Back for more editing talk? GREAT! Today we’re tackling self-editing, an incredibly important step in your editing process, and really and truly my favorite part of writing. Because, let’s be honest here, first drafts are crap. That’s just the nature of the first-draft beast. And the only way to make them NOT crap is to edit/revise.
Going through your draft, tightening it up, cutting the extra stuff, filling in where there are holes, finding the EXACT RIGHT WORD or chancing on the perfect turn of phrase…oh my, that’s what gets me really excited as a writer. I LIKE making things better. I LOVE seeing my work get smooth and shiny. Who DOESN’T like that?
And regardless of which route you take—self publishing or traditional—you can only benefit from getting your work into the best shape it can be before you send it to anyone else, be they story/line editors, copy editors, agents, or small publishers. Everyone’s work will be more effective if you do your own work first. (Plus, if you’re hiring editors to clean up your manuscript, would you really want to pay them for editing work you could have done yourself? The cleaner your manuscript is when it gets to them, the more effective their work will be, and the shinier your book becomes. And it’ll save you money.)
So how do you self-edit? Well, first you need to know what to be on the lookout for. Here are a few common manuscript problems:
1. Repeated Information
Readers are smart. We only need to be told something once to get it, so do not repeat information. Ever. No matter what. Scour your manuscript for repeated info and delete it.
2. Extraneous Dialogue Tags
The dialogue tag you should be using 99% of the time is said. Most other dialogue tags are inaccurate and distracting. Said is so unobstrusive it almost disappears. People don’t hiss, croak, screech, bluster, or breathe words. While a character’s words may come out sounding like a hiss, she’s not ACTUALLY hissing. So don’t use it. Simplify. Don’t distract readers from the dialogue itself.
3. Telling AND Showing
There is a time for telling and a time for showing—a mixture of both is the most effective way to tell a story. But NEVER do both at the same time.
I was pretty sure he wanted me to go along, but was afraid to ask.
“What if I came with you?” I said, helping him out.
“Really, Liz? You would?” He smiled in relief, confirming my suspicion. “That would be great.”
Do you see the telling and showing I did there? In the second line helping him out and in the third line confirming my suspicion are both telling the reader something I just showed.
This is a more subtle form of repeating information because if you’ve already shown it, you don’t need to tell us. We get it. Readers are smart. (That DOES bear repeating. ;-) Pick one. Whichever is the most effective way of getting the story across, keeping your readers connecting with your characters and engaged with your story.
4. Close Repetitions of Words
Repeating words for effect—setting up parallel construction with your repetition or creating a cadence or rhythm to your words is a beautiful thing. Repeating words just willy-nilly is not. I’ll show you what I mean.
This is ineffective repetition, taken from an early draft of my newest book, Anywhere:
Instead I was consumed with a stark emptiness and couldn’t get comfortable. I didn’t have the heart to check messages.
I spent the entire night tossing and turning, never finding a comfortable position, never falling into the warm embrace of sleep.
And this is how I edited out the repetition and smoothed the text (keeping the repetition of never because it established an effective paralell construction):
Instead I was consumed with a stark emptiness. I spent the entire night tossing and turning, never finding a comfortable position, never falling into the warm embrace of sleep.
Once you’ve edited your manuscript several times (because you’ll find leftover things to fix each time you go through it), a really effective way of finding any remaining problems is to read it out loud to yourself. You’ll hear repetitions that you missed when you were reading. You’ll find sentences that trip you up, and therefore need to be reworked.
SELF-EDITING IN ACTION
Want to see it? Here’s the transformation of a paragraph from Anywhere.
The trip to Europe hadn’t exactly been the plan for this summer. At least not the most recent plan. It had been my dream for the past four years. Graduate from college, spend the summer backpacking across Europe, then figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life. I’d been planning this since I’d graduated from high school and my parents had nixed the idea at that time, and suggested I shoot for after college.
You can see that I repeat words ineffectively as well as information. I went through it a couple of times and this is how I tightened it up.
The trip to Europe hadn’t exactly been the plan for this summer. At least not the most recent plan. I mean, I’d had my heart set on it for the past four years. Graduate from college, spend the summer backpacking across Europe, then figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life. My mom had nixed the idea when I’d wanted to go right after high school and suggested I shoot for after college. She’d probably been hoping I’d lose interest by then. If anything, it just made me more focused on going.
Then I added a little more information and my line editor went through it to smooth it out some more.
The trip to Europe hadn’t exactly been the plan for this summer. At least not the most recent plan. I’d had my heart set on it for the past four years. Graduate from college, spend the summer backpacking across Europe, then figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life. My mom had nixed the idea when I wanted to go right after high school (I’d already gotten my passport by then, and my guidebooks were well on their way to becoming dog-eared) and suggested I wait until after college. She’d probably been hoping I’d lose interest, but if anything, it made me more focused on going.
That’s self-editing in a nutshell. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It’s THE handbook on cleaning up your manuscript yourself, and will guide you through the process in greater detail. The book will make you a better editor.
And you know what? Your self-editing work will make you a better writer, too.