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 as a novel way of finding new talent, but it’s also a great place to connect with other writers. 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.

Six Tips for Better Dialogue

Dialogue is probably the single most effective way of bringing your characters and your narrative to life. It involves your reader in a way that descriptive passages, however well written, simply cannot. There’s something about being in on the action, rather than being told about it, that makes everything more believable and engaging.

The most important point to remember when writing dialogue is that it should be good enough to stand on its own merits – that means without the aid of adverbs, beats, and attributions. You’ll always need a little bit of support here and there, but keep it to a minimum and remember that the important stuff should be in the dialogue.

If youre explaining, youre losing. You shouldn’t have to explain your dialogue by adding the likes of John shouted angrily, Sarah said in disbelief, Paula commented sulkily, etc. If the meaning is effectively conveyed in what your characters say, these attributions not only become superfluous but also serve to undermine the dialogue and disengage the reader. Remove the explanation and see if the meaning is still clear. If it isn’t, it’s time to rewrite. By letting the dialogue speak for itself, by describing it less, you make it more realistic and you show your readers that you trust them with your story.

Attributions should be heard and not seen. There is no need to get creative with your attributions: stick to John said (not said John, which sounds a bit Enid Blyton these days). Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or a Sarah uttered or a Paula retorted (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest; fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting. And remember, especially, that people do not smile, snort or smirk dialogue. In fact, it is often best to do away with attributions altogether, once you have established who is speaking.

Make it sound natural, but not too natural. We often digress when we speak, but if you do this in written dialogue you’ll quickly lose your readers. Essentially, you have to take out the boring bits. Your characters need to stay on topic but sound as though they are conversing naturally. Don’t put in the irrelevant and don’t put in ums, ems, and ers. But do use contractions like dont, wont, and couldve. It’s fine to have interruptions (use ‘–’ with a space before but none after) and to have a character trail off (use ‘ . . . ’) but don’t overuse either as they can be as irritating on the page as they are in real life. Think carefully about your characters’ style of speaking. It’s usually best to avoid trying to convey accent by altering spelling. It quickly becomes tiresome to read an author’s attempt to rewrite the dictionary to fit a cockney or an Irish accent, so use colloquialisms and speech patterns instead. And feel free to break the rules of grammar if your character shows a blatant disregard for what’s correct. If he wants to say, ‘I seen that movie last week. It were rubbish,’ let him.

Miss a few beats. Beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John put the book down and looked out the window, Sarah turned and walked to the door. Used sparingly, they serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. Beats are a very effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

Dont say too much. Dialogue is a great tool for characterisation, and, of course, it can develop the plot, but be careful not to force a character into saying something incongruous just because you need to move the narrative forward. The taciturn farmer who suddenly feels like waxing lyrical to a stranger about his love of the land is implausible, as is the serial killer who reveals his modus operandi to a family member over breakfast. Readers spot artificial conversation and feel cheated by it. What you want your character to say is one thing; what they would actually say might be another. Always make sure it is your character speaking and not you as a storyteller forcing them to reveal a bit of plot they have no business revealing through dialogue. Be faithful to them and they will serve you well!

Read, read, read. Read your dialogue aloud, preferably to someone who will tell you if it sounds odd or unnatural. It’s amazing how you suddenly find that there are words or phrases that you stumble over or that seem out of character when you have to actually speak them. And read books, lots and lots of books – but that’s my solution to everything!