When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.
Sorry for the crass reference, but it’s hard to deny that Stephen King has that feeling of self-editing down to a T.
Often as writers we treasure our words like they are our babies, but the message, intent, and impact of our writing matter much more than the individual words. Words are our servants; we, as the masters of our messages, wield words like weapons. And sometimes some of them shouldn’t make the cut.
As an editor, it would seem like self-sabotage for me to tell you to edit yourself. But that’s not quite the case. As a writer, I can say that self-editing does not take the place of hiring a professional editor, but what it does do is this:
Make you seem like a better writer than you are.
You are already a writer, and you are probably pretty good. But when you leave obvious mistakes unchecked, unclipped, and unreigned, it doesn’t quite seem that way. With self-editing, you tuck in many rough edges. You’ve shown you care about your presentation. It’s like iron your clothes before leaving the house and presenting yourself to the world.
Make it easier for editors and publishers to get to the real meat behind the message.
Oftentimes glaring errors, missing words, or unfleshed out illustrations, similes, and the like make it hard to see what the real point is. When you go through your own work, you give yourself a chance to ensure that you have made clear what you want to convey and that it is said with the impact and intention you meant it. When an editor comes behind you, it will be easier for them to follow along and help you take your message to another level.
When querying agents or publishers with a manuscript or sample writing that you have not at least self-edited, the mistakes lead the decision-makers to believe that you are not equipped to articulate you message and that it will be too much trouble to help your manuscript get to where it needs to be to stand out among the three million-plus books that are published in the US every year.
Make you a better writer.
Applying good self-editing techniques makes you a sharper writer. When you go through your work, using fairly objective techniques for grammar, sentence structure, and other clarifying methods, you will learn your own weaknesses and begin to correct them in advance and while you are in the writing phase. Self-editing helps you to notice if you use the same words or phrasing over and over again, and you will begin to see where you need to expand your vocabulary.
Self-editing is something all writers should do. You should not be putting the last period on your very first draft and without reading it through in it’s entirety again, send it on to a professional editor. Stay close to your writing. Own your part in your process. Make it great.
Once you have finished writing the first draft, pause. Take a week or two off. Don’t look at your manuscript at all. Read a whole other book, binge watch a favorite show, knit a scarf, or whatever purges your creative angst. Then once you are fresh and clear-headed, get back to your manuscript, read it though, and get out the hatchet.
Self-editing is the missing part of many writers process. It will give you an edge over the competition and provide you the space and time to “get your book manuscript to the highest level it can be before you pass it on.” Let’s take a look now at how you can do this.
21 Best Self-Editing Tips
I like the 21-part list for self-editing that best-selling author Jerry Jenkins put together. He gives specifics on what to look for in your writing and how to fix it. The thing I also like is that he gives solid terminology for what is sometimes intuited in the edit process—things we don’t always have words for but feel are wrong.
The tips that stand out most to me are:
2. Avoid throat-clearing.
This is a literary term for a story or chapter that finally begins after a page or two of scene setting and background. Get on with it.
Many authors do this when that don’t have a clear thesis in mind. They sort of write and write until they arrive at the main point. This is OK in the first draft, but make sure you cut it when you begin self-editing and before you send it off for professional editing.
8. Give the reader credit.
Once you’ve established something, you don’t need to repeat it.
Example: “They walked through the open door and sat down across from each other in chairs.”
If they walked in and sat, we can assume the door was open, the direction was down, and—unless told otherwise—there were chairs. So you can write: “They walked in and sat across from each other.”
And avoid quotation marks around words used in another context, as if the reader wouldn’t “get it” otherwise. (Notice how subtly insulting that is.)
Jenkins’ last comment here refers to what are called scare quotes. The Chicago Manual of Style defines them as “quotation marks [that] alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Such scare quotes imply “This is not my term” or “This is not how the term is usually applied.” Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.” (CMOS 7.57) I cut these with a vengeance after the first instance in manuscripts I edit. They are just not necessary. As Jenkins said, “We ‘get it.’”
21. Avoid mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes.
“He…was…DEAD!” doesn’t make a character any more dramatically expired than “He was dead.”
Another issue I viciously edit out of manuscripts is excessive italics and ellipses that go on for days (there are only three-dot and four-dot ellipses in writing—if you don’t know what I am referring to, there’s your homework assignment. :) Look up ellipses and their proper use).
Friends, your use of what Jenkins is discussing in tip 21 is not necessary. Good, clean writing should convey the emotion you want your readers to feel or the actions you hope they take after reading your work. Manipulating font, punctuation, or all caps does not take the place of your responsibility to write well.
For the other eighteen tips Jerry Jenkins shares, please check out his article “How to Edit a Book: Your Ultimate 21-Part Checklist.” Even for me as a writer, I am taking these tips to heart. I believe that writing for an audience is a generous pursuit. It’s not so much that we write to make it good enough for us or even that we say all that we want to say how we want to say it. When writing for an audience, you write with a consciousness of your readers’ needs and providing them what they came to your writing to get. Help them get it. Let them be fed well and satisfied.
So, then, will you be self-editing from now on? What has been the extent of your editing process so far? Do you just write, submit it to your editor, and not look back?
If you’ve always been a self-editor, what tips do you employ to make your writing shine?