Self-editing: an important tool for fiction writers

Self-editing is an art, and one that many writers admit to struggling with.  When you are in a situation where you don’t have a reading group or someone to read your story or novel, self-editing is essential for your project.  I used to struggle with this myself, but over the years of writing non-fiction in which I needed to produce an end product in a very short period of time, I’ve finally gotten the knack for this tough writer’s tool.

Here are some tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over time:

1) If you think it’s awesome, get rid of it.  

This may sound harsh, and I admit I don’t always follow my own advice, but I’ve noticed a trend in what I’ve written and what other people actually want to read.  Sometimes I’ll write something, a paragraph, a line, an entire chapter, and I’ll think wow, that’s awesome! I just nailed that, I’m amazing!  I’ll keep that section through edit after edit because I love it so much.  But when someone else reads my work, they inevitably will target it as something that has GOT to go.

And I will resist, because after all, I love it, and it’s an expression of my awesomeness, right? Even though that section, line, or chapter doesn’t contribute anything to the plot, character development or overall story arc, I love it and hold onto it.  Even though it may interrupt the flow of the overall story, I cling to it irrationally.

After years of seeing readers identify my most cherished prose as what needs to be eliminated, I’ve finally given in and gone the other way.  I now view anything I think is particularly awesome as questionable.  I am inherently suspicious of what I happen to like best. I’m not sure if it is just me, or if other writers have this same vulnerability, but now I highlight anything I really like and consider it for deleting  in the future.

2) Let it sit.

Don’t try to edit something right away.  Even when I write stories for a newspaper or magazine, I will never, ever, ever send it off to be published without letting it sit for a few minutes to an hour, or often even a day for larger projects.  Looking at something after a break offers you a new perspective on it, and can save you from making errors in grammar, or sentence structure, or even fact.

So after writing, sit on it.  And wait, and then look at it again.  Of course,  if you look at it again and think wow, I’m amazing, this sounds awesome! be doubly suspicious.

3) Let your instincts guide you.

If you’re reading your work and something is bugging you but you can’t identify what it is, stick a bookmark at that location, or highlight it, or however you go about editing your work, and let it percolate in your head.  Chances are your instincts are correct.

I’ve often had sections of a novel or parts of a story that for some reason tugged at something in my subconscious, although I couldn’t identify what it was at the time, I made a note.  Often I’ll come up with what exactly is bothering me while doing other things, like driving or even sleeping, and then I can go back to it and make the changes I need to make.

4) If you don’t need it, leave it out.

If something in your story doesn’t contribute to the plot, character development or overall story line, don’t keep it there.  All it will do is bog down your piece and keep readers from really getting into it.  You want to keep things moving.  So that chapter that you have that describes the fantasy world in detail?  Ditch it.  Leave more to the imagination.  Some description is necessary, but probably less than you might think.

5) Don’t trust Microsoft Word.

Please don’t rely on Microsoft Word to do your work for you!  MS Word can’t tell in what context you are using a word or phrase, they can’t tell you if it’s correct in one instance or another.  MS Word will also highlight words which are just suspect like “it’s” and “its” but that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.  Real words won’t be tagged as being incorrect, like “from” and “form,” which I will mix up constantly, especially when I’m typing so quickly my fingers get ahead of each other.

Hope this will help other writers, there is very little out there in the way of self-editing information, particularly when you start looking to self-editing for structural issues, which is a whole other ball game.

By the way, after rereading I found two grammatical and spelling errors, and there’s something about the first sentence in point number one that rubs me the wrong way….


3 thoughts on “Self-editing: an important tool for fiction writers

  1. I find also not to read chapters in order – I start from the last one and work backwards. I find if I read from chapter one, I find myself just reading the story and not looking at each phrase! I also change format – from kindle to pdf to yWriter (I dont use Word! Id never get a book finished in Word!)

    1. That’s a good idea, I’ll have to try that! I sometimes reread work for editing purposes in a two page spread which changes the way I see my own work. I also sometimes read aloud. I think every writer adapts to the way their own brain works (hopefully!). 🙂

      1. I read every single word of my (at that time) 160K book! I sounded a little stupid I guess, but no one laughed! It makes a huge difference if you do read it, because it flows that much better. Oh PS, my English is terrible, so perhaps I needed to read it through

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