Self-Editing: Effective Writing Habit 2

The second habit a writer needs to develop is self-editing. Whether we traditionally publish, but especially if we self publish, we need to produce a manuscript as clean and professional as we possibly can. The first step to getting our foot in the door in either realm is to be aggressive and knowledgeable self-editors. Good self-editing needs two things: knowing our story and knowing the craft.

As James Scott Bell says, “Great writing is rewriting with know-how.” This is what identifies us as professional writers.

I teach a class at conferences called The Essentials of Self-Editing. The subtitle is The Heart of Writing Is Re-Writing.

I recommend is a multilayered approach.

The first layer is to edit as you go along. By this I mean read what you wrote in your last writing session, which hopefully was yesterday. You’re not looking to do a major edit at this point. You’ll be tweaking here and there, maybe changing a word or a sentence. You may note a promise you make that you’ll have to deliver on later. I suggest keeping a note pad to record this. You don’t want to fix them now. It will stop your writing momentum. You may also discover a new revelation from your characters, one that may require going back earlier in your novel to plant it. Again, this is not the time to fix it. Simply note it.

Another purpose for doing this is it helps me get into today’s writing. I pick up yesterday’s flow and go with it into today’s creating.

The next layer is what I call the story break. Stop every 15,000 to 20,000 words. Print out and read the pages. This isn’t a deep edit. Here we’re reading to see if our story still makes sense.

Is there tension and conflict in every scene? Are our characters believable? Does the plot still flow? Have we made promises to the reader that we need to make sure we fulfill at some point? Have we introduced a new character who is assuming a bigger role than we envisioned? Has our hero turned into a wuss? Are the heroine’s goals still clear? Is she encountering enough obstacles? How difficult are they to oversome?

The third layer comes when the manuscript is finished. After we write “The End,” step away from the book. Don’t look at it, don’t read it for at least three weeks. Four to six weeks is even better. We want to create distance, especially emotional distance, from our words. Take some time off (like a day) from the rigors of writing. Go to the movies. Browse a bookstore. Then start a new project, do research, or edit a previous project.

When we get back to our manuscript is when we complete a major, multilevel effort. Print out the entire manuscript. Read it out loud or, even better, have your computer read it to you. I prefer the second method. You see things on the printed page and hear things in the spoken word; especially in a voice other than your own you will otherwise miss.

You may go through the manuscript several times depending on your work methods. At this level we’re looking to correct major technical flaws. We’re on a kill and destroy mission against passive verbs, weak nouns and verbs, adverbs and adjectives that harm the narrative.

We’re also seeking plot and character flaws. Where does the story sag? Where do the characters go off track? Again, we’re looking at tension and conflict. Are they strong enough to carry the whole story? Do minor characters and subplots create confusion? Is the ending believable and satisfactory?

Once we’ve completed all this, we’re ready for the next step:

Write the second draft.

What techniques and tools have you developed that help you self-edit?

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