Five Tips for Painless* Self-Editing

I know most writers aren’t terribly keen on editing and revising. If you’re driven by the creative impulse, editing can be laborious and painful and boring. When your word count is going down instead of up, it feels like you’re moving backwards and it seems that the finish line is slipping out of view. But revision is essential to good writing, and it doesn’t have to be all that bad. Here’s a few tips that might come in handy when you decide it’s time to polish your book and get it ready for submission.

  1. Leave it alone. Put your manuscript in a drawer for a few weeks and forget about it. When you come back to it you’ll see it with fresh eyes and you’ll be in a much better position to read it critically. You know when you come home after being on holidays for two weeks and just for a moment you can smell your own house? That’s kind of what happens. I’m not saying your house smells bad, just that for a brief period you get to smell what a guest would. Only time away gives you this fresh perspective.
  2. Then cut ruthlessly. Strip it out. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene should contribute something to your story or thesis. If the scene doesn’t move the plot forward, or if it tells us nothing new about your characters, it has no business in your manuscript. Dump it and move on. You’re likely to find that your cuts result in a tighter, more readable and more enjoyable book. You can spike anything you think you might use in another chapter or that you feel you might be able to recycle into a blog post, a short story or an article. You don’t have to waste anything good, but don’t think that just because it’s good, it’s necessary. Question the value and relevance of everything.
  3. Join a writing group. Creative writing groups provide a great forum in which to have your work critiqued by people who are as passionate about writing as you are. Some opinions may be more informed than others, and you may have to sift through some personal prejudices before you get to the useful pointers, but there are bound to be people whose opinions you value. Keep an open mind and always thank people for their feedback, even if it’s unjustified criticism. If you’re seen to react badly, people with a real talent for spotting problems might choose to keep their comments to themselves. Critiquing sites and internet author forums can also be a great source of feedback and support, especially if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t like to leave the house. HarperCollins set up Authonomy.com as a novel way of finding new talent, but it’s also a great place to connect with other writers. YouWriteOn.com offers a similar service.
  4. Read books on writing. There are hundreds of books out there on writing. There are books on plot, dialogue, point of view, editing, and every other aspect of crafting a good book. The information is there for you to apply to your own manuscript if you’re prepared to spend fifty quid and a couple of weeks studying the texts. It might not be the same as having a fresh pair of eyes tackle your MS, but if you put a bit of distance between you and your work, you should be able to put your new skills to effective use.
  5. Read the competition. It’s great to be original, but unless you’re Joyce or Kafka it’s best not to be too different. Your competition represents a good guide to what’s expected of you. You should aim to produce something better, extra or novel that adds to the canon, but don’t stray too far from the beaten track or your book won’t fit on any shelf. Read books published in your category in as critical a manner as possible. It helps if you’ve read a few books on writing first – you’ll find that issues to which you were previously oblivious are suddenly thrown into sharp relief. Try to deconstruct the books and analyse how plot, characterisation, pace, etc., are handled, chapter by chapter. Many authors in your category will have faced similar dilemmas as you, and it helps to analyse their results.

It’s true that none of this entirely replaces a professional edit (which is good, because if it did I’d be out of a job), but you can bring your manuscript a long way by investing just a few quid and some time. And if you do end up working with an editor, you will be handing over to them a better, tighter manuscript, and the book you eventually see on the shelf will be all the better for it. Happy days!

*This bit is a lie.

7 thoughts on “Five Tips for Painless* Self-Editing

  1. Pingback: Can I really write a (readable) novel? | Life's a bagatelle
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  4. Great post, Robert! I have spent months fine-tuning my manuscript, and thought that I was finally ready for publication. I ended up putting it away in in a drawer for a month or so, then went back to it. I immediately noticed problems. A frenzied 5 days (50hrs work) later (I cringe even writing that, by the way), I had cut 30,000 words and tightened up the manuscript considerably. I was shocked! What a powerful tool perspective is!

  5. The major thing I am missing here is the “find a writing group” part… I have tried but there is just nothing local I can get involved with. I’m hoping that blogging and engaging more on the interwebs will help with this.

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