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
Round 1: Show vs. Tell / Scene vs. Summary
In short stories and novels, we can either show narrative in scenes – this has immediacy and pulls the reader into the story – or we can tell narrative in summary. This varies the pace, and also avoids the feel of just bouncing from scene to scene with no reflection or pause. Summary is also vital for showing the passing of time (whether hours, months or decades), as we wouldn’t usually write scenes to show all of this time passing.
Here’s a checklist you can use when going over your draft during round 1:
- Do you have long passages with nothing happening in real time, or main events in the narrative just summarised and not shown? (Too much summary, not enough scene)
- Does your narrative bounce from present-tense scene to present-tense scene with no reflection or comment between? (Too much scene, not enough summary)
- Are you describing a character’s feelings rather than showing them? We all display emotion differently, so let the reader see your character’s individuality.
Round 2: Characterisation vs. Exposition
This is similar to scene vs. summary, but about character rather than plot. There’s rarely a need to tell us what a character is like – instead, show us. If characters act as we’re told that they are, we don’t need to be told; if they don’t act like that, your writing is inconsistent. Merely telling a reader about a character makes them passive, and a passive reader is a bored reader. Reading is a collaborative process, and the reader’s imagination is just as important as the writer’s.
- What information do readers need to know to understand the story, characters and themes?
- When do they need to know it?
- Is there a briefer, more elegant way to show this information rather than flashbacks, info-dumps or clumsy “well, as you know…” dialogue?
Round 3: Point of View
This must be consistent – it’s easy to slip. If you’re using limited third person, don’t head-hop. Omniscient narration gives more perspective, but less intimacy.
- Is the right person telling the story?
- If you’re using first or limited third, are you staying only in their head?
- Are their observations and thoughts appropriate to their character?
I discuss point of view more here.
Round 4: Proportion
This means the time taken over things in the narrative. You don’t have to describe every step of every process. Think of it as when the camera zooms in on something in a film – we immediately make note of that thing as important. Don’t spend a lot of time zooming in or lingering on things that aren’t important to your story or theme, as the reader will feel confused and cheated when they’ve made note of it and it goes nowhere.
- Are the elements the narrative spends the most time on the most important to the plot, characters, themes etc.?
- Do you have a laser-like focus? This can feel exhausting. Some tangents and mood pieces are good for a longer piece of fiction, as long as they’re related or contrast the main plot and themes.
Round 5: Dialogue
With dialogue you want verisimilitude – the illusion of reality – rather than the way people actually talk, which is full of empty phrases, switchbacks, social niceties, and so on.
- Are you describing how things are said (angrily, pointedly, calmly)? In almost every circumstance, it’s best to avoid this.
- Have you used anything other than ‘s/he said’ (hissed, joked, screeched)? These can feel silly, so best to avoid them (although JK Rowling does it and Harry Potter is amazing, so what do I know?)
- Can you cut speaker attributions? You don’t need it after every line of dialogue, particularly if it’s just two people talking.
- Are you wasting words? There’s a reason no one says goodbye on the phone in fiction. Don’t let the reader skim.
- Is every conversation an argument? Your characters shouldn’t agree. That’s nice in real life, but makes for dull fiction. They should speak at odds, want different things, misunderstand, lie, and answer the unspoken question.
Round 6: Interior monologue
- Are you constantly interrupted the flow of the narrative with a character’s thoughts? They don’t have to comment on absolutely everything (for examples of this done badly, see the later seasons of Dexter). Let the reader have their own thoughts about what’s going on.
- Can some of this interior monologue be changed to observations or actions?
Round 7: Easy Beats
Beats are when long sections of dialogue are broken up with characters performing small actions.
- During conversations do your characters look out of the window, sigh, open their mouths to speak and then close them, light cigarettes, sip tea or bite their lips? These are easy beats, or cliches. They tell us nothing about the character.
- Instead, can you write beats that are unique to your character and tell us something about them?
- Have you observed how people actually act in real life, and taken notes? This is a good way to get more interesting beats.
Round 8: Description
The problem is usually either too much description, or not enough.
- Do you have pages of description and mood-setting, with nothing happening? Show your characters interacting with the world rather than just observing it.
- Do you have ‘white room conversations’, meaning there’s so little description that the characters seem to just be standing in an empty room?
- Is your description fresh, unusual and free from cliche?
Round 9: Paragraph length
You don’t even need to look at the words for this round, just the white space. This works better if you can print off your manuscript, but it’s fine to just look at it on the screen – try zooming out so you can’t read the words, just see the shape they make on the page.
- Do you repeatedly have more than half a page of solid text with no paragraph breaks? Break it up.
- Do you have every sentence in a new paragraph? Don’t break it up so much – make sure that when you give a line its own paragraph, it really deserves it.
- Vary the rhythm, so not every paragraph is the same length.
Round 10: Sentence length
This will vary depending on the content – generally, longer and more leisurely sentences for calmer moments, and shorter, sharper sentences for dramatic moments.
- Have you read your manuscript aloud? It’s good if you have a spouse/friend/fellow writer who’s willing to listen and give feedback, but if not it’s still useful to read it aloud to yourself (or the dog, as I sometimes do – my dog can be borrowed for this purpose).
- Do you stumble or run out of breath when reading any of your sentences aloud? The reader will stumble or feel breathless too.
- Do your clause lengths vary? Take a printed page and mark every sentence 1, 2, 3 or 4 (please not more than 4) for how many clauses it has. There’s no right or wrong number or rhythm, it’s just about variation.
Round 11: Repetition
Generally, the rule of three works well (think of a joke, or a fairytale): setup, reminder, payoff.
- Are you using the rule of three effectively for important elements in your story?
- Are you controlling your repetition? Too much repetition weakens rather than strengthening.
- Have you controlled your repetition on a scene level (ie. do you have multiple scenes that serve the same function)?
- On a paragraph level?
- On a word level?
Round 12: Common Traps
- Be sparing with -ly words (quickly, angrily, sadly, perfectly).
- Avoid everything happening simultaneously (there are good examples of this in Self Editing for Fiction Writers).
- Avoid using an unnecessary adjective to shore up a verb (eg. “running quickly”) – use strong verbs instead.
- Avoid exclamation points and italics outside dialogue.
Round 13: Personal Traps (and Getting Feedback)
These will be different for everyone. For my upcoming novel, my editor told me to cut the words ‘sparkle’, ‘gleam’, ‘shine’, and the idea of a person liking another person so much they wanted to eat them. Not sure what that says about me.
At this stage, it’s best to have someone else look at your work (here’s some advice on setting up a writing workshop). Some tips on getting feedback:
- Everyone secretly doesn’t want feedback because they want someone to say “It’s perfect! Don’t change a single comma!” This is bad feedback because nothing is perfect (and a first draft certainly won’t be). Make peace with the fact that to be a better writer, you have to get feedback and work on it.
- Remember that the person is merely critiquing some words you’ve written, not you as a human. You can like someone very much as a person and not appreciate their writing, or vice versa.
- Request the feedback as questions only (eg. “Why did she go to Spain? Why doesn’t he love the cat any more? What was the relevance of the pink Jesus statue?”). It’s not up to this person to tell you how to fix the problem, only to identify what the problems are.
- Remember that you do want some questions left unanswered – not every narrative needs to be tied up in a big bow at the end. But make sure the questions the reader asks are the ones you want them to ask.
- DO NOT answer during the workshop. You will not be sitting beside every reader explaining the story to them. Explanations exist in the narrative or not at all.
And that’s it! Very well done on all that editing. Your story will now be much stronger and more polished.
All of this is just my opinion, the things I’ve learned over my years of writing. If you don’t agree with it, that’s okay – I’m not watching over your shoulder to see if you do what I say. Feel free to take what’s useful and leave the rest.
If you have questions, feel free to tweet or email me, and if you feel that more in-depth support would be useful, you can hire me to mentor or edit you. I’m also happy to come and talk about editing at your writing group, school, university, or anywhere really – just email me.