping or not, but much like my beaded owl coaster set, "natch" is clutter that makes me who I am.

Watch paragraph breaks.

Writing for the web has wreaked havoc on traditional paragraph structure. Gone are the topic sentences, support and conclusion. We don't have time for that here on devices. We want our information delivered in chewable bits easily discerned from one another on a tiny screen we can hold in our hands. I've seen people's eyes glaze over as they abandon beautiful pieces of writing while muttering tl;dr.

As you edit anything you're writing for a screen, keep the medium of delivery in mind. Paragraph breaks offer cues regarding topic changes, but they can do more than that: They can make your writing look quick or slow to consume. Of course we all want our readers to linger over every morsel of writing we proffer, but scanning is better than not reading at all. Once they start scanning, you have a chance to hook them good.

Pay attention to meter.

As you edit, read your work aloud. No, really. Do it.

Now notice where you start slowing down as opposed to the little bits that trip quickly. You can control the way people read your work by choosing accented or unaccented syllables in various places until your meter and pacing become part of your voice.

The best way I've found to develop a good sense of meter: Pay attention to what you're reading. If you find yourself speeding up in a certain section of an essay or article, try to figure out why. Is it the way the paragraphs were broken up? Is it a section of dialogue? Or are the words themselves easy to pronounce and without a lot of clunky consonents and long vowels? If you have a section bogging down your writing, experiment with word choice and sentence length to move things along.

Conversely, if you're writing about something very serious and you want your reader to slow down, choose words that force that to happen: think "children" instead of "kids" or "thunderstorm" instead of "rain."

The one thing you don't want to do when editing yourself is to remove all aspects of your personality from the work. By reading a lot and writing a lot, you'll improve both your craft and your voice without it feeling like seventh-grade English class all over again. Good luck!

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel THE OBVIOUS GAME & the managing editor of BlogHer.com.

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