Photo attributed to Randyoo
Honestly, I could pick up any one of my books that have been published for a while and still want to edit them. With that thought in mind, here’s my advice on the bottomless well.
Self-editing is something you will do your entire career as a writer. During your writing apprenticeship, self-editing will assist you in becoming a writer as you compare your work to books on writing, and while reading excellent novels from your predecessors.
After you have developed your craft your self-editing takes on a different goal—polishing your manuscript to be its very best.
There are three different levels of editing—self or otherwise:
Level 1 – Proofreading (includes the basics such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, verb-tense consistency, etc.)
Level 2 – Copy editing (a step further to assure the writing is clear, concise, consistent, etc. This includes sentence and paragraph structure, delete over-used words, repetition of words and words that sound the same, replace weak words, phrases, and more powerful choices.)
Level 3 – Substantive editing (Think of the big picture of your story. Substantive editing looks at overall concept, the purpose of the book, audience, organization, style, etc.)
When I’m working on my first draft, I tend to flip the lineup and work on my substantive editing first. No sense dillydallying over spelling and such when you’re working on getting the overall story down. So I tend to work on level 3 first, then copy editing and finally proof-reading.
I’ve read a number of excellent books on the craft of writing and could list them all. I could also list a number of self-editing tips but those are easy to find on the internet.
What I’d rather do is list those books that I recommend, books with various ideas on craft that have stayed with me over the years; ideas that I think of every time I self-edit my work.
FOR SUBSTANTIVE EDITING (The Big Picture)
Stein On Writing by Sol Stein – Excellent book for character refinement.
One of the things that I never forgot from Sol Stein’s book is his advice that for every book you create a scene where your main character is naked. Strange, you might say, but even in a Christian book you can put your character into the bath or shower, or in the moment of their infancy or toddlerhood. This exercise enables you to get into the very soul of your character without the clothes of their era, occupation, or social standing. You get an understanding of your character from the skin inward.
I’ve done this for all of my novels, whether or not I use that scene in my book.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – A great craft book for laying out the structure of your novel. One of the many helpful pieces of advice that remains with me is to make sure that fairly soon into your manuscript you take your reader to that “door of no return,” that spot in your novel (major crisis, setback, clue or discovery that will push the protagonist forward for the majority of the book). I like to aim for this to occur within the first 50 pages of a full-length novel or 5% into a shorter book.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renee Brown – Great for lots of things, but don’t make it your Bible like some writers have done. However, the advice that stands out for me from Renee Brown was in her chapter on Point of View and in creating narrative distance within POV. She was able to teach me more simply than any other craft book on how to take a reader from a distant viewpoint to an intimate one all within one character.
BOOKS ON COPY-EDITING (wording, a closer focus on words):
On Writing Well by William Zinnser – I learned to keep writing tight from this book.
BOOKS ON PROOF-READING
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White – Short and Sweet on Grammar that I refer to as a reference book.
Lastly, a few of my self-editing tips:
I visualize all my novels as a sculpture. First I throw a bunch of wet, sloppy clay on the pottery wheel and pound it out to a rough shape, trying to squeeze out all the air bubbles. Then when it’s in the shape I want, I start cutting to remove the excess clay. Cut, cut, cut, and throw away. Then when the clay has dried (after a little time away from my novel) I haul it out, and start to chip away at the excess clay. Then I smooth, and file, and only when it is finally in the shape I want do I put my sculpture into the kiln to fire it. Lastly, I paint on the glaze.
But if I had one word to describe self-editing, that word would be “CUT.”
A FEW MORE OF MY SELF-EDITING TIPS:
I read my chapters out loud to myself.
Read chapters starting from the end of the book, or change the font so I catch things I would ordinarily miss.
I Let my work simmer for a while by not looking at it for at least a month after first draft is written. (Amazing how different it sounds when you take a break from it).
You’ve maybe heard this gem of wisdom before but I’ll repeat it here: Do not self-edit until you’ve written your first draft. Write your entire manuscript or at least write your first chapter before you go back to edit. You need to get the flow of your story down.
Self-editing is a bottomless well, but there comes a time to stop, and that’s when your editor sends you’re the final read-through of your novel before it goes to print.