In his essay, “The Art of the Short Story,” Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.” A lot of writers of both fiction and nonfiction fail that test, though, because they can’t edit themselves.
Why? They fall in love with their words. They can’t bear to cut something they invested money and time in researching and writing. They’re afraid to question what they’ve written lest it fall to pieces. They’ve reached “the end” and think they’re done.
As a book editor for more than twenty years, I’ve been often baffled by these attitudes. If writers truly loved their words, valued their investment in a project, and considered their work sound, how could they not want to break their manuscripts down and inspect each part to make sure everything fit together smoothly? (As for thinking a work is done, only a rank amateur believes that. A real writer knows a work is never done, just published.)
As a first-time novelist, though, I now completely understand them. When I was writing The Dragon Round, a fantasy novel published this month by Simon & Schuster, I clogged the action with pointless scenes and unnecessary exposition, slowed the pace with overly ornate sentences, and figured plot holes would magically fill themselves if I just ignored them long enough. Only by deliberately establishing some distance between me and my manuscript could I put on my editor hat and fix the novel.
Here are the five editorial techniques that I found work best when trying to pass the Hemingway test:
- Print your manuscript.
I write in Google Docs. I love being able to write wherever I happen to be without having to worry about managing different versions of a work saved on different devices. I edit, though, on the page. Scribbling is a totally different type of play than what the computer allows. It’s easier to cross things out and take notes. And I can lay out 2, 4, 8, however many pages I want and see the full scope of a scene, something impossible on the screen.
(Note to Google: Multiple page view would be a nice addition to Docs.)
- Put your work away.
Every author goes to sleep a genius and wakes up a moron because even eight hours away from a manuscript can take the bloom of the rose of your writing. So when you reach the end of a piece, close the document and go mow the lawn. Or vacuum, which is like mowing the floor. Don’t think about the piece either. Soon you’ll feel like someone else wrote it, which will make it easier to tear apart.
- Change rooms.
According to an experiment I read about, walking through a doorway scrubs your short term memory. By changing rooms, then, you’ll drain yourself of all the alternative paths you didn’t choose, the words you didn’t use, and the material you’ve already discarded. Then you can attack the manuscript fresh, without any preconceived notions or regrets.
This technique also works if you’re stuck or feel burned out.
- Read your manuscript backwards.
To prepare for tournaments, the golfing great Ben Hogan walked courses backwards because that let him determine where the course designer wanted balls to land to set up the next shot, such as an approach to a green. Similarly, reading your work backwards divorces you from the flow of your argument or narrative and forces you to consider each sentence and paragraph on its own. In addition, reading backwards enables you to question whether you’ve set up material correctly, that is, do your effects have proper causes, your conclusions enough evidence?
This technique also works for proofreading, especially spellchecking.
- Retype your work.
In the days before computers, the need to retype each draft forced authors to reconsider every word they’d written, and the time it took to retype incentivized them to terminate unnecessary words with extreme prejudice. Now, thanks to computers, whole blocks of text can float from one draft to the next without writers having any call to question whether they work as well as they might or even still belong. So when you rewrite, do so literally. Start with a blank page and recreate.
Finally, one caution: Don’t edit as you write. You don’t want to inhibit yourself. Let your words flow, knowing that with these five techniques you can fix, tighten and hone later when you edit.
About the Author
Stephen S. Power is a senior editor here at AMACOM, the publishing arm of the American Management Association, and the author of the fantasy novel The Dragon Round, which is published by Simon & Schuster and available here. His short fiction has appeared most recently in AE, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, and he has stories forthcoming in Amazing Stories, Deep Magic and Lightspeed. He tweets at @stephenspower, his site is stephenspower.com, and his home is in Maplewood, NJ.