Self-Editing Mantras to Enhance Your Revision Process
July 13, 2022 § 18 Comments
By Deborah Sosin
I learned Transcendental Meditation just before entering college. As part of the training, my teacher assigned me a mantra, a one-syllable Sanskrit word. She instructed me to say my mantra out loud, then repeat it silently with my eyes closed.
It’s been fifty years, and I still meditate twice a day. And I still return to my mantra as a touchpoint when my mind wanders off, which it inevitably does. After so long, the process happens smoothly, with no conscious thought. And, often, worries float away and clarity and wisdom emerge.
Lately, I’ve been recommending mantras to my writing students and editorial clients. Not the Sanskrit kind, but those reminders that bear learning, practicing, and repeating until they become more internalized, more automatic.
Invoking mantras is particularly useful late in the revision process—that stage when we might think we’re done; when we’re eager (desperate?) for objective feedback, possibly from a professional editor.
But before you hit send, hit pause first. Then try a round or two of self-editing, starting with this pithy quote as your anchor:
“Fiction is the art of invention; nonfiction is the art of selection.”
Naturally, we’re emotionally attached to the events, characters, plot twists, and outcomes of our life experiences, whether we’re writing essays or memoir. So, how do we choose which ones “count”? How do we shape a story that readers will not only enjoy but one they can connect with, delight in, learn from? Then ask yourself:
What does the reader really need to know?
Becoming a selection expert takes practice and the willingness to let go. We might mourn the loss of a scene or turning point that felt vital in our lives. That’s OK. Mourn away, and when you’re ready, move on.
In answering this question honestly, you’ll recognize that even major milestones or entire relationships can be omitted, or summarized, with nothing lost for the reader. For example, one editing client wrote eight pages about her second marriage, which sounded almost identical to her first marriage—claustrophobic and miserable. As a reader, I’d learned nothing new. Using this mantra, the author later whittled that relationship down to three sentences.
Also ask yourself, “Why should my reader care?” Allison Williams, in Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, discusses the “So What Factor” and urges writers to get beyond the personal and consider the universal. What about my story is important for readers not only to know about but to relate to meaningfully through their own experience?
What is my story, anyway?
You’re probably familiar with Vivian Gornick’s classic craft book The Situation and the Story. As an essayist, I had always written decent scenes and dialogue and did pretty well with the personal-to-universal paradigm. But I tended to favor situation over story, that is, recounting events from my life without delving enough into the underlying meaning. Recently, this mantra helped me elevate what was originally a light, word-nerdy essay about completing my late father’s unfinished New York Times crossword puzzles. Digging in, I discovered something much deeper—a story of loss and love and connection.
If this mantra is challenging (join the club!), try this gem from Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: “What am I really trying to say?” If you notice flat prose or muddled logic but feel stuck about how to revise, do a free-write (writing without stopping or censoring), exploring any associated memories and insights. If painful emotions arise that interfere with your creative process, flag that part, let it marinate, and come back to it.
Less is more.
An oldie but goodie and always applicable. Go through your draft. Highlight any passages that divert from your core point. Does the remaining text make sense? Does it amplify your story or detract? Cut as much as you can without losing the narrative thread. Do the same for each paragraph and, ultimately, each sentence.
Here’s an excerpt from a manuscript I evaluated:
“Before I go on with the California saga, let me just say that I love California. I wouldn’t have spent so many years there if I didn’t. But, like many people who keep going back, trying to spend as much time there as possible, my first emotion toward it is one of loathing.”
After invoking the “less is more” mantra, the author wrote: “I have a love-hate relationship with California.” Aha! The author then used the same technique with other wordy, weighty sections. The revised manuscript sparkles.
Toss extraneous words.
Sometimes it’s hard to notice our own quirks and writerly habits. Try a “micro” pass to catch specific words or phrases that you overuse. I once flagged multiple instances of “So,” “Well,” “In fact,” “Of course,” and “That said” for a client who thought she was done. Rather than paying me to clean them up, she took a turn at self-editing before resubmitting a tighter version. Reading your work aloud is also a great way to catch excess verbiage.
If you try these mantras as you revise, there’s a good chance that new insights will arise from deep inside—and clarity and wisdom will emerge.
Deborah Sosin is a Boston-based writer, editor, psychotherapist, and GrubStreet instructor. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Cognoscenti, Writer’s Digest, The Manifest-Station, JMWW Journal, and elsewhere. Her craft essay on the self as antihero in CNF appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle. Debbie authored the picture book Charlotte and the Quiet Place, which won the Gold INDIEFAB and Silver IPPY awards, among several honors. Since 2009, Debbie has led “Write It Like It Is” free-writing groups. Find more on her work at www.deborahsosin.com
Excellent, timeless suggestions—thank you, Deborah!
Thanks, Sarah! I’m so glad you found it helpful!
Thank you, Jan! There were so many mantras to choose from, as you can imagine.
Wonderful piece! I also loved your NYT essay.
I usually have an ideal reader in mind as I write. My mantra for each sentence is, “How does this benefit her?” If it doesn’t, it gets cut.
Thanks, Ingrid, and thanks for reading the NYT piece too! I love your mantra–will add it to my list. 🙂
Ah, thank you for all these reminders. Just what I needed as I am reading, once again, my manuscript before releasing it to the next phase. I will certainly pass along these notes to others I’m working/writing with.
That’s great, Judy! Thanks! I think it’s always good to slow down before that “release” moment. Not easy but worth it. Best of luck!
Congratulations! Love this wisdom of words and mantra!
Thanks so much, Napoleonomama!
Thanks for you essay. Great insight about mantra and editing.
Thank you! So glad it connected for you, Charlie. I have found the whole concept so helpful.
Thank you so much, Deborah! I’ve been revising (and revising) one part of a 3 part essay where I have to use percentages and numbers. Making it smooth has been difficult. But I feel greatly helped by your suggestions, which I knew once-upon-a-time, but needed to hear them again.
That’s fantastic, Constance! Thanks so much for letting me know. I feel like we’re all in this together. Good luck with next steps!
Wonderful. I was reading this post and it gave me such a helpful insight I had to break off to rework a piece I wrote yesterday. Shared on Twitter!
Oh, that is is terrific, Roz. Thanks so much for letting me know and for sharing on Twitter! Good luck as you go forward!
Your piece will be my new mantra! Spot on advice. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Jill! That means a lot!