Self-Editing: 6 Tips for the Harried Fiction Writer

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Self-editing can be a grueling task.  Most writers are awful at recognizing plot inconsistencies, syntax problems, and typos in their own work. 

In fact, many writers would prefer to cut off a thumb rather than cut out a paragraph.  Some writers – especially the ones whose manuscripts have not yet had the pleasure of being “copy edited” by a Legacy Publishing House –naively believe that a publishing house will assign an editor to make the manuscript better.

Time to face the facts, folks:

Acquisitions editors don’t edit.  Not really.  Their job is to read manuscripts and buy the ones that will rake in a billion dollars.  Acquisitions editors don’t have time to fix “borderline” manuscripts.  Why should they, when they receive 250+ new submissions per day (and that’s just by snail mail.)  It’s far easier for the editor to route your labor-of-love to the electronic rejection bin.

Secondly, copy editors aren’t necessarily a writer’s best friend.  (I can tell you horror stories.)  Suffice it to say, the copy editor who is assigned to your contracted manuscript might be a summer intern.  Or a curmudgeon who detests words with more than three syllables. 

In other situations, your copy editor may have been instructed to turn your 150,000-word manuscript into a lean, mean 90,000-word manuscript because paper is so expensive. 

I got the idea for this post, Self-Editing Tips for the Harried Fiction Writer, after devoting two solid weeks to editing my latest labor-of-love, Seduced By an Angel, which I emailed to my publisher last week.  (Hooray!) 

Here are 6 tips that work for me:

1.  Wait One Week before Editing

Completing a manuscript – even if it’s your 30th – is a milestone.   Allow the blush of your success to keep you floating for a week.  (Float for 2 weeks.  You deserve it.)  Do not open your manuscript.  Do not write your synopsis.  Do not complete cover surveys for your artist.  Forget as much as you can about your characters and your storyline.  This strategy helps when beginning your first editing exercise.

2. Read Your Manuscript in One Sitting

What better way to find out if your manuscript is a “page-turner?” The goal in this self-editing exercise is not to line edit for commas and typos. The goal is to look for global contradictions, plot problems, and character inconsistencies.

For this exercise, get away from your computer so you aren’t tempted to delete or compose.  Print your entire manuscript, arm yourself with a red pen and a highlighter, and lock yourself away until you’ve finished your masterwork.

What are you doing with those red and yellow inks? Writing questions in the margins, circling repetitive phrases, highlighting areas that need elaboration, X-ing out passages that need to be condensed.

3.  Leave Creative Mind Behind

Take off your Writer hat.  Start thinking like a Reader. You don’t know all the deep, dark secrets of the heroine.  You don’t know that the hero, who is acting like a putz in Chapter Two, redeems himself in Chapter 5.  All you know is what the writer set down before you, word by blessed word.  Do you like these characters?  Do you understand why they’re behaving like brats?  Are you willing to put up with them for another 400 pages? 

How about the writing?  Is it jerking you around?  Is it raising too many questions?  Did you find contradictions in the prose?  (Example:  In Chapter One, the house sits on a hill.  In Chapter 12, it sits in an abandoned lot.)  Is the chronology of the storyline clear?

Did you find yourself SKIMMING a scene?  Stop immediately.  Why are you skimming?  Did the writer tell you these story facts before?  Is there too much narrative description, bogging down dialogue or action?  Slash mercilessly.

4.  Evaluate the Collective

Why the following scenario happens, I don’t know:  I write a scene that reads from beginning to end like a masterwork.  I insert it into a chapter.  The chapter is riveting.  I shove that riveting chapter into the middle of my book, and suddenly, it drags!  I find myself impatiently skimming my own manuscript.  

Unfortunately, no single, sure-fire way exists to pick up the pace in the “sagging middle” of your book.  Each scene has to be evaluated on whether it enhances the collective work.

Some solutions that have worked for me:  I take the “meat” of a scene, which is usually the dialogue, and turn it into a 1-page flashback.  At other times, I delete the whole scene.  I convey the same information by interspersing a new sentence of internal narrative into isolated paragraphs throughout the last five chapters.

5.  Not All Repetition is Evil

Let’s face it:  there are reasons to repeat what’s at stake for your characters.  Sometimes you need to remind the reader why a character is bound and determined to follow a hopeless plan of action.  Or why a character isn’t defending him/herself against repeated attacks by a bully. 

However, if you’ve done your job as a writer, you don’t need to elaborate upon those ideas for more than a sentence or two in later scenes.  You  certainly don’t need to remind the reader of the same conflict in every chapter.   If you find yourself skimming repetitive areas, slash and condense.

6.  Line-Editing: Break out the Beer

Seriously, folks.  No matter how you slice it (ha!), line-editing a manuscript is a drag.  This task requires excruciating attention to detail.  That’s why I recommend that you digest your manuscript in chunks.  Personally, I lose focus if I line-edit for more than 2-hours in one sitting.  

What should you look for?  The minute stuff:  blue eyes where the character once had green.  Incorrect conjugations of “lie” and “lay.” Any important idea that you inadvertently “chopped” while revising.  Plus the usual:  spelling, grammar, syntax, and typos.