When I was starting out after grad school as a freelance writer/analyst in the Israeli security community, I got the opportunity to ghost author a memoir for a high-level member of the government with a focus on national security and media relations. Years later, I wrote my own memoir* about my experience as an American woman in the Israeli security community. When I compare what I know now about memoir versus what I knew then, it’s like night and day—both in terms of story craft and editing.
In between each memoir project, I gained valuable knowledge about the right and wrong ways to approach the editing process. Regardless of your genre, platform, or even story length, the following lessons will apply to you. Some of these lessons are based on my own experiences, while others are adapted from an excellent book on the editing process called Intuitive Editing: A Creative & Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing by Tiffany Yates Martin. (This is a great read regardless of what stage you’re at in your editing process.)
Ready to start polishing your latest writing project? Ok, let’s jump in:
1. Macroedits come before microedits.
Oh man, if only I had known this starting out with my first memoir, I would have saved myself countless hours of useless work. I am totally guilty of wasting hours deliberating over writing that perfect visual description, that perfect dialogue, and so on, just to realize that the entire scene was irrelevant to the character arc and should be tossed. This concept of knowing when and how to edit is not only an important lesson for writing a book, but for sitting down to the writing table in general.
Editing on the macro level before touching up your work on the micro level might be obvious to some people, but it wasn’t obvious to me (the tortured perfectionist) starting out. Seriously, though, you don’t want to be a perfectionist when you first sit down to write the initial draft of your book, article, social media campaign, or email newsletter. Get the ideas down first; you can polish them up later.
Below are a few questions that Martin in her book advises writers to ask themselves during each phase of editing. Although this guidance was produced with the novelist in mind, the questions can definitely be adapted to writing a memoir, article, and various short-form content.
Questions to ask yourself during the macroedit:
Is there a compelling central story question or premise?
Is the protagonist (that’s you, in the case of memoir) believable, relatable, and ultimately the engine that drives the story?
Are there extraneous events or loose ends you need to cut or resolve?
Does the story take the reader on a clear journey?
How is the character (or environment) changed by the end of the story, and was that change a direct result of the story events?
Questions to ask yourself during the microedit:
Does each scene feel immediate, as in the reader is brought directly and viscerally into the action?
Is the protagonist open to the reader—meaning, that the thoughts, feelings, and responses make sense?
Is it vivid and visual? (Note to defense communicators: this can mean including specific examples to illustrate complex security scenarios. This article might help.)
Is the dialogue authentic and well-structured? (I recommend reading Robert McKee’s book Dialogue to polish up this particular skill.)
Does the suspense lag anywhere or are there extraneous scenes can be cut?
2. Don’t—I repeat—don’t delete any of your work.
When working on each memoir, I decided early on that instead of risking deleting something I might regret, I would cut/paste every discarded snippet into what I called the “extras folder.” The extras folder was essentially just a word doc where I unceremoniously dumped all the cut scenes, dialogue blocks, or even single sentences that were hard to let go. Sometimes the tortured perfectionist side of me took over and I wouldn’t stop honing a scene a dozen-plus times until I arrived at a place of satisfaction. I guarantee you can find every iteration of these scenes in my glorious extras folder.
When I completed my recent memoir, my extras folder had….wait for it….over 2,000 pages of cut scenes. This might sound obscene to some writers, but for me it was very useful for the following reasons:
1) I didn’t have to get too attached to something that wasn’t working in the manuscript, knowing that I could cut it and then come back to it later if I really missed it.
2) I was able to check back in occasionally on a cut scene that perhaps made sense placed somewhere else in the final manuscript.
3) I could see the progress I had made in developing my writing technique. You really have nothing to lose (except disc space) by doing this.
3. Get some distance from your writing and then read it aloud.
Being your own editor might seem like doing neurosurgery on your own brain, but with a little distance you can edit more effectively than you think. Martin recommends putting aside the first draft of your manuscript and then not looking at it for months before hitting the edits, but some of us don’t have the luxury of waiting this long. Alternatively, she suggests, to create distance try editing your work in a way that is so different from how you wrote the piece in the first place that it creates the space you need to see it with fresh eyes.
For example, review your work with your ears—by reading it all out loud. I recently started making my intern read all of our video scripts aloud at the office (he’s a sweet and studious kind of guy, doing his Masters degree in Mass Communications). I then challenged him to read every single one of his school papers out loud to himself and edit along the way before submitting to his professors. At first, he gave me a raised eyebrow, but a few straight As on his papers later and now he raves to his classmates about the read-it-out-loud method.
This may or may not be the intern...
Well then, following my own advice here: on a bit of a tight deadline with my last memoir, I couldn’t afford to wait several months to put the manuscript aside and edit with fresh eyes, so I carved out several days instead to read my entire manuscript out loud to myself. Like, hundreds of pages out loud. I’m not going to lie, I was so fried by the end of this that I almost set my laptop on fire and hurled it out the window into traffic, but let’s just say it paid off in valuable fixes and even catching typos before I sent it off to my editor.
Note: in some cases, there is no substitute for a real, live, professional editor; at the very least, being your own editor guarantees you whip your work into the best shape possible on your end before it goes to the editor.
In conclusion, being a good writer means being a good editor. My video production team at the office always likes to say, “The magic happens in post-production!” So too, in the writing arena, the magic happens in the editing process as you refine and perfect your work before setting it in front of your audience.
For a quick, humorous read on how I honed my narrative voice in memoir, click here.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.