So, you’re a writer. You’ve written the first draft of that novel that’s been rattling around in your head for the last umpteenth number of months or years, and you finally put pen to paper (or fingers to computer keys). Maybe you’ve started an outline. You figure, let me get all of the critical points down, plot it all out chapter by chapter, and wrap it all up at the end with a shocker of a finish that’ll have the reader gasping for breath and wanting more. Sounds like a plan.
And then reality hits; your novel’s got some problems. You’ve sent your baby out there to your writing group buddies. Or maybe your readers are your husband, your wife, a couple of friends you know read books from time to time, your mother-in-law, a colleague from work, your college-aged kid who goes to Princeton, so she’s definitely going to be more in tune with your magnum opus, and so on. But they don’t like it—and they’re telling you this in as nice a way as possible, which, let’s face it, can be a little awkward for them, and a bit painful for you.
After all, you’ve put your heart and soul into this thing. It’s your baby. You love what you’ve done. It’s 400 pages of pure gold—or at least you thought so. You have, what you believe, is an original take on a story. You have interesting characters with different names that you’ve researched, all of which mean something, not only to you but to the themes you’ve incorporated, the plot, the other characters, whatever. How can anyone not think your work a masterpiece?
Well, it comes down to the editing. Novels aren’t first drafts and first drafts aren’t novels. Novels require beginnings, middles, and ends, not only in terms of the narrative but in terms of how you write your novel. What I mean is, there’s the beginning, i.e., the first draft of your book, then the middle, which includes editing for everything (a great, compelling beginning that grabs your reader, a plot that keeps your readers reading, an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, descending or falling action, and the denouement/resolution, and then the end end, which is more editing. Part of what I’ve included here you’ll recognize as Freytag’s Pyramid, but only as a guidepost for the editing you’ll be doing after you’ve completed the first draft of your novel. You’ll need a structure for your novel, and Freytag’s Pyramid is a helpful tool to ensure you’re covering your bases.
Before we dive into the actual self-editing process, I think it’s appropriate to understand the rationale behind self-editing. Self-editing is something we all do as we’re writing, at least in some form or fashion, whether it be changing a word, adding a comma where there wasn’t one, deleting a scene (or adding one that improves the narrative), and so on. It’s all editing, in some way. But that’s micro editing. What I’m talking about is macro editing (and I’m not referring to Macros in Excel!). Macro editing in the context of fiction writing means looking at the big picture and editing based on what you want the final product—the book (or your novel)—to be. It takes into consideration your story, the plot, the characters, the pacing, the structure of the novel, the scenes, the dialogue, the exposition, and so on. Basically, we’re looking to see if we’ve dotted all of the I’s, and crossed all of the T’s on that front prior to sending your work out into the world. It’s something professionals do—and you’re a professional, so you’ll do it as well.
Now, to the self-editing portion of How to Self-Edit Your Fiction
Writers write, and part of writing is editing. It’s ingrained in writers, because no one writes a first draft of anything that comes out perfectly. Nobody. If you think you’re the exception, here’s a news flash: You aren’t. You’re deceiving yourself.
Professional writers self-edit prior to sending their manuscripts to their agents or editors because not doing so shows them you’re not a pro. Your manuscript needs to be the best it can be before you send it out. Writing is a collaboration, yes, but it’s a collaboration after you, the author whose name will be on the cover, does the heavy lifting. That’s your job—to not only write the story but to get it into the best shape it can be prior to asking anyone else to spend the time reading your work. (That includes the previously-mentioned beta readers—your mom, your spouse, your writing group friends). Only when your manuscript is at its best should you be sending it out to your literary agent or editor. Not before (unless you’re working with a developmental and/or substantive editor). Make sense?
Anyway, there are tried and true editing tactics to ensure that your self-editing strategy is the most effective it can be. Now that you have something to work with, there are things you, with your editing cap on, can focus on in terms of editing. Here are twenty of them.
1. Put your novel away for as long as you can
This allows you to get some distance from your work so that you can be objective about what your manuscript is (and isn’t) once you revisit it and are ready to devote the time it needs for you to get it to where it needs to be prior to sending it out. It can be a week, a month, a year, whatever. It’s up to you.
2. Before you edit your first draft, read through it from first sentence to last sentence
This will be a tough one to execute, because the first thing you’ll want to do is start fixing (i.e., editing) the things you find need fixing. It’s okay to change a word here or there or correct some glaring issue like a missed period or chapter heading or whatever, but hold back on making wholesale edits. The goal of the first read through is to see what you have. It’s a hundred-foot view of your novel, nothing more. It gives you a sense of the clay that is your novel; the next read through will be when you attack the weaknesses, kill your darlings, improve your scenes, and so on, so you can start turning that clay into the statue you imagined would exist once you reached the end. It’s during this phase that you take notes, whether on the printed version of the draft, the soft copy version, or even just in chapter notes on a blank sheet of paper, notecards, or however you feel most comfortable.
3. Be Brutal
Because you have a copy of the first draft, you don’t have to worry about accidentally throwing anything out. You shouldn’t—you should keep a copy of your first draft somewhere, either in an actual, physical file or in one on your desktop. From time to time I send myself a copy via email (I’ve lost entire novels based on viruses, platform issues, etc., so I’ve learned my lesson). Anyway, now that you’re in self-edit mode, don’t hold back. Cut what needs to be cut. Add whatever you want. Riff. That’s what this first edit is all about. Have a minor character that wants to be a major one? Cool. Let her become one. The gist is this: Go for it. Take risks. Cross off a chapter or two if it doesn’t support the plot. Add something new that might. It’s up to you. You are God when it comes to your novel. Act like it. You can giveth and you can taketh. It’s okay. It’s how great fiction is written. (If you’re a seasoned writer, the hairs on your neck just went up at my use of the passive voice in that last sentence). Which takes us to the next item on our list.
4. Be self-aware
I had a writing teacher in my MFA program tell me that he couldn’t really teach me anything more because I was already “self-aware.” What he meant by that was that I knew when something was working in my fiction and when something wasn’t working. It was a great compliment for me. Being self-aware takes work. It takes putting forth a lot of hours towards the 10,000 hour rule of learning anything, writing included. Being self-aware means that you know when your writing sounds like writing versus when your writing transports the reader into the story so they get lost in the narrative, which is what you want them to do.
If something doesn’t sound right, rewrite it. If something doesn’t fit into what you’re doing, rewrite it (or get rid of it). But be self-aware. Don’t pretend something is okay if it isn’t. Being self-aware is something that comes to you as you learn the craft of writing. Some of us are gifted enough to be self-aware from the get-go, but I wasn’t one of them. And that’s fine; it’s something that can be learned with experience. And you’re a writer, so you’ll get there.
5. Question every adjective and adverb
A lot of writers and editors tell you to get rid of adverbs altogether. I disagree. I believe a perfectly chosen and placed adverb can be magic, in particular when it provides a little quirkiness to the narrative. But you must use adverbs sparingly, or you’ll come off as an amateur. So be careful.
As far as adjectives go, my advice is that you’ll need them, but make sure they work in the sentence and overall feel of the work. But question every single one you use. The word “azure” is like nails across a chalkboard. If something is blue, just say it’s blue. You want readers to read; you don’t want them to trip up on a word just because you were trying to be clever. The story is what’s important, not how smart you are or how poetic you think you are. So, pull out that thesaurus.
6. Write short, more concise sentences; avoid long sentences (but vary sentence structure)
I know, this one’s sort of ambiguous. But as a writer, you’re going for clarity. Shorter sentences prevent you, in theory, from confusing your readers. But you don’t want to bore them with a monotonous read, as it throws off the musicality of the prose. You want to throw in a varied sentence length sequence to break things up. Pick up your favorite novel. See how they do it.
Here's just a quick example: “He rode into town. His horse was tall and rough-looking. He wore a black Stetson. I’d seen him before, in church, holding a bible and sitting by a woman with the prettiest blue dress I’d ever seen before. She looked regal.” The first three sentences are short. The fourth is longer. The fifth just three words. Variety is the spice of life, but it ain’t so bad to use in fiction, either.
7. Break up long blocks of text with scenes and dialogue
Readers need a break. Whether you do that by having short, James Patterson-esque two-page chapters or by inserting scenes and dialogue, it doesn’t matter. But avoid long blocks of text or exposition that slow the pace down too much. Readers have short attention spans. Remember, variety in anything keeps things interesting.
8. Be aware of your plot and work towards it
Novels that don’t have a plot are episodic novels, and no one wants to read an episodic novel. Or at least most of us don’t. We want there to be someone who wants something desperately and who faces hurdles but keeps on trucking until she gets what she wants—or doesn’t. We want to see the struggle. And that struggle needs to have events that are all connected by causality. This happened and SO this happened and SO this happened, and so on. If something happens and it doesn’t cause something else to happen, or isn’t related to the next thing that happens, then you’re just writing about events. Your plot isn’t there. And your readers? They came for plot. If they wanted to read about non-related events, they’d have picked up the daily newspaper.
9. Make sure you don’t leave any plot holes—answer all the questions you pose
This is a tough one, especially if you have a number of subplots beneath your main plot. But it’s like Chekhov’s gun: If you have a gun in the beginning of your work, it better go off by the end of it. Don’t pose questions to your readers that don’t get answered. Don’t leave your readers wondering what happened to Bill, who, in chapter 4, was hanging on a ledge by his fingertips. Tell us he fell off or that someone came and rescued him. But don’t leave your readers hanging (pun intended).
10. Revise as many times as it takes
I mean it. I have a novel that I’ve been working on for twenty years. It’s got over 100 full revisions, and I’ll keep revising until I think it’s where it needs to be. I love the novel, but the beginning is off, and I know it. So, I’ll keep rewriting it. Of course, there is a point that you’ll have to hand it over to your agent or an editor to get the ball rolling, but why write a novel that you know isn’t the best it can be? I’m not saying you can’t have a working relationship with your agent or editor or writing buddies where you workshop your novel, only that if you know something isn’t working then it should be something you rewrite and revise until you think it is working. You’ve put so much effort into your work, just put a little more in to get it just right. You don’t want to see it in print only to shake your head at what could have been.
11. Make sure the musicality of the prose is there
Some writers shoot for musicality more than others. What I mean by musicality is the rhythm of the narrative. Does it have a particular flow and style to it that is identifiable, even if not easily identifiable? Do the words pop off the page like poetry? I like this definition of musicality courtesy of ServiceScape:
“Musicality is a chosen pattern of words you consciously place in your writing. It lets words move in concert across the page. It can be syllables, or alliteration or use of metaphor or a simile, or a pattern of sounds that you determine is a crazy pattern for your piece.”
12. Avoid information dumps
Information dumps are when writers “dump” information that they want the reader to know but that they don’t want to take the time to provide the reader in a more organic way. Information dumps may be about a character’s backstory, or historical information, technical explanations, and so on. They’re obvious, and they are a distraction. They give readers a shortcut to something, but they damage the reader’s enjoyment of the narrative.
While a character may have gone to primary school in England, where they ate porridge and did their homework and then went on to work at a chip shop and enjoyed it and did a million other things before we see them standing with a gun next to a body, we probably don’t need to know all of that information. I’m not saying that as an absolute (your novel may be about how that childhood contributed to where your hero finds himself), but be picky in what you keep in your novel. Remember, if it doesn’t contribute to the plot (which is about causality), then it probably shouldn’t be in the final draft.
13. Look for your pet words and replace them with synonyms
Everyone has pet words. But, so, maybe, that, very, really, and so on, are often pet words. But they can be anything. As you read through your manuscript, take note of any words you see yourself writing repeatedly. If you’re using Word, do a search for that word using the find feature in the top right corner or by clicking CTRL + F. Enter your pet word and see how many times you use it. Then go back to that thesaurus or synonym finder and get to work replacing the word(s) with better/more precise words.
14. Kill your darlings
Killing your darlings is similar to being brutal, but it’s a little more focused. Killing your darlings simply means getting rid of those wonderful, genius passages of prose that you’re in love with—if they aren’t critical to the novel. Your darlings may be a character who you think is the best, most interesting character in the whole story, but who has nothing to do with the story nor adds any value to the plot. In short, kill him, or take him out of the novel. Use him another time, in another piece, but for now, just pull him out like the weed he is.
That said, a “darling” can be anything. It can be a bit of exposition, a scene, a subplot, dialogue, whatever. If it doesn’t add to the story in some way, be brutal and cut it. Your story will be better for it.
15. Show don’t tell
We’ve all heard this writing rule a million times. By now, if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you understand what it means. At any rate, show don’t tell just means that you want to “show” the characters doing things rather than telling the reader that something happened. Showing is action; telling is summation. (Just as an aside, showing isn’t strictly relegated to characters; showing can be applied to other aspects of your story as well).
By showing the reader what’s happening, the reader “experiences” it rather than just understanding that it (whatever “it” is) has happened. Showing is accomplished through the use of action verbs, imagery, detail, and so on.
An example of telling would be:
“Jim didn’t like milk. He’d grown up on a dairy farm and he’d lost the taste for it because he knew how it was made.”
An example of showing would be:
“Jim spit the milk out. ‘I milked cows from the day I could walk,’ he said, wiping the white liquid from his mustache. He smashed the bottle against the wall where it shattered into a million pieces.”
16. Dialogue tags should be “he said” or “she said” 99% of the time
Beginning writers tend to be the biggest opponents of this recommendation. I don’t know about you, but I cringe when I see things like, “he said, angrily,” or “she sneered,” or “he barked,” or “she chortled.” Remember the “show, don’t tell” recommendation? Do that. Wherever you have anything other than “he said” or “she said” as a dialogue tag, replace it with “he said” or “she said” and see if it sounds any better. 99% of the time, it probably will. (Like most things, there are exceptions to the rule. Genre may dictate that it’s okay to use tags other than “he said” or “she said.” I see this all the time in the books my children read, and it works. Just be self-aware when using tags other than those two.
17. Use the active voice versus the passive voice
As Merriam-Webster says, “When a sentence is in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action expressed by the verb. In the passive voice, the subject is the person or thing acted on or affected by the verb's action.”
An example of the passive voice: The tree was cut down by Bill.
An example of the active voice: Bill cut the tree down.
18. Put your work down for a while; work on something else; return with fresh eyes
This one’s important. The longer you write and the more experienced a writer you become, the more you know that you need some distance from your work. Most of us do, anyway. Distance from your work provides you the ability to back up and see things for what they really are rather than what you think they are. When were in the thick of the writing, we’re too close to the work. We don’t see obvious issues that others would see the second they start reading. We may think we’re being clever somewhere when in reality we’re just confusing the reader with our cleverness. We’ll see that when we return later on during the revision process.
Take a week off, a month, a year, whatever. Work on something else. Complete a first draft of another novel. Write some short stories. Just give your manuscript some space. Then go back with a critical, objective eye. Trust me, you won’t regret it. It’ll do wonders for how you see the novel you wrote for what it is, rather than what you thought it was while you were in the weeds writing it.
19. Keep your POV consistent (you can still change POV, though, as long as you know what you’re doing)
POV, or Point of View, is how the reader experiences the story you wrote. If the narrator is an old man from India, then that’s whose eyes the reader is seeing the story from. If the narrator is a young boy from the south, then you need to make sure that his voice (the words he uses, the knowledge he has) reflects the reality of someone his age at that time and place. But point of view also refers to the description of that point of view, meaning is the story told in first person, second person, third person, and so on.
When you’re going back and editing your novel, make sure you’re consistent in terms of whose eyes we’re experiencing what’s going on, as well as if you’re still in first person or second person or third person, and what version of it you’re in. What I mean is, if you’re writing in third person omniscient, make sure you don’t switch to third person limited or third person objective. (Again, while this is a “rule,” in writing, anything goes, as long as it “works”).
20. Read your work aloud
This is a great one, albeit a weird one to do, at least for me. I tend to do this only on occasion, but I know plenty of people who swear by it, and for good reason. Reading your work aloud allows you to hear what a sentence sounds like. The musicality of your prose is in the air and you can get a real sense of whether or not it’s working. Reading aloud lets you hear what readers are hearing when they read your work. You’ll hit speedbumps in your prose that you may not have otherwise noticed. And it’s just a great way to enjoy the narrative you’ve created for your readers.
I’d recommend reading a book you love aloud to see what it sounds like. Notice anything in the prose that sticks out? Does the author use a certain vocabulary, certain words and phrases written in a specific way that lets the words roll off of your tongue? Give it a go. You never know how reading aloud might just help you see where you’re excelling and where, to the detriment of your readers’ pleasure, you’re making them choke on your words.
Writing (and publishing) is a tough business, but it’s even tougher if your work isn’t up to snuff. The only way to improve your writing is to keep writing, but to make sure that your work(s) are edited. This means self-edited and then, eventually, edited by a professional editor. You want to put your best foot forward, and self-editing gives you the experience you’ll need to improve your writing, because you’ll begin to understand the faults you have in your writing, where you need improvement, the common errors you repeat, how to best ensure you provide readers with a compelling, interesting novel, and it gives you a process to follow, however loosely, to provide your audience with the best book you can produce. So go forth. Write. Edit. Revise. And write some more. Take your craft seriously, because if you don’t, neither will literary agents, editors, or publishers. And if you’re writing seriously, that’s the last thing you want to happen.
Cully Perlman is a substantive/developmental editor. If you want someone to help you improve your novel from beginning to end, including plot, characterization, scenes, dialogue, pacing, conflict, tension, and more, contact him at Support@novelmasterclass.com