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MFA Sunday School (Eight: Starting Self-Editing by Understanding Your Writing Accent)

Welcome to MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work, or peruse all of the past lessons as well as a glossary of terms by reading the MFA Sunday School Glossary and Course Archives.

Looking at your work with a critical eye means exiting your own brain and figuratively trying on someone else’s in order to see your writing from an entirely new angle.  Everyone has their own approach to self-editing: some work as they go along, editing before they write the next paragraph or scene.  Others wait until they have a final product in hand and then go back in to polish it up.  Some do a blend of both, and others get so hung up on the editing process that they sort of stop writing altogether.  Editing is what makes them hit the proverbial wall with their project.

So how does one go about learning how to self-edit?  There’s something to be said for the joke about starting a whole new relationship by masturbating with your other hand — getting out of your own tired brain is easier said than done, but changing the location of where you wrote the piece (writing it on one computer but editing it in a different room or on a different computer), reading it aloud to someone, or editing on a different medium (writing on the screen but editing on paper) are all simple ways to trick your brain into seeing your writing from a new angle.

Before you start editing, you need to understand one thing: there is a difference between your writing accent and writing mistakes.

When I talk about your writing accent, I don’t mean writing to convey to the reader the accent of the character (as in, putting “y’all” in there so the reader knows this person is from the south).  Your writing accent — as defined by me — are the small quirks that you use in your writing which make it undeniably yours.  It goes beyond your writing voice; it is about the tiny inflections you pepper into your writing that people respond to on an emotional level without realizing it.  I think of your writing voice as something loud, immediately defining.  You would never mistake Danielle Steel’s writing for Stephen King’s.  But your accent is something much more subtle.

Two seconds into a blindfolded conversation with an Australian, you can tell that they’re not from America.  That is due to the way they pronounce their words, and that is the equivalent to your writing voice.  But several minutes into the conversation with the Australian and regardless of what they’re talking about, without even seeing them, your gut has formed an opinion on whether you like the person or not.  Whether you respond to the person or whether you’d rather not talk to them anymore.  It’s how I can put three Australians in front of the blindfolded you and asked them to talk about something as mundane as the weather, but you’d be able to form an opinion on each one, though you may not be able to point out why you formed that gut reaction.

Side note — this lesson is about discovering why.

Now do you see the difference between writing voice and writing accent?  Voice is apparent.  Accent takes some searching.

With editing, we want to get rid of writing mistakes without getting rid of your writing accent, but in order to do that, we need to know whether the way you’re writing is putting off the reader or drawing them in.  And best example I can give you comes from my own writing accent.

Perhaps not in blog posts, but within book writing, I have two things I constantly do — one of which is my writing accent and the other of which is a writing mistake.  Part of my writing accent is my love of verb-led sentences.  “Running for the bus, she slipped on the newspaper sheet stuck to the sidewalk and landed with her face in yesterday’s gum.”  Verb-led, non-gerund sentences was something I was known for back in my MFA program.  When other people did it, people would jokingly ask if I secretly wrote the story.  Now that I’m conscious of it, I tone it down or play it up depending on the piece I’m writing and the volume I want on the action or external story.  That’s my writing accent, and people respond to it (either liking or hating it).  I also use a lot of dashes to draw out thoughts.  To drag your brain this way and that.  Either you like that or you don’t, but that’s what you’re responding to in my writing.  I use a lot of semi-colons to keep ideas close together.  Again, either you like that you or you don’t, but those are small things I’m doing that you unconsciously respond to in my writing.

Here’s a writing mistake I often make: I summarize a whole scene with a one or two sentence punch at the end, a move that my advisor always called “tags” but since I can’t find this online, it’s making me think that he invented the term.  The tag was a mistake because it not only slowed down the storytelling, repeating what was essentially shown in the scene, but it treated the reader poorly.  My professor once jokingly told me that he was going to gather up all my discarded tags one day and publish a whole book of them called Tag Sale.  I still write tags because I have to write tags.  It’s like stopping myself from vomiting — not only does it not work most of the time, but it’s usually better just to vomit and get it over with and move on.  So I write my tags, and then, when I go to edit, I remove them.

This lesson is getting long, so I’m going to break it into two parts.  Next week, we’ll take a look at common writing mistakes so we can find them in our writing.  But for the time being, start looking at your writing with your other hand… I mean… a different portion of your brain.  What writing quirks do you notice you do?  What is done consciously, and what is done unconsciously?  If you can’t find them, don’t worry.  Once we get to writing mistakes next week, your writing accent is going to pop out at you.

Homework: No special assignment this week because we’re mid-lesson, though keep writing.  Instead, let your classmates know how you edit in a comment below — do you do it at the end of a project/post, as you go along, or a blend of both?  And does the editing process ever stop you from finishing what you’re writing?  It will be interesting to see the various ways people approach editing before we get to talking about finding writing mistakes.


1 Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul { 06.03.12 at 10:15 am }

I’ve never thought about the difference between writing accent and writing mistakes. One thing that I notice about myself is an aversion to editing at all. Even back in grade school when I would write a one-page essay and be told to check my work, I’d ignore the last instruction and go ahead and turn it in. Same went for doing math problems or really anything I had to back and review, now that I think about it. I was always a perfectionist, ironically, and think there was a part of me that didn’t want to see that there could be mistakes. I’d rather just throw it out there and pray. Now that I’m working on a writing a fiction book for the first time, I’m realizing I’m going to have to practice taking an (long, hard) honest look at my writing. Eeek!

2 Pale { 06.03.12 at 11:40 am }

Mel, you made my Sunday with this one. I was looking forward to it since you mentioned it last week. 🙂
I can only edit in preview mode. Something about the switch to a clean page helps me to “see” the post. Kind of like putting a piece of artwork into a mat and a frame and hanging it on the wall …
When I was in art school, I had a famous drawing and painting professor who talked about this process (for art instead of written art). He would begin work on a piece and eventually he would get to a point where he knew it was time to take a break and so he would take the piece and turn it to face a wall in his studio and forget about it for a while. When he returned to it later … days … weeks … months later … his eyes would be fresher. He also said that he would turn the piece upside down sometimes … just to shake up the way he saw it. Anything to … as you say … get a look at the work outside the frame of your brain. I think of that now when I hit that indefinable point with a piece of writing where it’s time to step back. Where, if I keep working without a break, I know that I will only be OVER-working it. Making the mistakes uglier.
The other piece of advice that this prof gave us was to avoid the temptation to focus on ONE area of a drawing. He advised us to bring the ~whole~ thing up to completeness simultaneously, which can sometimes be hard because we all have pieces of a project that we fall in love with. But he said that if you don’t force yourself to see the WHOLE, it will contort the work, ruin it. I have a feeling this also applies to writing and … although I can’t articulate it just yet … I try to keep it in mind. I think for some reason it’s easier to accomplish this with writing than it is with drawing … at least for me.
Writing accent is a fascinating concept to me. It must be like the difference between hearing your own voice when you speak aloud in the moment … and hearing it from outside yourself on a recorder. It sounds utterly alien TO YOU, yet this is the way OTHER people hear you all the time. In other words, it’s obvious to everyone BUT you. Which is why I think stepping back as you progress is really a big part of the editing process. What freaks me out is … this especially applies to going back to published pieces. Having declared something “finished” … I dread going back to it and finding mistakes that I didn’t see at the time … things that grate or make me cringe now that I have more distance. I rarely go back and read old posts (after the first month or so when the comments are done rolling in), and I sweat bullets whenever I do.
As for me … I edit a little bit as I go, but I know that I need at least one sleep before I can really “SEE” it, so the editing that I do in the moment is more casual. I love getting up the next day and viewing what I’ve written with ‘fresh’ eyes. I edit for clarity and for quality of expression, since I have not been trained on the more technical aspects of writing … except what I have absorbed unconsciously from early school years and from ravenous reading.
Once I’ve had some distance from a piece, I go and read and re-read. And this is a process that I almost cannot stop. Almost every time I re-read something, I find something I want to fix. I know I am getting close when I am not finding much to pick at.
I have a secret fear that, while the writing is absolutely helpful for me … that my accent is too mechanical and off-putting. And that what I write is only interesting to me. But on the advice of a lot of creative people … I know it’s best not to worry/think about that too much. Or else it will just lead to giving up.

3 Pale { 06.03.12 at 12:04 pm }

Sorry, I was rushing and I copied and pasted my comment from wordpad without realizing the paragraph formatting didn’t translate. One long paragraph = UG.

4 Daryl { 06.03.12 at 12:39 pm }

I definitely edit as I go, but once something is “finished,” I have a hard time going back. I was discussing this with a writer friend yesterday. When I write a poem in iambic pentameter or another fixed form, I have a really hard time breaking that form, even if it could make the poem better. This is something I need to work on.

Like you, I have noticed little things that I suppose would define my accent. I also love dashes and long strings of hyphenated words. It seems like something readers would have a strong opinion about one way or the other, but I’m afraid to ask!

5 Barb { 06.03.12 at 5:56 pm }

I’m trying to get back into this as best I can. 😉 I edit both as I go along and after. I do the bulk of it after though. One of my mistakes is that I am far too verbose. I take too many words to describe a scene. I’m like you Mel in that I can’t stop myself from doing it. If I do, I get stuck and don’t get the writing I want. So I just let myself vomit it all over the place, then I go back and clean it up. 🙂

6 Stinky { 06.03.12 at 9:48 pm }

Oh goody. I’m still working through the last few weeks sessions, this feels like breathing space.

Self editing: well I edit as I go along, testing the feel of the sentences, but for the most part I try and get the bones down, of where the blog post is going to go. I HAVE to correct spelling and punctuation as soon as I’m aware of it, and always feel a bit kinda soiled when I notice such glaring mistakes I have missed in a published post.
I have to reread in preview as the wordpress postwriter box is too small and I like to see the spacing as it will read.
So, as I go through, and one big edit at the end. And if things feel ‘unfinished’ then they stay as drafts and I come along 6 months later and completely rewrite or trashcan it.

I was smiling reading this as I know one of my ‘things’ is to have a lot of tangential thought. I think I mentioned before, I struggle with conciseness and always seem to feel like not providing background means that the writing flow doesn’t make any sense. When it probably makes less sense with all the bifurcations anyway.

As you can tell from my comments, it is all quite free-associaty, which I guess gives me quite a bit to edit and consider.

7 Justine { 06.04.12 at 12:00 am }

Parenthetical remarks. They are everywhere in my writing … and I try to remove some of them when I edit, because some are my voice, but too many makes me sound like I’m the writing equivalent of a drunkard … meandering about the page. And ellipses … I’m always trailing off somewhere. That might be a mistake.

I edit as I go, but I also edit at the end, because I like to hear the whole thing together. This made editing my dissertation a P.I.T.A, though, because it was just so damn long. I can’t imagine editing a novel; I’ll definitely need to start with short story form. 😉

8 marwil { 06.27.12 at 11:09 am }

As for blog posts I write first and edit in the end. Spell check and such. And like Stinky mention I always have a preview look before hitting publish. Just to be sure it will look all right.
For some reason I rather write poems with the old fashioned pen and paper. I guess it’s easier playing with words that way.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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