One Simple Trick for Effective Self-Editing

On Monday, instead of getting a damn thing done, I took a bus into the city and headed downtown to (Le) Poisson Rouge, where Mike Geffner was hosting Titillating Tongues: NYC Erotica in Poetry & Prose. My favorite, sex-positive feminist was reading, and I was also excited to catch my very first glimpse of Rev Jen, a writer, performance artist, and elf I’d first become aware of when she was writing the old-school “I Did It For Science” column on Nerve.

Before we could bask in the awesome glow of the featured readers, however, there was an open mic.

I didn’t read, because I don’t write erotica (I just enjoy it recreationally, and ghostwrite essays that accompany erotica), but I enjoyed the mix of people who did have the balls to get up there (including my friend Claire, who had made a resolution to read, perform, and tell stories in a public setting).

And as I sat there and listened — impressed by how successful writing was about so much more than just the words — it occurred to me:

We should poetry slam all our writing before considering it Good.

Don’t freak out. I’m not suggesting you sign up for the next open mic night at your local coffee shop. (Lord knows I’m not going to.)

But what you should do before pronouncing a piece officially done is read it out loud. To workshop classmates. To a writing group. To your three incredibly intelligent cats. To yourself.


What I’m suggesting has nothing to do with critiques and constructive criticism (though those are helpful, too). Rather, reading your work out loud will help you hear things in it that you couldn’t perceive when you were just silently staring at your screen.

What should you listen for?

  • rhythm
  • flow
  • awkwardness
  • redundancies
  • cliches

In addition, you should ask yourself:

Would reading this to an audience be horrifically embarrassing?

Is this piece something I would be proud to share with others?

Does is feel good to read this out loud? Can I get into it? Can I groove with these words?

A good number of Monday night’s readers definitely grooved with their words. And their work was visibly the better for it. In the pauses and the chuckles and the facial expressions, their words became performance. Their words were alive.

Are your words alive?

Read them aloud to yourself. It will quickly become clear where the stutters and hesitations lie.

Self-editing? Suddenly easy.

Related: How Writing Forced Me Out of My Comfort Zone