Self Editing 101

on August 9, 2007

A couple weeks ago I asked a question of the guest author on the “Ask the Author All” loop. First: EVERYONE who has a good online workshop should donate a week of their time to the fabulous AAA-ALL or AAA-PRO loops. They are valuable to so many writers, particularly those who might not have the extra money for a plethora of online classes.

I’m not going to give the responses verbatim because that would be against the rules. And, even though I was critical of the answer I received, most of the author’s advice was fantastic.

My question was essentially: When I don’t have time for deep editing, when I only have a day or two, what are some tricks or a checklist of things to look for to tighten up/clean up a manuscript?

The author’s response was, essentially, there is ALWAYS time for MULTIPLE ROUNDS of editing. In essense, I didn’t get an answer to my question because she didn’t have one.

For her, multiple rounds work. For me, they don’t. I don’t have the time. Before I sold, I did have more time, but I found myself editing the life out of my manuscript. In addition, I didn’t know WHAT I was editing for. Before I sold, I was editing for structure, typos, etc–does it read well? But elements I love, an editor may hate, and vise versa.

So after licking my wounded ego that I didn’t get an answer to my question (which, BTW, I really, really wanted as I was diving into a final set of editor revisions on KILLING FEAR and wanted to use my new-found wisdom to tighten up what has become my longest book), I remembered the single most valuable resource for me BEFORE I sold.


That was the ONLY writing book I read prior to landing an agent. (I read Donald Maass’ WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL right after I landed an agent, and Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY immediately after I sold. Those are two different blogs.)

SEFFW is short and to the point. The authors point out key problems in writing and how to look for them. I’ve read the entire book twice, and parts multiple times, up until my last couple books. If I had remembered how valuable it was to me, I would have picked it up again before editing KILLING FEAR.

One of the comments by the guest author was that an editor is going to be stopped if there are too many grammatical or spelling errors. True. Fortunately for me, I’m a pretty good first draft writer. I don’t have a lot of grammatical or spelling errors. I don’t use spellcheck, BTW (for lots of different reasons.) My last manuscript–over 500 pages–had less than a dozen typos (NONE of which would have been caught by spellcheck.) Yes, I know, I’m not perfect and mistakes slip through–but ten rounds of editing wouldn’t have caught them. But if spelling and grammar and sentence structure are problems for you, definitely edit for them.

So I didn’t get my checklist, I didn’t remember about SELF EDITING until it was too late, and my final manuscript ended up 5,000 words longer than the first revision. But when I looked over every scene, they all needed to be there.

Switching gears a bit, I recently wrote a novella. It was supposed to be 30,000 words. It’s 39,000 words. But when I was done with editor revisions, it was 42,000 words. Ugh! I knew I had to cut it. Here’s how I did it without screwing with the story:

1) Tighten every scene.

I went through every scene and cut repetitive words or expressions, tightening on the sentence level. Some of the scenes I knew were tight and I didn’t work as hard on them, but I trimmed words wherever possible. The important thing to remember here is that you’re not messing with the story–you are simply finding a more concise way to say the same thing. This is HARD. Especially for me. My American History professor gave me an A- on my final essay because, “Allison, you so eloquently said in ten pages what would easily have been said in five.”

2) Trim internalization.

I short change internalization when I write my first draft. Then my editor inevitably comes back and writes in the margins, “Can you add her thoughts here?” or “more internal here” or “how does she feel about that?” So I sometimes go overboard. And, because there was a dirth of internalization in the first draft, I often get repetitive. If my editor is writing in 10 places I need more internalization, once I cover it the first five times, I don’t need it further along. Make sense?

3) Kill my darlings.

Sometimes there is that one paragraph or even an entire scene that I absolutely love, that is so beautiful written, but it really doesn’t add to the story. The editor let it go–often with the initial comment, “Can you trim this up? It’s not adding much to the story.” So I trimmed, but kept the scene. This is so hard to do–I had an absolutely powerful scene in SPEAK NO EVIL where Nick had a nightmare, putting him back in the shack he’d been held captive in during THE HUNT. I loved that scene. My editor didn’t think we needed it, and that it gave away too much about the previous book. I cut it, and incorporated the nightmare into a different part of the story, without the details.

For the novella, I had a lot of investigation going on. I didn’t want to cut any of it, because that’s part of what makes my books my books, right? But I had to accept that this story had to be less than 40,000 words and the easiest place to cut was the investigation. So, I had some happen off-scene and used dialogue where the detective told my heroine what he’d learned (rather than her learning it first hand) and I also combined a couple scenes into one more fluid scene. If this was a full-length novel, the scenes would have stayed–they added to the tension of the mystery. But in the shorter format, I had to get rid of them. I didn’t dump all the investigation–there are still several scenes–but I had to really make sure that the scene worked on more than one level–more than just obtaining information for the h/h and the reader.

4) RUE

“Resist the Urge to Explain.” This is hard for me, since I’m so verbose. But it is an important part of editing. Readers aren’t stupid. They can figure a lot out on their own. Also, when you love research, you tend to want to dump the research into the book. No. Don’t. You should understand it well enough that you can explain it quick and simple on the page. So when you get to those points in the story where you’re putting in too much history or details about the decomposition rate of bodies in different weather conditions, trim, trim, trim. A GREAT show that I recently discovered is NUMB3RS. One of the main characters is a professor of applied mathmatics. Yep, you think, boring! But the writers were brilliant in that they understood that while people love the methodology, they don’t want a math lesson. Charlie’s explanations are clear and concise and we GET IT without the information being dumped on us.

But editing is also personal. You have to be comfortable with your process. Some people need multiple rounds of edits to feel like the story is complete. Do it. Some people edit as they go. There’s nothing wrong with it. Find a system that works for you and use it.

But if you’re struggling and you don’t know if a book is ready to let go, read SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS and identify your personal weak spots. Edit accordingly. And if you have little time, maybe my checklist above will help. I edited my novella in two days–about fourteen hours total–on hard copy (12 hours) then incorporating the changes electronically (2 hours).

Now I ask you: What are some of your quick-self-editing tips?