Self Editing

I used to feel demoralized by those form letters folks send out at Christmas. You know, the ones that list all the spectacular achievements of the kids, the grandkids, even the dog. (He’s so smart, he can cook supper and take out the garbage.) They intimidated me because I could barely get my teenager out of bed. I had to struggle to find enough good stuff to fill one paragraph. I’ve since written one or two form letters, and I know now that those letters tell about the mountain tops of a year’s living but hop over the long, arduous valleys in between.  Just like mine did.  

When I see, “We have two thriving toddlers who are smart as whips. One counts to 300, the other does math in his head,” I can now read between the lines. “But I can’t get either one to stop having a temper tantrum in the middle of aisle 3.

Behind every achievement crowed over in a Christmas letter is often a heartache that remains unspoken. Yes, the oldest child graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, and the other two married well, but the graduate can’t find a job, and the marriages are crumbling as we speak. We don’t often hear the rest of story. 

Yet it’s the other sides of those success stories that give writers grist for their mills.

And why self editing? Well, it’s the task of a writer to order his or her story in such a way that keeps readers tuned in from beginning to end. All writers must edit, edit, edit, their words.   

I happened across a letter I wrote to my parents many years ago. At the time, I was in a cult, living in a rustic farm commune, with no electricity or running water,  and surrounded by mud, dust or snow, depending on the season. Most days, I was keeping my head above water, but under the surface my feet were paddling furiously to maintain that façade. Life was not easy. Yet, my cheerful words implied quite the opposite; that my days were filled with one happy adventure after another.

Was it all a pack of lies? Not at all. I was telling them carefully selected, but true facts about what I was doing. I see now that my letters were simply practice for writing fiction. They are and were examples of editing words to create an illusion.

Self editing is a skill that all creative writers need to cultivate. Fiction must, first of all, be appealing. But to keep the reader hanging on, it must be realistically exciting, tension-filled, romantic, and ultimately satisfying.

The mountain tops and valleys must send the reader on a breathless ride. What will happen next? Like The Shadow, the writer knows. But he must pace his story. He chooses which details to reveal, when and how, that serve the story best. He eliminates loose words that obscure his story. He edits himself.

In short, the writer must learn how to write a letter home, that gives Mom and Dad the impression that life is just one big adventure after another!

Haven’t we all done it?

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