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The Art of Self-Editing Part 1 - being objective

Hi, it’s Katy, the assistant at Guts!

I started working at Guts in August 2020, so I have been reading manuscript submissions with Julianne for a while now! Alongside that, I am currently doing a master’s thesis in contemporary feminist fiction, and reading a lot of feminist and queer memoirs, critical nonfiction and autobiographies. Basically, most of my time is spent either reading and editing essays or submissions! So, I have a good idea of what works, and what doesn’t.

Storytelling has to come together with the writing. You know you have a story to tell. So focus on that, and nothing else! Your writing skills are of course important, but try to stay focused on your storytelling skills. Ask yourself: what is it that I need to say? Then aim for clarity. Say what happens. Keep in mind, yes we all love a well-constructed sentence, but you don’t have to prove you are a good writer. Honesty, vulnerability and rawness pave the way to writing a good memoir. Of course, after reading many memoir submissions, I have picked up on a few things that work and would like to share these with you.

A strong opening is incredibly important. Don’t spend hours and hours overthinking the first sentence, but do give it some thought. The first few lines really do set the tone. Rather than a whole lot of exposition, present the ‘conflict’ that leads onto your journey pretty soon after that. Tell the reader what is at stake. Otherwise, they won’t really know what to expect. Keep the narrative focused. You are writing about your experiences and you want the reader to stay on that path with you. I have read memoirs which begin with an incredibly strong voice, and after the first chapter, it begins to get lost. It really is a balancing act in trusting your voice, and going into details that make it flourish. But, bottom line, stay focused on telling your story.

Other things to keep in mind – every writer has a different process. Some people write the entire first draft without any idea of structure. If that is your process, go with it. Others need to write an outline first. It’s really up to you how you approach it. The idea is to get a first draft and get all of your ideas on to the page, then you can go back and start tweaking/editing.

Some thoughts on self-editing. I once read a thread where a writer said they didn’t ever edit their work. It was a strange thing to read because as a writer I know that editing is an integral part of writing. Even Jack Kerouac with On the Road said he didn’t want to change anything in the original manuscript as he thought it may diminish the impact of his original thoughts. But in the end, even On the Road was edited.

How do you self-edit, and how do you learn to be objective with your own work? For me, I do this by giving myself time and space to keep revisiting. I put my writing aside for a while before I start editing. A few days or weeks if I can. I try to read as much of anything else as I can. Then when I go back to it, I try to imagine what I am reading was written by someone else. I envision in my mind who the reader could be, and what responses they might have. This may sound difficult but it is possible. It just takes some practice. You could start by reading a friend’s work and offering feedback. Then try it with your own work.

To read through your own work is how your writing comes to fruition. But, to read through your work objectively, or in the eyes of another, is when you can truly see what needs to be edited. Learn to recognise moments when you start skimming over your work. For you, it is skimming to get to the part you know is good. For the reader, it doesn’t add anything to the experience and it can get kind of boring. So, recognise when the narrative feels weaker, and change it …or get rid of it! It is hard to do, especially with something as personal as a memoir, but it really elevates the writing.

Where does this objectivity come from? I think it’s your instinct. Reading the first few pages, my instinct already tells me if this is something I need to read more of. If you are writing a memoir, you most likely will have read a few so you know what you like to read. Your instinct will tell you what needs to be changed in your own work. Sometimes it takes a while to develop this skill but eventually you will. I guess it’s something like …a gut feeling.

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Katy Dadacz (she/they) is an assistant at Guts Publishing. She is currently doing an MA in Gender Studies, with a focus on contemporary feminist fiction.

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