Dear Story Nurse,
I’m a longtime journalist (mostly editing but often reporting and writing), and I struggle to get far enough away from my words to edit my first draft—I often submit a draft that I’ve revised but is still twice as long as commissioned.
I have no problem editing others’ words, but after I’ve put in the work to report, distill, and write an article, I can no longer read it clearly enough to decide where to make structural changes, what information is too much, and so on.
Maybe this is a problem all writers have? Maybe it’s just a matter of letting the draft sit for a day or two before I revise and submit (but I’m often on tight deadlines and that’s not always an option). I’d love to hear what other writers do to distance themselves from the words they’ve put down in order to self-edit—it’d be really helpful not just in my reporting but also in my wishlist of fiction writing.
—Too Close (he/him)
Dear Too Close,
I don’t think this is a problem all writers have, but it’s definitely a problem lots of writers have. There are very few arts or crafts where an important part of creation is destroying part of what you’ve created. Even sculptors don’t have to make the marble before they start chipping it away. This is why you hear “kill your darlings” so often—not because any phrase you fall in love with is inherently not worth keeping around, but because we have to accustom ourselves to wielding the red pen on the same work we spent so much time sweating out. It can be very emotionally and psychologically difficult to do that.
It sounds like you identify closely with your work. A few weeks ago I wrote about that in “You Are Not Your Work,” and I recommend looking over the exercises and suggestions there, especially the ones on ephemerality. You could even go so far as to take some clips of your own finished work and set them on fire or dissolve them in water or turn them into paper airplanes and fling them out a 20th-storey window (all with appropriate safety precautions, of course).
There are some things you can do before you start writing that will help you prepare for later revising:
- Outline before you write, and break down your word count targets section by section. You don’t just have 1000 words for the piece; you have 100 for the lede, 200 for background, and so on.
- Divide your word count target by 100 or 150 to make a paragraph target. It’s sometimes easier to keep track of paragraphs as you’re writing than to keep track of words or remember to check the word counter.
- Give yourself a target word count that’s half of what you were assigned. When you double it, you’ll be right on target for your editor. These kinds of self-inflicted mind games don’t always work, but when they do, they’re really useful.
And while you’re writing:
- Look back over your past work and figure out what types of things you or your editors usually end up cutting—perhaps you tend to include too much background info, a human-interest angle that overwhelms the larger topic, your personal opinion, or extrapolation instead of facts. Once you know what your overage looks like, work on not putting it into your articles in the first place. I don’t usually recommend revising while writing, but if you can catch yourself one sentence into what’s about to become a six-paragraph diversion from the topic, deleting that sentence will save a lot of time and heartache. Often this requires observing yourself as much as your work; for example, if you start typing at a particularly feverish pace without checking your notes much, that may mean you’ve just digressed from facts into opinions and need to rein yourself in.
- As you write the words that make up the piece, remember that you have an endless supply of words. You can make more whenever you need to. These particular words are not actually all that important. If you need to cut them later, then you will cut them, and that’s fine. Detach yourself from the work in the moment of creation, rather than getting invested and having to de-invest later.
- Focus on journalistic ethics and journalistic goals rather than personal investment in the topic or the act of writing. Your articles aren’t about showing off your writing prowess, but about conveying ideas and informing the reader. Place yourself in service to that purpose.
Finally, when you’re revising:
- Engage your sense of professional responsibility and focus on meeting the parameters of your assignment. I’m astonished that your editors let you get away with turning in double-length drafts; if one of my freelancers did that, I’d send it right back for further trimming and be annoyed that they expected me to do their work for them. Don’t put your editors in the position of having to either heavily revise your article or explain to you that you needed to do the thing you were assigned to do. Grit your teeth and do the work yourself.
- As above, know what your likely overage culprits are, look for them, and cut them first. That may be all the cutting you need to do!
- Don’t fret over trying to make it perfect. Your editor will do another pass, and ideally a copy editor will do another pass after that. You just need to hand in something that’s good enough. If you cut something that turns out to be vital, your editor will query you and you can put it back in. You’re giving the story a haircut, not performing surgery.
- View the piece as a whole and do what’s best for it as a whole. The words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs within the article need to serve its purposes. If they don’t do that, cutting them is the right thing to do for the article’s sake.
I second your call for other writers to chime in with comments—what helps you make the cuts your work needs?
Happy writing, and best of luck revising!