How to Edit Your Own Writing
Last weekend I spoke at the WriteNow Newcastle conference on how to edit your own writing. I tried to fit a ludicrously ambitious amount of information into a 40-minute workshop, so rather than expecting all the participants to make frantic notes I’m writing it here.
I hope this will be of use to any aspiring or beginning writer who wants to learn how to better edit their work. It’s geared towards prose fiction, but is hopefully applicable to many sorts of writing. This method is adapted from Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King, which I highly recommend you read as this post is just a bare-bones overview of the process. If you feel you need more help, you can also hire me as a mentor or editor.
Here are some tips before we start:
- Give it time. The editing and rewriting should take at least as long as writing your first draft.
- You’ll be doing 13 rounds of edits, looking at big-picture stuff first, then gradually circling round to more specific elements.
- Remember that you won’t be re-writing every single word every single time, so while some passes will take a lot of time, some will be quick.
- You may require more than 13 rounds. For example, I write magical realism/fantasy, so I need an additional pass to ensure that the non-realism rules I’ve put in place are consistent. If you’re not great with spelling or punctuation, you may need an additional final pass to check this.
- This is just a loose overview, and is totally adaptable to your own writing.
Ready to start editing? Great! Here’s Round 1: Show vs. Tell
It’s been quite a year. I sold my second book, wrote my third book, and finally became a full-time writer.
My wee Rental Heart has done surprisingly well. It’s sold over 1,000 copies in print, won or been shortlisted for four prizes, and had some incredibly generous reviews. I’ve read from it at two launch events (both sold out and standing room only!) at Waterstones Argyle Street and Looking Glass Books, and at festivals all over Scotland from Aberdeen to Wigtown to Kingussie to Dundee. I’ve been invited to panels discussing feminism in Alien, queer literature, and setting up a literary magazine. I’ve been interviewed for radio and podcasts broadcast all over the world. It’s been amazing, and I’m so grateful for all of it.
Most of all, I’m grateful to every single person who bought this book, read this book, talked or wrote about this book. I wish I could bake each of you a cake, but I can’t because my oven is broken. So instead, I will share the biggest lessons I learned from my year as a debut writer.
Read More >
I really can’t state this enough: if you want to get into arts journalism, you MUST apply to be the IdeasTap columnist. You MUST. I won’t take no for an answer. And you’d better get a wiggle on, because you’ve only got until Thursday 31 July.
I can say this with confidence because I spent seven months as the IdeasTap columnist (that’s 28 columns – bloody hell! What did I manage to write about for 28 columns? Find out here…) After that I was as a literary editor at The List for two years, as well as freelancing for newspapers and magazines across the world. I still consider the columnist job one of the best I’ve ever done. So believe me when I say that you must apply.
To help you along, here are some top tips from previous IdeasTap columnists:
“Have an absolutely killer opening and closing line. Of course, to do that, you need to know exactly what you’re going to argue from the very first word and be able to sum it up brilliantly at the end.”
– Nell Frizzell was the Columnist for August-December 2010. She is now the IdeasMag Commissioning Editor and has written for The Guardian, Vice, Elle, Grazia and many others.
“Be real. Write about what really matters to you, and do it in your own voice. The most honest and meaningful articles I wrote for Ideastap, were about issues that genuinely affected me. And guess what, it’s a lot easier too.
And PS. No one likes a lazy edit. Check and double-check your pieces so your lovely editor doesn’t end up cleaning up your grammar, spelling and half-researched facts.”
“Don’t be a dick. A lot of columnists think they have to have incredibly strong opinions to stand out – being funny, interesting, and likeable is far more important.”
– Jamie Ross was the Columnist in 2010, and is now a trainee broadcast journalist at BBC Scotland.
“Don’t write what you think people want to read, write what you want to say. If you have something that you’re passionate about, which infuriates you, or just plain amuses you, chances are it will chime with someone else. Keep it current and keep it concise.”
“Try to find your own voice. For every Charlie Brooker, there’s a legion of impersonators raging tediously away. One of the great things about writing is that it allows you to be more angry, neurotic or assertive than you might be in real life – but aim to exaggerate your own personality, rather than somebody else’s.”
– Orlando Bird was the Columnist in 2013 and is now sub-editing at The Telegraph.
The publishing experts offered valuable advice on writing cover letters, elevator pitches, and how to properly begin and build your writing career. I live-tweeted with #pitchlive – but don’t worry if you missed it, because here are the highlights.
Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director at Canongate Books:
(Follow Francis @kinhead)
- Follow your curiosity. If you’re bored writing it, readers won’t even get past the first chapter.
- Researching historical detail isn’t as important as exploring your heart and mind – the human story grips the reader.
- Find someone who will give you honest advice.
- As the saying goes: the hair shines with brushing. Edit, edit, edit. If it’s not vital to the story, cut it.
- Remember that publishers aren’t charities. They have to be sustainable businesses. No one is entitled to be published.
- In a cover letter, don’t be apologetic about yourself. Present yourself as a writer. Have confidence.
- A pitch letter is not a place for rhetoric. Always start with the story.
- Don’t say ‘I’ve written the next Harry Potter‘, but do present some titles similar to your book for comparison.
- Presenting a question or a moral quandary can work well in a pitch.
- Remember to include your email and phone number, not just an address – if the agent or editor loves your book they’ll want to get in touch immediately.
- In your pitch, your personal circumstances don’t matter – just mention any writing experience such as prizes or publications.
- Social networking can be counterproductive if it’s forced. Do what you’re comfortable with.
- Writing is a solitary pursuit. Find your community for feedback, and to commiserate and celebrate with.
- Don’t expect success instantly. And if it doesn’t happen instantly, don’t write off your book. Timing is vital.
- Give out but don’t give up. Maybe you just haven’t found the right editor for your book yet.
- The book trade favours easy pitches, but the books I’ll remember on my deathbed are the unusual, unprecedented ones.
Oliver Munson, Literary Agent at A.M. Heath:
(Follow Oliver @OliAgent)
- When pitching face-to-face, be concise, confident and quick. Don’t back an agent into a corner and bore them for 20 minutes!
- Most books can be pitched in several different ways. Choose the angle best suited to the person you’re approaching.
- The problem with self-publishing is our desire for instant gratification. There’s benefit in getting feedback and steady editing.
- Describing your book as ‘literary’ doesn’t tell us much about the book – only how good you think it is. You don’t walk into a bookshop and go to the Literary section, so it’s not particularly useful to state it as the genre.
- The X meets X formula is fine, but you must express what your book is about on its own terms, free of comparison.
- Agents sit at the crossroads of creativity and commercialisation. I need a great book that I can talk about easily.
Jenny Brown, Literary Agent at Jenny Brown Associates
(Follow Jenny @AgentJenny)
- My advice to people who want to self-publish is to get a freelance editor.
- About a third of the books I’ve taken on have changed title during the publication process.
- If you try to follow a trend, it will be over by the time your book is finished.
Adrian Searle, Publisher at Freight Books:
- The book is what matters, but the pitch is what makes you pick it out of the pile of manuscripts.
Clare Hey, Senior Commissioning Editor at Simon & Schuster:
(Follow Clare @Clareaux)
- I want stories that transcend genre – a book I can recommend to anyone. Those books are few and far between.
- Great storytelling is at the heart of everything I edit, irrespective of genre.
- Be polite, be patient – and don’t ever add an editor’s email address to your own promotional mailing list!
- If an agent can’t be bothered to phone me, they’re not that excited about the book. If they phone, I pay attention.
- Your pitch has to bear repeating. Editors will have to say it over and over at sales and publicity meetings – and then to sell it to readers.
- If you’ve written in multiple genres, think about where you want your career to go and focus on that first.
- It’s ideal if each of your books can be entirely original, but will appeal to the same readership.
- Launching a debut novel takes a lot of time and effort. Editors want it to be the start of a long career.
- Don’t be downhearted if your book is not immediately picked up. If it’s a good book, you’ll find the right editor eventually.
• What is the working title of your next book?
It’s a short story collection called The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales.
• Where did the idea come from for the book?
• What genre does your book fall under?
• What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Julianne Moore would be the seductive, sensual, and ultimately doomed lady of the house in ‘Underskirts’ (which you can read at PANK); Thomas Dekker would be the pretty automaton Luc-Pierre and Ben Whishaw would be the scheming, lovelorn brother Claude in ‘Coin-Operated Boys’ (which you can read at Fantasy Book Review); and Clea DuVall and Brit Marling would be the expectant couple Lauren and Grace in ‘Underlying’ (which you can read at Algebra).
• What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
These stories feature clockwork hearts, lascivious queens, paper men, circuses, and a gracekeeper; some are queer retellings of classic stories, some are modern-day fables, but all explore substitutions for love.
• Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m currently seeking agent representation.
• How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About three years altogether. The first story was written way back in 2009, and I just finished the newest one this month.
• What other books would you compare this to within your genre?
Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen, Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles, Jess Richards’ Snake Ropes – and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, of course.
• Who or what inspired you to write this book?
All the odd, brave, surreal fairy tales I read as a child.
• What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I think it can be summed up in three words: dark sex magic.