5 Self-Editing Tips to Make You a Stronger Writer
I used to hate editing. Like, going to the dentist and getting a filling level of hatred.
I could just about tolerate editing someone else’s work. That was akin to getting a small filling with no anaesthesia.
But editing my own work? That was getting a massive filling where you could feel the vibrations from the drill reverberating through your skull. Shudder.
Unfortunately, because I didn’t plan What Happens in New York as extensively as I thought I had, it needed extensive editing. I ended up spending more time editing it than I did writing it.
Because I spent one month writing and about 10 months editing, I eventually learned to like it. Occasionally I even enjoy editing my own work these days.
Putting finger to keys and starting a first draft of a new project is still my favourite part of the writing process, but I don’t dread editing my own work like I used to.
Like it or not, editing is a key part of the writing process. No book is perfect after the first draft. That’s why editing is so important.
Dreading editing your work-in-progress like I used to?
Here’s five self-editing tips to get you started.
1. Study writing theory
This. Is. The. Most. Important. Step.
If you haven’t studied writing theory AT ALL, you need to stop everything you’re doing and go do it. Right now.
Yes, writing is creative. Yes, you need to find you voice. Yes yes yes I’ve heard all the arguments for why you shouldn’t study writing theory.
And I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong.
You cannot break the rules of writing until you know what they are. The more you become a student of writing (and I like to think that’s why you’re here anyway), the stronger you’ll be as a writer.
Knowing how to construct a plot, how to create compelling characters, and how to write dialogue are all key lessons every writer must learn. And you’ll only learn them from studying writing theory. You’ll also learn them if you…
2. Study writers you love (and maybe some you hate)
To take your own writing apart, you need to break down what other writers do too.
It helps to study writers that you admire as you’ll inevitably be influenced by them.
It can also help to study writers you don’t like. Doing so gives you a feel for why your love for your favourite writers is so strong. It also helps you to figure out what you think works and doesn’t work.
Being consciously aware of these elements makes it easier for you to actively consider them when you sit down to edit your own work.
Very few people stick with books they don’t connect with. For your average person, that’s fine. But when you’re a writer, there’s so much you can learn from books that bore you, annoy you, or trigger other negative emotions.
Knowing why you love, hate, or love to hate something is incredibly powerful and will give you an advantage over writers who only read books that they love.
3. Know what level of edit you’re doing
There are several different levels of editing.
Your approach will differ depending on the level of edit that you’re doing.
Louise Harnby covers it brilliantly in this post. Here’s the short version of what she has to say:
Developmental, structural, or story editing is the shaping stage where these plot, character, narration, and pacing decisions are made such that the reader is driven to turn the page and complete their experience.
Line editing is the smoothing stage where sense is checked and flow mastered such that the reader is driven to stay on the page and immerse themselves in the story’s world.
Copyediting is the correcting stage where inconsistent or incorrect spelling, grammar, and punctuation are attended to, and where logic is checked, such that the reader is allowed to follow the story without distraction.
Proofreading is the quality-control stage where any final literal errors and layout problems are flagged up such that the book is fit for publication.
If you’re close to publication, you really shouldn’t be making developmental edits. This can cause all sorts of problems and inconsistencies.
They’re different levels of editing for a reason. There’s no point in proofreading a book with a weak plot or no character development.
Focus on one at a time—trying to do them all at once is confusing.
4. Take some time away
When you’re wrapped up in your fictional world it can be difficult to take time away.
But time is the only way you’ll be able to read your book objectively.
And being able to read objectively is crucial. It’s the only way you’ll be able to the final important step…
5. Kill your darlings
When I was working on What Happens in New York, I went to a workshop at Nottingham Writers’ Studio on plotting your novel. It made me realise that I had a much better villain in the series than the one I’d originally planned. It meant a lot of rewriting and deleting of scenes. It meant dramatically reducing the page time of one of my favourite characters.
In particular, cutting one of the BIG argument scenes with him felt a lot like being stabbed in the stomach. It was a scene I’d found emotionally draining to write but was incredibly proud of. With his role in the story reduced, though, it didn’t make sense to keep it.
The story turned out better for cutting that scene, and most of his others. I liked the character too much for him to do some of the terrible things he did in those early drafts.
The next time I had to cut scenes I loved while writing What Happens in London, it didn’t hurt so much.
The first time you’re strict with your writing and cut scenes you love but that don’t need to be there, it fucking hurts. But the more you do it, the less it hurts.
For those of you that change your hairstyles a lot (like me), it’s akin to getting your super long hair cut the first time—it’s weird at first, and you’re scared to do it, but once it’s done, you enjoy how free it makes you feel.
BONUS TIP: How to avoid needing to do endless edits
If you still detest editing and would rather get a root canal, you have two alternatives.
The first is to live under the illusion that your first draft will be perfect so you won’t need to edit it AT ALL (nobody is this perfect).
The second is to plan.
Plan extensively and obsessively and until you can’t plan any more.
Then plan some more, because there will always be something you’ve missed.
The more in-depth your plan is, the less likely there is to be any issues with your book’s structure or content.
In-depth plans help you to work out the issues with your book’s structure and content before you start writing. You can spot any plot holes or characters who aren’t getting enough attention. You can name everyone and everything before you’ve written a single word of your manuscript.
Planning your book in-depth takes a long time, but it will dramatically reduce how long it takes you to write and edit your book.
It won’t mean you’ll get to avoid editing entirely—nothing outside of a large dose of naivety will—but it will dramatically reduce how long you spend doing it.
Over to You
What are your self-editing tips? Let me know in the comments!