Writing

David Sedaris’s Tips for Editing Your Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 20, 2019 • 4 min read

When it comes to story editing, best-selling author and humorist David Sedaris believes that “you need to do the best that you can do, and then you need to take the best that you can do, and you need to rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it.” Even if you’re working with a professional editor, you’ll probably go through several rounds of self-editing before your short story or nonfiction personal essay feels finished. In addition to writing and rewriting, David uses reading aloud to an audience as an editing technique. If you don’t have access to a crowd, you can always read your own work aloud to yourself or your fellow writers to get a fresh perspective on your word choice, sentence structure, and story arc.

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David Sedaris’s Story Editing Tips

Writing is rewriting. David writes an essay 12 to 18 times before giving it to an editor. He takes it as far as he possibly can on his own and then rewrites it yet again after an editor has seen it. When you’re in the midst of a tough revise, keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t be afraid of “breaking” your piece. Chances are a rewrite will make it better, not worse.
  • Expect a first draft to need major retuning.
  • Often all of the “ingredients” of a good piece are there. Sometimes a revision is less a matter of rewriting and more a matter of reordering, digging deeper, slowing down here, speeding up there, and giving the reader the guts and odors on top of the skeleton and shadow.

How David Sedaris Edits by Reading Aloud

David goes on reading tours twice a year and hits about 45 cities on each tour. He usually prepares four or five essays along with diary entries to read aloud, and at the end he’ll do a Q&A session. Reading aloud is another layer of David’s editing process—kind of like live workshopping.

“When the audience laughs, I make notes,” he says. “And when the audience coughs, it’s like they’re throwing skulls at you. They’re telling you that if this was on the page, they would be skimming now. At the end of the night, I’ll lay my story out on the hotel bed and look at my notes, and I’ll notice the flow of the laughter. I want there to be a rhythm to it. I want it to be like a roller coaster that the audience is strapped into.”

Even without having an audience’s reaction to gauge, reading your work out loud to yourself or a writing group can be an invaluable tool in the writing process. In addition to finding the essays’ slow spots, David also uses the method to catch the unintentional repetition of words (“I’m horrified when I realize that I used the same word twice in one sentence”) or other sections that don’t seem to land with a broader subset of readers.

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13 David Sedaris Books for Further Study

Before you start writing and editing your own story or memoir populated by characters from real life, a great way to become a better writer is to read the work of good writers. Here are a few works from David Sedaris that can help bring your own stories to the next level:

  1. Stump the Host (1993): a play that David wrote with his sister Amy under the name The Talent Family, performed at La MaMa playhouse in New York City.
  2. Barrel Fever (1994): David’s first time publishing a collection of stories and essays, which includes “Santaland Diaries.”
  3. Naked (1997): David’s first immediate bestseller, Naked is an essay collection addressing David’s upbringing, his mother’s death, his college years, and the time he spent hitchhiking as a young adult.
  4. Holidays on Ice (1997): a collection of Christmas-themed essays.
  5. Incident at Cobbler’s Knob (1997): another play that David wrote with his sister Amy as The Talent Family
  6. “Santaland Diaries” (1998): a short story about David’s experiences working as a department-store elf that was first read on This American Life with Ira Glass.
  7. Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000): This bestselling collection won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. The collection is divided into two parts: the first including essays about his childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his time living in the United States, and the second composed of essays about his move to Normandy, France, with his boyfriend, Hugh.
  8. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004): This collection of essays centers around David’s family story, including his mom and dad. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
  9. When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008): a collection of essays about a wide variety of topics.
  10. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (2010): a book of modern-day fables with animals for characters, illustrated by Ian Falconer.
  11. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (2013): a book of narrative essays that debuted in the number one spot on the bestseller list.
  12. Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002) (2017): an edited compilation of David’s diary entries.
  13. Calypso (2018): David’s new book, a bestseller.

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