You’ve written your book. The masterpiece has been marinating in a drawer (or buried on a hard drive) for weeks. Somehow, you managed to not tear into it early, despite it whispering into your ear at night. Let’s face it, you both needed some time and space from one another.
The time has come. You unlock the drawer, or click the icon, and staring you in the face is months worth (maybe more) of semicoherent words. The manuscript gazes back at you with worried eyes. It knows. You are about to tear it to pieces. Now the question becomes—will you tear yourself to pieces in the process?
Many people think writing a book is the hardest thing you can do. Then an editor comes along and breaks your heart. As an editor, telling a writer to cut something from the work is akin to telling them to sacrifice a cute little fuzzy kitten to the writing gods. Much of this heartbreak would be avoided if writers would practice more thorough self-editing prior to submission to an editing service.
The goal of this post is to give you some basic guidelines to sharpen your self-editing chops. Go grab the garden sheers and put on a rubber apron…this might get messy.
Print first—word process later. I believe in this concept so much I wrote an entire blog post about it (located here). Because it’s linked, I won’t go into this. I do encourage you to give the post a glance if you haven’t seen it before.
Work big first, then get small. We typically write our first draft in a hurry, tired, and running on three gallons of caffeine. There are going to be large chunks of exposition and rambling. They served their purpose. The purpose was to help you continue writing and bridge gaps in the story. Additionally, when we are writing the first draft we make assumptions about what is going to be important later on. We tend to over describe certain items, places, and people. Now that you know all the punchlines, it’s time to gauge their worth.
Roy Peter Clark in his book, Writing Tools, recommends that you, “Cut any passage that does not support your focus. Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes, and scenes to give greater power to the strongest. Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader” (p. 51).
It’s good advice, but it’s hard to follow. The reason is emotion versus logic.
Here’s a real world example. One of the people I edit for wrote a beautiful, page long description about a set of revolvers one his minor characters carries. After reading it, I could picture every line and blemish on the them. He told me he did extensive research to make them feel real, and it was truly great writing. I bit my lip and recommended he cut it.
Why? Well, it was placed in the middle of a heated interaction. Everything was building, the action was coming, and boom—we interrupt this gunfight to bring you a dissertation on handguns in antiquity. Worse even, the character wielding the pistols is only in the book for a handful of pages.
The takeaway here is this: no matter how slick the dialogue or description is, if it isn’t pushing the story forward, it’s got to go. Your readers want to read your story, don’throw down roadblocks.
Get rid of all those redundancies. I already wrote a post on redundant prose, so I won’t go into this too much. The only additional piece of information I’ve found since then is an interesting rule.
This comes from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, written by Renni Browne and Dave King. The rule is 1+1=1/2. They explain that, “When you try to accomplish the same effect twice, the weaker attempt is likely to undermine the power of the stronger one” (p. 178). It’s a great tip and something to look for when you are going through with the hatchet.
Syllables—check those big words. If you really want to wear your reader down, use words with a ton of syllables. Conspiratorially. Automatically. Conversationally. Many of these big beasts tend to be adverbs, but not always. Look for those five-dollar words and ask yourself, Will the average reader know what it means? Will something shorter work in it’s place? Am I using this for effect?
Regarding effect. I’ve heard this rationale used before, “My character is a smarty pants so he/she uses big words in a condescending sort of way.” Cool! I’m all for it. Just know there is only so much the reader can take. Also, if this is the only tool you use to enforce this character trait, the character can feel one-dimensional.
Measure twice, cut once. Anyone who has done construction, or is a DIY weekend warrior, has likely heard this advice. The concept is simple. Ensure you know where to cut before you drop the blade. I encourage you to do the same when you are self-editing.
William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, offers a brilliant bit of advice he developed while teaching his students at Yale. “I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work” (p. 15).
Writers who edit onscreen (using a word processor) have a tendency to prolong editing time because they are constantly doing the, backspace, rewrite, backspace, rewrite, tap dance. A way to defeat this is to utilize the tool Zinsser is describing.
Print out the pages then read through them silently, and then aloud. Go slowly through the words and decide what is doing work and what isn’t. Be realistic. Throw those words, phrases, and pieces of dialogue into brackets. Once you are done, read the copy and omit the bracketed words. Did it flow faster? Was it smoother?
This is a timely re-post for me as I recently reopened the first draft of my book up and started rewrites. I can tell stepping away for more than a month (as painful as it was) has really opened my eyes to some major issues. It’s a good feeling catching those mistakes now and knowing readers will never see them. I’m also glad to be back with Drake and playing in the wasteland.
That’s it for today. Thanks for stopping by and reading. As usual, I only scratched the surface. Do you have advice or ideas you use during self-editing? Please share them. I’m always looking to toss more pencils into my writing toolbox. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!