I often question my writing, judge my prose, belittle my word choices, and doubt my plot points. Some days I love what I’ve written.
The “disbelieving me” is in awe of the time and effort it will take to get from first draft to final draft. The “believing me” might think, “Aww, this is so good it doesn’t need to be changed.
No! To both.
I must self-edit.
I also must strike a balance where I am confident in my work but know it needs work.
Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time, self-editing can be daunting. At least it can be for me. I stare at the monitor and all this little black shapes stare back at me. Just looking at them is exhausting.
I know myself. I self-edit differently than I write. I’m a binge writer, but a bit-by-bit editor. Not that I can’t, or haven’t, edited for hours, but I can also edit a paragraph, then leave for an appointment or to do the dishes.
Oh, who am I kidding? I do not stop editing to do the dishes.
But I do stop if I’m overwhelmed.
The key here is not to get overwhelmed.
My first drafts are embarrassing. I write in sentence fragments and run-ons. But what I have when I’m finished, I hope, is the beginning, middle, and end of a chapter, the right idea to build upon. I write light in first drafts. That means I know I’m going to go in again to flesh out ideas. Many of my friends write 125, 000 word first drafts they edit down to 90,000 words. My finished first drafts are about 50,000 words. I edit up. No matter how you work, some of these tips might work for you to take the sting out of first draft editing.
- Do it quickly. Later I’ll advocate stepping away, but with a first draft I want to capitalize on my momentum. I’ll write a scene or chapter and go back and self-edit the same day. Sometimes, same hour.
- Don’t look back. For this draft I just go back in and change things with no mind to what was there before. I don’t want to remember the dreck, I want to revise it.
- Dump what doesn’t work. I elaborate on my sentence fragments and cull my run-ons. I specific “something like purple but not” and write lavender or periwinkle.
- Decide what does works. Or what doesn’t. This is usually the time I get a gut feeling at this time if the names I’m using really works for me. I also get a feeling about characters and if I need them. I want to move forward writing about what’s necessary.
- Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. This is where I clean it up. No one’s cursing (well, maybe a little), but in a first draft I type so fast I don’t always use proper formatting. I want to GET IT OUT. So I go back and tidy up. Appearances are everything (you’ll see why later).
- Define the path. Is there a beginning, middle, and end of the chapter? If something’s missing I don’t write it, I make a note that it’s missing. Does the chapter ending leave a question or cliffhanger? If not, I consider how to make the chapter end so that the reader must turn the page. Have I buried anything in overwriting exuberance? (Who, me?)
My first draft isn’t really finished until it’s self-edited. Until I know someone else could read it and make sense of it, even with the weaknesses and holes. I call it my finished first draft. Before that, you don’t want to know what I call it.
Second Drafts (Or, to Infinity—And Beyond)
I have never counted drafts. Let’s say that with each of my novels (published, soon-to-be published, and under-the-bed) I’ve written more than two drafts and fewer than a hundred.
This, for me, is where fine-tuning begins and where I remember the best advice/joke I ever told my daughter.
“How do you eat an elephant?”
“One bite at a time.”
If I looked at a whole manuscript and imagined editing the whole thing on my own, I’d crawl under this bed I call an office and that would be that. But because I write, and edit, my novels a chapter at a time, at first, it’s more manageable to me. For the time being I pretend that’s all I need to worry about, which allows me to focus (ie: which eliminates panic).
- Print out pages. Whether I’ve written the whole book or not, I print out one chapter. If you’re not a paper person, this is where I’d use track changes.
- Get your hands dirty. Yes, I use multicolored markers. Yes, they end up on my hands. When I do Track Changes, I go into the options and make all the different kinds of changes different colors. Makes it fun.
- One Bite At A Time. I go paragraph by paragraph and polish so that what’s going on there makes sense to me, and is tightly written, but I don’t go overboard. This is where I’d rather have too much than too little. This is where I start my editing up.
- Read aloud. Especially dialogue. I tend to use characters’ names in dialogue until I edit it. I also use a lot of “Well.” Because, well, I just do.
- Lay it out. I look at chapters by laying the pages side by side on my dining room table. I look for visual cues. Do the paragraphs all start with the same word? (A no-no) Are the sentences and paragraphs the same lengths page after page? How long are your dialogue runs? These are things you can consider when revising, because variations make stories more interesting.
Final drafts take many forms. I have final drafts for my critique partner, then for agent, and then final drafts for my editor. If you’re not hiring an editor (silent scream) and you’re self-publishing then your final draft is for your reader.
For me, this is the detail and danger zone. This is where I nit-pick and where I usually am convinced that all my time and effort and energy has resulted in a big pile of poo. Luckily, this is normal. And that’s why I start with the hardest thing of all.
- Step away. Unless I’m right up against a deadline, I leave the manuscript untouched for days or weeks if possible. This provides perspective. If I have an epiphany (in the shower or while driving, ‘natch) I write it down but don’t open the Word doc.
- Go slow. When it’s time to get back to work, I start again by tackling one chapter at a time. I read for content and clarity. I circle or highlight what I need to come back to.
- Be honest. I note overused words and clichés. No one is above using them. Now is the time to get rid of them. Then, I do a search for any crutch words. Every writer has them. I use “and” more times than should be legal. I also make note of lingo and colloquialisms that might not work if the publication of the book was delayed, or if someone reads the book in five years. With backlists readily available as ebooks for both traditionally and self-published authors, this is a real concern. Here’s a list of “banished words” from Lake Superior University. This is a list of overused words and phrases at Write Divas. I’m not affiliated with either site, but these lists are comprehensive and helpful (and fun to read).
The best thing about self-editing, is that it’s not the end – it’s just the beginning. This is how I get my writing ready for others to critique and edit it. Yes, at some point, it’s finished, but you shouldn’t be the only person editing your work if you want it read by others. If you want people to pay to read it.
Beta readers and critique partners, agents, and editors will not only help your story, but their feedback will bolster your ability to self-edit in the future. Self-editing is the gift that keeps on giving.
By that I mean giving us headaches, some heartache—as well as the opportunity to be the best writers we can be.
This article was first published in Write On, the magazine of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (not affiliated with my WFW blog, although I am a founding member of the WFWA organization.) You’re not a member of WFWA? Check it out here.