In my high school biology class we sliced off transparent films of onion skin with our fingernails then slipped them under wet-mount slides in order study plant cells. My onion was red. I dyed it with a single drop of methylene blue so the nuclei would be visible. As kids around me chomped gum and slipped notes to each other, I pressed my forehead to the eyepiece, certain I was about to witness a miracle. With a few adjustments to the focus, the plant’s cells appeared. Rows of nuclei stared back at me. It was like looking into the onion’s soul.
Sometime editing feels like working under a microscope. We lean into the page, hoping our intense study will reveal the story’s genetic code. Strings of words are analyzed, sentences built then tossed out. It’s easy to believe that composing beautiful sentences is the pinnacle of editorial work, but the very first thing you need to do is determine what your story is about.
Staring at the page won’t help you figure that out.
Over the years I’ve heard lots of advice regarding how to develop psychic distance, the perspective needed to make good writing great. Put your manuscript in a drawer. Print out the pages and spread them on the floor. Cut up your paragraphs and rearrange them like puzzle pieces. Find a reader. Hire an editor. I have used all of these techniques to improve my own work.
At the 2016 creative writing conference, Kristin Kovacic, co-editor of the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion, offered three questions writers can use to develop distance from their work. Here is her incredibly helpful list.
1. How many things is this piece about? At this stage you want to think about multiplicity. If you’re writing a piece about a young woman who owns a dog in a small town, your piece may be about dogs, women, and small town life. If you expand from character and place to feelings you may find that the piece is about security, shame, or vulnerability. Maybe it’s about innocence. If you drill into the category dog, you may find that it’s about mutts, or fleas, or purebreds. It could be about a fur. Think broadly and cast a wide net.
2. Are there connections between things on your list? Look for points of intersection. Perhaps you notice that the dog helps the young woman hide her vulnerability. Maybe the dog represents the love she’s always wanted. Maybe the dog is a mutt in a neighborhood full of purebreds Like the family, he never feels accepted. See how many connections you can create. Make it a game. Novel connections boost your creativity.
3. Who does the narrator represent? We all have identities we represent in some way—woman, journalist, mother, etc. Make these lists all the time. See which group needs to be represented by this piece of writing.
Once you’ve answered these questions, see which connections seem most relevant. Figure out who the narrator represents and build your structure based on the realizations you’ve established. Examine what you’ve introduced in the beginning of the piece and see if you’ve wrapped it up in the end. As Kristin said during the conference, “a good piece resolves its central tension. It doesn’t simply end.”
Once you know what your piece is about, you figure out what structure best serves it. Then you can begin the microscopic work of line editing and fact checking. Stare at the page as often as you like. You will have seen the story’s soul.