Hulstrand’s Five Golden Rules of Editing
1. Don‘t censor yourself.
HOW DO YOU KNOW what fascinating/amazing/even miraculous ideas, observations, beliefs, etc. will come flowing out of your mind/heart/hands, if you just let them?
NEVER cut yourself off in advance, before even putting words on the page. If you have an urge to write them, there’s probably a good reason to do so, even if the reason is to rid yourself of a foolish, untrue, mistaken, or inaccurate thought that you need to purge from your brain.
SO WHAT if 50-90% of what you write in a first rough draft is not quite correct/not what you really mean/or even downright nonsense or garbage?
These are thoughts that need to be expressed, and often the best way to find out what you do believe is to see words on a page stating things that you do not.
What better way to get rid of these false starts that are clogging up your brain than to write them down and then CRUMPLE THEM UP? (Or zap them into electronic oblivion?)
Much of writing is a search for that elusive 10% that will turn out to be wise, valuable insights; or beautiful, precious memories; or vile memories that you need to purge from your system in order to move on with your life (and/or your writing). So don’t be afraid of committing them to paper or screen. That is the best way to see what’s in your mind and heart. From there you can figure out what to do about it!
2. Don’t copy-edit early drafts: save surface details for the very last step.
You should never allow spelling, punctuation, grammar, style, or even legibility to get in your way when you are creating early drafts. The only important thing in this stage is to get your thoughts from your mind/heart to the page or screen (legibility and spelling are important only insofar as they make it possible for YOU to read what you’ve written).
For many reasons, surface details should only be dealt with in final drafts. The most important reason is that you don’t want thinking about the mechanics of writing to get in the way of expressing your ideas. Another reason is simply to make efficient use of your time: why would you want to fuss over spelling and punctuation in a paragraph that may never make it to the second draft? And if you are the kind of person who finds this kind of editing (it’s called copy editing) tedious or difficult, you may NEVER have to do it. You can hire a professional editor to help you with your final draft before it goes out into the world. You have more important things to be thinking about!
3. Don’t be afraid to say what you really believe.
What’s the worst that can happen? Someone will find out who you really are?
Is this a bad thing?
4. When the time is right, be ruthless in getting rid of anything that is not carrying forward your message or your story. (But if you think it has merit, or that it may work well in another piece or context, put it aside for later.)
Many people find cutting passages from their writing painful and difficult because the words represent something important to them. They may in fact be very important, and invaluable in another context. But if they are just clouding the issue or getting in the way of your main point in this one, you need to get rid of them.
You can, and should, save these bits for “later.” Label them and put them in a file. They may be the perfect launch for another piece.
5. Listen to your writing.
All good writing draws on the basic, intuitive rules of poetry. This means that you will judge your work for how it sounds as well as what it says. And the very best way to make that judgment is to read it aloud. Your ear will know what’s right and what’s wrong. Listen, and heed.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature who divides her time between France and the U.S. She teaches literature courses in Paris, Hawaii and Cuba for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and offers Writing from the Heart workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.