Self-Editing for Writers
Notes by Jan Moran prepared for Palos Verdes Library writing course (unedited speech notes)
Write First, Edit Later (Really)
Writing and editing draw on different sides of the brain.
Right side = creativity. Left side = analytical.
Can’t edit a blank page.
- Write the first draft in its entirety.
- After completion, let it rest.
- Return to edit. Polish the rough diamond.
Typical Editorial Flow
Expect to make several passes through your manuscript.
Typical progression for novelists
- First edit – Revise story and characters. Create stylesheet (if you haven’t already).
- Second edit – Adjust pacing, enhance story and characters, POV.
- Third edit – Elevate word choice, tighten, copy edits.
- Fourth edit – Proofread.
Some writers make 10, 20, 30 passes through their early manuscripts.
As you write and learn your craft, it becomes easier.
Different types of editing
- Developmental or Story Editor – Overall story and character arch, plot, pacing, tension, etc. A developmental editor performs a story and character analysis and provides written or verbal notes.
- Copy Editor – Grammar, technical structure. Copy editors edit line by line using written proof marks or Track Changes in Word (most common now).
- Proofreader – Typos, correct word usage, continuity issues. The final set of eyes on the manuscript.
When writing, ask yourself
- What’s at stake? Increase the stakes.
- What’s the purpose of the scene?
- What information or action advances the story?
- Whose point of view is best for a story or scene? Insert blank lines for POV change.
- Is there enough tension, or too much? Check the pacing.
Hint: Structuring your writing
- Make a scene list or beat sheet.
- Write in scenes.
- Create chapters later.
Writing in this manner allows you to rearrange scenes with ease before placing scenes in chapters, considering chapter length, and creating cliff-hangers.
Writing and Self-Editing Mechanics
- Begin en media res – Literally, in the middle of things. Pull the reader in with urgency. Begin in the midst of action or conversation. Fill in details and backstory as you go. First couple of chapters are the most difficult, but also the most important. Rewriting is key.
- Ground the reader – At the beginning of chapters and new sections, let the reader know where and when the scene is taking place.
- Use the senses – Sight, smell, sound, touch, taste. Breathes life into the story, transports the reader. Let them smell the freshly cut grass and feel the warmth of the sun on their shoulders, too.
- Banish clichés – Find a fresh way of saying it. (Okay for first draft writing, like shorthand notes.)
- Show, don’t tell – Instead of saying he was late, say he rushed in wheezing, sweat beading on his upper lip, glanced at the clock, apologized to everyone in the room. (Hint: use dialog.)
- Say it once – Have you said essentially the same thing more than once? Choose the strongest.
- Tighten your sentences – Look for common offenders: to be, able to, adverbs, little words.
- Lighten up the adverbs and elevate the verbs – He ran quickly -> He raced, charged, etc. She said loudly. -> She yelled.
- Page-turners – Got cliff-hangers? The degree to which cliff-hangers are used is often genre dependent. Mystery, suspense, thrillers, romance, mainstream -> yes. Memoir, literary fiction, nonfiction -> not as necessary.
- Punch it – Eliminating words creates forceful writing. Make your point and move on. (See?)
- Create a style sheet – Your personal cheat sheet. Proper names, hyphenated words, foreign phrases with accent marks, capitalization, etc. If you have to think about it, write it down.
- Create character sheets – Know the color of your character’s eyes, background, mannerisms. Word, Excel, writing programs.
- Vary sentence length, beginning, and style – Beware the run-on sentence.
- Vary paragraph length – Consider eye fatigue and attention span. The James Joyce-era is no more…
- Word choice – Elevate and vary. Search for the words such as very and rather. Example: She was very attractive. ->She was stunning. He looked very evil. -> He had the eyes of a mercenary. Better -> He had mercenary eyes.
- Point of view – Which character’s POV is best for the scene? What information must be revealed, or concealed? Who has the highest emotional stake?
- Chronological order – She screamed as/when the lightning hit the fence. -> The lightning hit the fence and she screamed.
- Avoid the boring scene – Must they have coffee again?
- Beware –ing and as – Make sure these are needed. Watch the chronological order.
- Said is usually sufficient – Beware descriptive dialog tags, such as she emphasized, he insisted, she argued, he agreed. Limit to those necessary, such as whispered or yelled.
- Limit stage directions – He walk to the left of her, stepped into the house, and made his way hurriedly into the kitchen. -> He pushed past her and charged toward the kitchen.
- Use the right word – Reign or rein? Effect or affect? Search the internet using a — vs. — Add to your style sheet.
- Search manuscript for favorites – Use your thesaurus.
- Check your comma usage – Style vs. grammar. When it doubt, check it out.
- Sex scenes – Unless you’re writing erotica, diminish the use of body parts (you know what I mean). Leave it to the imagination of the reader.
- Trust the reader – No need to hammer points, describe every detail in a room, or voice every thought in a character’s head. Readers fill in the gaps with their imagination, painting the portrait to their taste.
- Read out loud – Yes, your entire manuscript. Feel the rhythm. Catch dropped and repeated words. Make quick notes in the margin or on a notepad, but keep moving on.
Parting Advice for Writers
As a writer, your job is to tell the best story you can and provide a fairly clean manuscript.
Go easy on yourself. We all have weaknesses.
Learn the craft as you go.
Always expect and welcome edits!
Do your best, and then let your manuscript go. Start your next project.
Resources for Self-Editing
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Dave King and Renni Browne
Stein on Writing – Sol Stein
How to Grow a Novel – Sol Stein
Real Essays – Susan Anker (College English textbook with good grammar exercises to refresh skills)
Save the Cat! – Blake Snyder
WordFlex – Thesaurus app for iPad