Recently, as my husband, in-laws, and I were painting our new house, I was thinking about some writing projects I was working on. With a paint brush in hand, I began to notice the similarities between painting a room and composing an essay or article or poem.
To apply a fresh coat to all the walls, we started with the rolling and trimming. In the dining room, my mother-in-law rolled first, leaving the trimming to her husband. I prefer to trim first, cutting in a tight border for maximum rolling. Since I was trimming for my husband, though, he asked for a wider swath of trim pain so as not to get paint on the ceiling or floor. With our various methods, we eventually got paint on the walls, and sometimes, even with the best paint, we had to apply a second coat.
But no matter how skilled we were as painters (and even that is debatable), we still had to do touch ups when we were done. Maybe the roller didn’t cover so well in one spot or maybe the trim paint didn’t reach down far enough to meet the roller in another. Or sometimes there was a nail in the wall and rolling over it created a drip.
Likewise, with writing, a good essay starts with getting the words on the page. So I write, write, and write some more. Covering the page, getting the words down.
But then, I have to go back and do the touch ups.
Occasionally, I overlook this stage of writing to the detriment of my craft. Sometimes, it’s been hard enough to silence the inner critic long enough to finish a first draft. Or on a quick second pass, I might fix the obvious stuff: grammar errors, spelling mistakes, typos. Too often, this is where I stop.
The reason? Like a freshly-painted wall, the work looks good from far away. Get up close, though, and I’ll see the problems.
Here are a few tips from my recent painting experience to help you move ahead with self-editing.
1. Leave room for self-editing in your schedule
From the moment we knew we would be painting the house, we hoped the last morning could be used for touch-ups. We were battling a tight 48-hour schedule, and we debated whether we could really complete the project so quickly. But we set aside the time anyway, and when Saturday morning rolled around, we were ready.
When I accept writing assignments and map out deadlines, I am tempted to say yes to everything, squeezing in work that I can whip out and dash off day after day. A tight schedule is fine, as long as I also have built in time for self-editing. Otherwise, I may be tempted to send off work without taking the extra step of finishing it off with touch ups.
2. Go with a brush in one hand and a can of paint in the other
In other words, be prepared. Since our weekend of painting, I have walked through the hallways and bedrooms and noticed spots where the paint didn’t cover as well as it should have. When I had the brush and paint ready, I dabbed at every spot I saw. Now, the supplies have all been put away, and I’m ill-prepared to do anything about it. I just walk on by.
The same is true with self-editing. What does the proverbial brush and can look like for the writer? Time and attention. Intent and focus. Set aside an hour, put away the sentiment, and kill your darlings if you have to. But come ready to tackle the problem spots that will be there. Expect them, even.
3. Get up close to your writing
When I first walked into our downstairs bathroom the morning after I painted it, I proudly announced to my husband, “It looks great. No touch-ups needed.” But with a brush and paint can in my hand—I was doing touch ups, after all—I decided to take a second look. As my eyes adjusted to the light and the varying hues of the paint, suddenly I saw what needed to be fixed.
When you first begin self-editing, the problems won’t appear automatically. It’s your own work, after all. Your perspective may bias you. But sit with the piece a while. Read it through multiple times. Read it out loud. Read it backwards. As you experience it from a closer proximity, the work you have to do will become evident.
4. Look again in different light
Since we painted the entire house in less than two days, the painting was done at various times of the day with varying amounts of light. Especially for those rooms we painted in the evening when shadows fell thickly, coming back to the rooms the next morning made touch ups easier. Not only did the better light reveal more problems, I was rested and better able—and willing—to see them.
You guessed it: tired writers aren’t always the best self-editors. “It sounds good enough, ” I often say when I am finishing something late in the evening or with a deadline pressing in. The next morning, though, my passive verbs wave flags of surrender, the words I need to cut jump off the page on their own, and the excessive “thats” and em dashes draw straws and thin themselves out.
For most of us, self-editing isn’t the end of the work. If we are submitting our poems and essays and short stories for publication, other editors will add curtains and hang artwork and adjust the lighting in our newly-painted rooms. But to give them the best palette to work with, we do the rolling and the trim work and the touch ups before we ever invite them in.
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