photo of a fluffy calico cat with a white face and chest to illustrate the three somatic edits every project should go through.

3 Somatic Edits that Will Ensure Your Writing Rings True

Last week, I took Miss Foxy to the vet. She’d been limping for weeks, despite my home treatments, and it was clear she needed additional care.

We both dread these trips.

While Foxy is a docile little fluff ball at home, she hisses and spits at the veterinary staff. I knew whatever treatment she needed would make her hate them even more.

But I had to do what’s best for her long-term health.

As writers, we have a similar responsibility for our stories. This is especially true for creative nonfiction writers. As Helene Kiser shared in a recent Brevity blog, “Writing memoir is a lot like shivering on display in your underwear while people stare and point.” To be a good steward of stories that feel so naked, you must ensure the work isn’t just factually accurate, but emotionally true.

Working with the New York Times taught me how vital and challenging this can be. The editors were enthusiastic about publishing my story but wanted a few tweaks. In the next issue, I’ll share some of those edits.

However this week, I’m sharing the strategy I used to work through that editorial process. 

In webinars and classes, I frequently talk about the eight stages in the memoir writing process, but as I worked on my Tiny Love Story, I realized there are three somatic edits we should take every project through.

A somatic edit is an editorial process that uses the wisdom of the body to work on a writing project. While I’ll describe these stages linearly, the order each writer experiences them will vary. Most writers will also cycle through them multiple times while working on the same project.

Somatic Edit One: The Heart Draft

While creating your heart drafts, you’ll experience a deep emotional connection to your story. It’s the place where we make meaning from what our narrators or protagonists go through. Some writers experience this connection as soon as they start to write, but for others, the deep dive into feelings takes a few drafts.

While writing from the heart, you might experience sensations in your chest, neck, jaw, stomach, or anywhere else you hold emotions, such as warmth, tightness, lightness, or a deep dull ache. Some of these drafts might feel like emotional reckonings, but they can just as easily connect you to your joy or sense of awe.

Somatic Edit Two: The Head Draft

Eventually, your emotions will give way to an intellectual puzzling over paragraph or line order, the necessity of specific scenes, or the rightness of certain words. Plotters who outline their stories in advance are likely to begin in the head,  dip into the heart, and then return to the head for final edits, so they can cut, cull, and shape their heart work into its final version. 

Working in the head draft stage is a great time to ask for feedback from your writing group or beta readers, because you’ll have the emotional distance to see your work from new angles. 

Many writers hit submit soon after addressing reader notes, but there’s a final stage I invite you to entertain. If your work is accepted, and then edited, you’ll thank me for it.

Somatic Edit Three: The Body Draft

The body draft is where you prove the work is both complete and emotionally true. In it, you integrate the mind’s knowledge of writing with the heart’s emotional understanding of your story.

To complete the body draft, read your work allowed and pay attention to your thoughts and physical reactions. 

Signals you’ve arrived at both completeness and emotional truth include:

  • Relaxation in the body. 
  • Calm or emptiness in the mind. 

Sometimes you’ll know the truth of a piece, but an editor’s acceptance will be contingent on a few changes.

If this happens, do another body draft.

First, get clear on what story you wish to tell. Some projects will feel more malleable than others. Often this is related to how tender the subject matter feels.

Next, check in with your willingness to accept the suggested edits. If your body tenses or your mind suggests this is a hard no, pause to make sure you’re not experiencing the OMG-someone-said-yes jitters. If the tension remains, decline the offer—even if it’s a big publication.

While saying no might feel like a short-term loss, it could lead to long-term satisfaction with your work. This is something Eileen Vorbach Collins and Lilly Dancyger both experienced when working to publish their memoirs.

If you’re willing to revise further, note anything you’re unwilling to change. Communicate this clearly and kindly, but don’t get precious about every word. Otherwise, the experience could harm your relationship with the editor.

Sit with the suggested edits to make sure you’re okay with them.

Here’s what this somatic edit looked like for me:

  • I took five deep breaths before and after reading each edit out loud, something I also do during my pre-submission body edit.
  • Next, I recorded them into my phone and listened back to them.
  • With each listen, I checked in with my body.
  • If something felt wonky in my heart, jaw, or stomach, or I found myself ruminating over certain lines soon after, I knew the edit needed more work.
  • Before responding, I worked to understand the editor’s decision.
  • Then I created a suggested fix that addressed their concern while remaining true to my vision for this project.

The higher the stakes of your publication, the more challenging this will feel, but it’s worth the effort.

That brings me to the outcome of Miss Foxy’s vet visit. A tech and I held her down while the vet scraped some infection off her nail bed (Ouch!) She screamed and hissed as expected, but she’s now back to playing and snuggling in my lap. The pain of our visit is behind her and I feel like a good steward of my beloved friend who celebrated her tenth birthday yesterday with fat dollop of coconut oil. 

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