When I review all of the many pitches sent to Bustle each day, there are a few patterns that tend to emerge: 1) people are really mad at their exes, 2) people often haven't thought enough about how to structure their essays, 3) people also often haven't put enough time into editing their own piece before sending it off.
It's these last two common mistakes that tend to disqualify pitches to Bustle above all else. So when I began leading Bustle Seminars, our monthly workshops designed to help Bustle writers and other freelancers develop professionally, these were naturally some of the first topics I wanted to tackle. Last month, we talked about writing a personal essay for online publication, and this month, we're talking about the art of self-editing.
For those of you who couldn't attend (or who did!), I've summarized most of the main points from the workshop below, for your reference. Note that I've framed much of this around editing a personal essay, think piece, or editorial for print, but several of the points are still applicable to reporting, listicles, and even fiction. Here are six steps to becoming a better self-editor.
1. Editing Before You Even Begin Writing
A lot of your work as a self-editor happens before you even begin writing. I've devised the acronym above because I can.
"F" stands for "Free Write," which is one of my favorite ways to get unstuck and brainstorm as a writer. When you freewrite, you want to journal (ideally longhand) for a set amount of time (I suggest 10 minutes). The idea is to refrain from censoring yourself in any way — you are writing your stream of consciousness as it comes to you.
If you already know what you want to write about, you can journal in this way about the topic at hand. If it's a personal essay, you may try beginning every sentence with "I remember" or "I see/I hear/I smell/I feel" to get as many details down as possible. Think of this as getting any word-vomit out of your system — essentially, you're writing your first draft in as low-stakes a situation as possible, before you even get to the computer, or think about structure.
"A" stands for "Account For Your Details," which is when you want to look over your freewrite(s) and underline phrases that pop out to you. Are there particular details, memories, feelings, or senses that stand out? Underline them, and think about how you can incorporate them into your piece.
"M" stands for "Map Your Arc," which is a way to create structure in your piece before you begin writing it. In my experience, every personal essay or editorial has a clear arc that gives the reader a sense of where we started; a moment of change, reveal, central argument, or climax; and a "resolution," which though not usually tidy, leaves us with a sense of where we've ended up as readers — and why that matters. I get into mapping in more detail in my article on writing the personal essay, so be sure to check that out.
"E" stands for "Expect An Audience," which means writing with your audience in mind. If you're trying to write for online publication, it's essential you do this. Sure, you don't know exactly where the piece will be accepted, but in general, you know that the tone and length of a Modern Love column for the New York Times might be slightly longer and have an older average audience than a personal essay on Bustle. It helps to have your audience and key word count in mind before you begin writing so that you stay on track and avoid losing yourself in your own story. If you're not sure what the target word count should be after searching the website, look at other pieces in your form of choice on the site and aim for their average length.
2. Your "First" Edit
After you've gathered your details and know your arc and audience, you have to actually sit down and write your first draft. This is the fun/painful part, as you don't need me to tell you. Luckily, you already have your details, your map, and your target audience to help guide you through.
Once that draft is done, you're ready for your "first" edit. I put first in quotes here because as any writer should know, the process of tinkering and re-tinkering a piece is anything but linear. You may read over the piece and edit a line or two, and write five more, then start back at the top, then go backwards. There is a dance that takes place between you and the page, and only you really know what that process is like. (Personally, I find it fun — like I'm reorganizing my own secret puzzle.)
That said, even though each piece and self-editing process is different, there are some questions you can ask yourself while you're editing your own piece that will prove useful every time. Here are my suggestions — use them as a jumping off point.
Content, form, and length all work together, and they all need to be considered. I find it's best to go through these questions in roughly this order, but I'd encourage you to examine them in whatever way makes the most sense to you.
3. Step Away From The Draft & Nobody Gets Messed Up
Of course, this "rule" is different if you're pitching a piece that is time-sensitive — like an editorial or a think piece that's pegged to an event in the news or pop culture. If that's the case, you should send off your piece as soon as you're certain it's as ready as you can make it, the day you write it. Generally, on a 24-hour newsite, anything pegged to an event that happened more than a week ago will be considered "old."
If your piece is evergreen, however, it is very important to give yourself at least a few days perspective before you go back for your "second" edit.
I suggest rewarding yourself for doing the hard part with something totally unrelated, then returning to the piece in various ways over the next few days and weeks.
You can freewrite about something else, as a way of cleansing your palate. Then, I find it useful to journal or meditate on the piece — perhaps think about it while you take a walk and listen to music, or while you ride the train. If you have someone you can talk to about it, have a conversation about the topic you're writing about — it will help you clarify the essence of your argument or the heart of the piece.
You should also continue to read other pieces you admire in the form you're hoping to publish in. If you admire Nora Ephron, read a few essays by her. If you want to one day write for the New Yorker, read the latest issue. This can't be emphasized enough — no writer gets to be great without reading people who are already masters in their form of choice.
When you've done all these (and other) fun things, return to the piece when you feel ready. In my experience, I find that stepping away for more than a month tends to cause even more problems or results in the piece getting shelved.
4. The "Second" Edit
Stepping back to your piece with fresh eyes, you're ready to do another major edit. Refer to the original list of questions, plus the questions above. That last one might be the most crucial — and you need to use your newfound perspective to be brutally honest with yourself.
If the answers don't all check out, don't get discouraged — just edit the piece some more until you can clear inspection. Only you can know when you're beginning to over-edit and over-think a piece, which is when it's time to bring in backup.
5. Inviting A "Frienditor"
Once your piece is as ready as you feel you can get it, show it to a friend+editor. Ideally, they're also a reader or writer, but even if they aren't, you can still use a friend or partner as a gauge for how successful your piece is.
If you find they can't clearly express what the point of the piece was, or what was at stake in it, you need to go back and try to make it more clear with another round of writing and editing. Similarly, if you can tell they weren't affected emotionally in any way by the piece, it probably isn't ready to pitch out yet, because someone who doesn't know you will be even less affected.
6. Sending It Off
Once you've incorporated the feedback from your frienditor and are convinced the piece is ready, it's time to pitch. Every site has different guidelines, and you'll want to pay close attention to those. You can read my article on how to pitch Bustle, which might also prove useful for other sites. In (very) brief summary, from a self-editing standpoint, you'll want to make sure all the points below are in place.
Of course, you might follow all the steps above and still have your piece rejected. I know I have! Try not to get discouraged — every freelancer faces rejection; it's just part of the hustle. What's key is that you don't give up, and keep developing as a writer and an editor by reading, writing, and editing as much as possible.
There is a site that wants to publish your piece, and the cleaner you can make your copy before you send it off, the more that will become apparent. Good luck!
Images: Pexels; Rachel Krantz