Revising the personal essay is a bit like putting your children back in the womb and genetically re-engineering them. The very qualities you find so endearing may take them off course. What’s worse, you’re far too invested to see anything objectively. Revising provides an opportunity to step outside your story and gain a better perspective … then tweak accordingly. The payoff can mean the difference between a pass and a sale, to say nothing of the emotional gains.
Here are 8 tips to take your essay from draft to done. Take a deep breath. Part of revising involves killing your darlings…
Go to the chopping block.
Watch for throat clearing in your opening. Most early drafts come with at least three lines of throat clearing that can easily go without impacting the piece. The last graph, too, is prone to excess verbiage. You might be tempted to whack the reader over the head with your message, but doing so only weakens your story. Beyond those critical sections, consider deleting meaningless words, ditch “that” whenever possible, and try to avoid the lowly adverb. If you set the stage appropriately, they’re often unnecessary.
After you complete a solid first draft, put it away. Take a few days, or even a few weeks, to focus on other projects. When you come back to the piece after an extended break, you’ll be better equipped to see the story clearly.
Sure, essay writing is all about delving into your own psyche, but as you rewrite your piece, ask yourself if what you’re writing is self-indulgent, or whether it will relate to your reader. As an essayist, your job is to move beyond the personal and capture the universal.
Activate your verbs.
“To be” verbs are the enemy in essay (actually, they destroy any genre of writing). Which sounds more powerful: “I was standing on the brink of change” or “I stood on the brink of change”? Read each sentence in your piece and convert any passive voice verbs to active ones to move your story forward.
Ask for a critique.
A good reader can identify where he sees holes, where he gets bored, when the pacing is off, and when you’re holding back. If the piece doesn’t have a clear take home message, he can even ask questions to help you dig out the truth and find your story. (Note: He could be a she, too.)
Read your piece out loud.
When you read your story out loud, to yourself or to an audience, you’ll notice when awkward phrasing trips you up, or when the tone or pacing is off. Equally important, you’ll be able to assess whether you like each sentence. Pause after every line and ask yourself, “Do I like that phrasing?” “Does it need to be in the piece?” If the answer isn’t an enthusiastic yes, ditch it and start fresh. The caveat: This approach works best if you’ve set the essay aside for a few days first.
Revisit your beginning and your ending.
The first paragraph of your piece determines whether your reader (or an editor) continues reading. Make sure it sets the stage in a compelling way. Then review your close. Does it hit home? If not, rewrite it. Then, rewrite it again.Revising personal essays is like putting your children back in the womb and genetically… Click To Tweet
Make sure you have a solid take away.
Even if your final message and the reason you told this story is to remind readers that life is messy, express your thoughts clearly. Your reader should have a clear picture of the who, what, where, how and why of your narrative.
If you’re interested in learning more tools of the essay-writing trade, sign up for Amy Paturel’s six-week online essay-writing workshop. Her next class begins May 2, and she’s offering a 10% discount to BeyondYourBlog subscribers — simply email her to sign up with your discount!