Writing a book is a process and it can be broken down into parts.
There's the idea gathering and then creative outpouring of the first draft when you can banish critical voice.
But then the editing begins, and the first step is self-editing, a crucial part of the process that will also help you save time and money with a professional edit in the next round.
Today's article is from Tania at New York Book Editors, who provide professional editing for independent authors.
Learning how to edit your own work is a critical skill for any writer.
Even if you’re going to be working with a professional editor down the line, it’s always a good idea to take a crack at it on your own first. That way, you ensure your editor is helping you with problems you couldn’t have fixed yourself. You’ll learn more from their edit this way – and it will save both of you from wasting your time.
But what is a self-edit?
It isn’t simply a proofread, though cleaning up your prose and checking for errors can be a critical final step. You, on your own, have the ability to find and address a whole host of narrative and stylistic problems. So if you’ve just finished your first draft and are wondering what kind of work it might need, here’s a list of things you can check for:
(1) Are the style and tone of your book consistent, and more broadly, do you know what genre you’re writing in?
Of course, your manuscript might not fit neatly into one genre. But having a sense of what your book is can help you figure out what kind of reaction you want to elicit in the reader, and by extension, whether or not your writing is achieving that goal.
For example, if you’re primary goal is to build a taut and thrilling mystery, throwing in too many comedic digressions could easily deflate tension and kill the suspense. A little bit of dark humor is a detective novel staple, but save the loose, zany passages for a humor-based project.
(2) Are there gaping holes in your plot?
Carefully planning out your story before you write can help prevent this, but as we know, not everything always goes according to outline. A potential way to search for gaps in logic, contradictions, or other narrative blips after writing is to retroactively outline your story.
Make a list of exactly what you’ve got on the page, without adding in any explanations or other connective tissue that isn’t present in the manuscript. Then read your outline carefully and make sure everything adds up.
(3) Are all your characters people, rather than plot devices?
A common problem with beginning writers is that they throw in characters – especially minor characters – who exist solely to steer the protagonist in a particular direction. They might not have a personality or they may behave inconsistently.
Watch out for characters who appear at a train station in Connecticut to have an argument with your protagonist, even though they live in New York City. Make sure that you, the author, understand why each character is doing everything they do, and think about whether the sort of person who did X on page 13 would also do Y on page 50.
Every person in your story needs their own goals, desires, and problems to contend with, even if those issues are not explained to the reader directly in the text. Because trust me, if your characters are a blank in your mind, they’ll read as hollow on the page.
(4) Do you have a lot of “dead” dialogue that’s bogging down your scenes?
It’s said that good dialogue is always “authentic,” but this is a bit of a fallacy – good dialogue mimics the way people talk, but is usually more streamlined. All the “ummmm” and “you know” and “hi, how are you?” junk that fills normal conversation often sounds incredibly awkward and plodding on the page, because it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t move the conversation forward, or give us a sense of character, or impart information. So unless you are trying to write awkward dialogue – because, for example, you want to illustrate that two characters have nothing to say to each other – start crossing out all those tiny bumblings and exchanges.
Pay particular attention to the beginning of a conversation; people often spend a fair amount of time making innocuous chit-chat before they launch into the real substance of their discussion. And while this is all well and good in life, it can be murderously boring to read in a book!
(5) Are you doing too much writerly “throat clearing”?
This is a very natural part of the thought process involved in writing – you’re not always sure what you want to say, or how to say it, so you just start putting words on paper until you hit on the right thing. But afterwards, all of that thought-junk has got to go – it slows down the pace of your story, dilutes the intensity of your writing, and is often boring to read.
The same holds true for scenes. You may feel the need to lay out everything that happens from the moment a character walks into a room, because this gets you into the mindset and rhythm of the events you’re depicting. But the important stuff may not actually happen until that character has been in that room for five minutes. So when you revise, think about what the reader actually needs to see, hear, and know, and cut what isn’t needed to get us there.
(6) Does your writing feel natural and smooth to read?
Flow and rhythm are incredibly important to the way that humans process language, to the point where awkward language use will make your writing difficult for your reader to understand. Read your text out loud – if you find yourself stumbling over a particular phrase or passage, you know something is wrong.
(7) Did you write too much?
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is that they simply write too much: too many words, phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs – especially when it comes to description. Writers will describe an object in three different ways when finding one – the right one – is infinitely better. Or they’ll explain things that are clearly implied by action and dialogue:
“Ann strode into the office and slammed the door behind her. She was angry. My assistant got up to leave. “Stay right there,” said Ann in a menacing tone.”
She was angry and her menacing tone aren’t necessary. The reader will know she’s angry.
The main difference between beginning writers and experienced ones isn’t that experienced ones are immune from this problem. It’s that they’ve mastered the process of going back through their prose and cutting the superfluous or redundant bits.
When you reread your work, consider whether any descriptions, actions, or dialogue are simply reinforcing each other. Then select the more interesting or telling way of saying the same thing.
Most of these points cover large issues and take time to fix, but don’t be discouraged.
Simply being aware of some of the problems, recognizing them in your own work, and fixing as many as you can, will improve your manuscript significantly.
It takes a lot of practice in self-editing to get to the stage where you know instantly when something is off – and you understand how to fix it.
Every step you take in that direction will make self-editing a little easier in the long run. (Although it will never be a walk in the park!)
If you need professional editing help, check out New York Book Editors for manuscript critique, comprehensive edits, copyediting or ghostwriting.
Do you have any tips, techniques, or questions to share about self-editing? Leave them in the comments below.
Do you have a lot of “dead” dialogue that’s bogging down your scenes?
IMO this is bad advice.
Writers fall into two camps: 1) those good with narrative and 2) those good with dialog.
I am good with dialog.
Play to your strength. If you are good with dialog, write dialog. Else, write narrative.
IMO things move fast between quotes. Narrative just slows stuff down.
I have to disagree. First, segmenting writers into two camps is simply unrealistic. Different writers have different strengths and weaknesses, but many are good at both narrative and dialogue, as many are bad at both.
Second, in general, you never write toward your strength. You write to create a well-written, compelling story that reads clean, makes sense, is enjoyable, etc. Your strengths are bonuses, your weaknesses areas requiring improvement through diligence and perseverance.
Finally, stories need to be well rounded, containing an appropriate amount of both narrative and dialogue. Writing one or the other because you enjoy it or feel you do it better will not necessarily create a good story. Too much dialogue becomes more like a screenplay, and too much narrative can slow things down and distance the reader from character interaction.
The answer if to find an appropriate balance between both, and if you suck at one or the other, keep working at it until you don’t.
Zachary Smith says
I think you may have misunderstood her point (or just been responding to the headline). She was advising against a particular type of dialogue and not dialogue in general.
Derek Murphy says
I think my problem is probably writing too much, but it’s hard to say because I haven’t totally made it through a rough draft yet; my biggest is 100K+ and will probably be 150K when it’s done (I think I’m going to serialize it). When I go through to edit I focus on developing the characters, improving dialogue, and adding description – but the thing I find missing the most is dramatic tension or conflict… I need to find new ways to let my characters know they’re in danger without jumping into the full story (I don’t want to reveal what’s going on until after the first plot point).
Joanna Penn says
Hi Derek – I’m an under-writer, but you sound more like Stephen King in your over-writing 🙂 Now go finish that first draft!
My suggestion is that you finish your novel before starting to self edit.
Zachary Smith says
I have trouble with adding tension as well but have found a relatively helpful way to approach it. When I create a new character, I first ask myself why they resist change. I had always heard that every character should want something, but that just didn’t feel like it worked for me.
Once you have a resistance to change, it starts to feel really natural to put your characters through trials. Challenge their resistance and see what they are made of. Maybe they initially do change but fight the temptation to go back, or it’s a long struggle, etc.
Tania Strauss says
I really love that idea about resistance to change. One of the most common notions about what defines a story is that it’s charts the process by which a character (and/or a set of circumstances) undergoes change. “Character arc,” as it were. And of course resistance to that change is where you find conflict and tension. That’s a great tip!
Sandra J says
In my experience, over-writing is never a problem. It’s MUCH easier to cut something down than it is to add more. When I write a draft, I always opt for the wordier or redundant sentences. The first time around I don’t always know what works best for a given scene.
As an editor, I’ve worked with people from both camps (those that over-write and those that under-write), and I know which I prefer to work with!
This is such an interesting topic.
Self-editing needs that objective outside-in approach, which is why most writers I know try to put the manuscript to one side for a few weeks, if they can, to get some distance.
I always start with the character arcs for the main characters, working backwards from the ending to the first chapter and ruthlessly cutting out anything that is filler.
Then I plot out the story structure in the form of sequences of scenes, noting down the word count of every scene and how long each sequence is, so that I don’t have one huge opening section with boring exposition-heavy scenes, followed by short fast paced ones.
I think that every writer has their own process but in the end it boils down to trying to match the words on the page with the story/video playing out inside your head.
For me, writing a book is like going to stay with a couple or family who you do not know, then spending weeks or months with them every day, until they tell you everything you need to know to describe them to another person in as few words as possible.
Then you pack your bag and move on.
Coming back to visit that same couple? You are going to see them differently.
And they may not always welcome you back.
Tania Strauss says
Working backwards is another great tip. I don’t do it, personally, but I know writers who swear by it.
An interesting article, but I think one aspect that has been missed is the POV – point of view. Make sure that you maintain consistent viewpoints in each section / chapter. Don’t change pov without good reason. If you do, you will run grave risk of confusing your readers.
Margarita Morris says
Some people might write too much in their first draft, but I usually write too little. There always seems to be an assumption amongst editors that authors need to cut, but I usually need to add more. That’s not to say that I don’t cut scenes and trim flabby prose, but more often than not my scenes are under-written and need more drama, depth, tension, drawing-out etc. to make them come alive.
Joanna Penn says
I also write shorter and have to add stuff – or else I just leave the story as shorter after cutting more 🙂 but frequently I have to add a couple of scenes in second draft – I assume too much 🙂
Cyd Madsen says
Thanks for this. I always go over the top with #5 but can’t always see it without time and distance. A reminder is always helpful. I also over-write tremendously. The first eyes to see my work are always my husband’s, the theater director and acting coach. He preaches…I mean teaches that it’s better to have more that can be molded and shaped than to have too little. I don’t agree, but it’s become a habit, and one I’ve cultivated and found useful over the years.
I recently finished an edit on a book that started as a screenplay, then published as a book, then re-done again as a stage play, then back to book. Many eyes and keen sensibilities have gone over the project, and I thought all I’d have to do was a bit of tidying up…but I was sick to death of the story. To ease that, I pulled random scenes to work on and could *not* believe the major issue I found with a critical character. How could so many other eyes and judges not have seen that same problem? How did I miss it? There’s no answer to that, but from now on I will pull random scenes to jar my sensibilities. I also use ProWritingAid as an add-on. It’s value is very limited, but it also makes me stop and look at things out of order. It’s so easy to get hypnotized by the stages of a project and miss both big and little things. I never pass anything to a professional editor until I can’t see a single thing wrong with the project. That’s the point where I know ego has taken over and someone needs to knock it off its throne 🙂
I’ve just discovered Thomas Ligotti and am totally blown away. He uses 4, 5 and 6 judiciously to throw off the reader and work at a sub-conscious level for building terror. By my calculations, it will only take me another 10 years to master common errors on purpose for a desired outcome 🙂
Joanna Penn says
we have a whole lifetime to master the craft, Cyd 🙂 what else would be do with our time otherwise!
Tania Strauss says
You know, I think “time and distance” is the most important factor in a successful self-edit. I can’t make any sort of meaningful change to a piece of my writing unless I step away from it for at least 24 hours — and that’s for a short piece. Something longer, and it can take weeks (or months). I should have made that point #1!
Mina Chara says
I’ve learned to love outlining, but I never thought of creating a retroactive outline! It’s easy to lose a crucial small detail and then just assume it’s still there because you know your own story. Thanks for an interesting piece of advice.
Tania Strauss says
You’re welcome! I find that one of the most difficult things for any writer to address is that gap between what YOU understand as the author, and what your reader is able to understand based on what you’ve written — when something is intrinsic to us, our minds automatically fill in the blanks. Physically cataloguing what you’ve written is one of the only ways I can think of to make sure nothing is missing, because it forces you to think about what’s present on the page in the most literal terms.
Nathan Williams says
Excellent information! I do a lot of copy editing, but I’m enjoying learning the tools to edit for flow and consistency. This is tremendously helpful.
Any suggestions how to get the lead person to do more in a scene and not just observe the other people around them, as I find my lead person drifting away and disappearing from the scene, while everybody else takes action, the lead person is idle watching. Any suggestions to fix this? Thanks
Lew. How about trying to open the scene with your lead character literally talking, bumping, jumping, running or falling into the scene to begin with? By doing this, I find that my lead writes the scene for me.
Rebecca Ferrell Porter says
Great advice and comments, but as a seat of my pantser, I sometimes get the small elements out of order. I’ve just finished draft 3, a.k.a. the logic draft, and I found 5 tiny items that had been switched around. (that character can’t be in that scene because she’s still over here sort of stuff) Those are the things that retroactively outlining would catch, but I have a different process.
I keep one note open and log all those tiny elements with the page and chapter number. In the end, I find the logic issues and weed them out. Call it lazy outlining.
I also rip draft 2 apart and first edit all the chapters in the main POV, then go back and do the others, each character, one at a time. It seems to help me drill in on each character’s motivation.
I’m putting it away for a week and then the fun begins. Draft 4 is slash an embellish. I love draft 4.
Thanks, I’m going to try that out for sure. This is one of the main points I’ve struggled with, my lead person.
All secondary characters are rather fully developed people with personality but the lead has been somewhat “flat” without enough to their character. Would it also help to change the lead persons name? I’ve heard that recommend but haven’t tried it.
But I will certainly take your advice on starting the scene with the lead person in action!
Thanks so much.
I currently write children books…and love story telling. My approach to writing is mixing educational information alongside fun. And this makes me go over the required word limit….
Any advice on best practise pls..