Self-Editing (It’s Not Just for Polite Conversation)

I’ve read a lot of books on this topic, scoured blogs, took any and every class I could at conferences and workshops on the matter, but I always still feel like there’s vast room for improvement when it comes to editing your own work.

Part of the reason is that it’s incredibly hard after writing, rewriting, and rewriting again (times a thousand) to edit all of those words. Not because we’re narcissistic megalomaniacs and don’t think there’s anything wrong with our novel, but because there’s a true phenomenon that happens in our brains as we read (and re read, and re read again) our own work.

The human brain is complex and the way it takes in and interprets stimuli from outside is a complicated and delicate dance. If we were to notice every single thing in our world, we wouldn’t be able to exist in it. The noise, the colors, the sound, the smells are so varied and ever present that our brains would be in a constant state of interpretation that would cause us to vomit, or pass out. Or both. (Which is one of the reasons so many people on the spectrum can have a difficult time coping with crowded, noisy, overstimulating places). As a result, we tend to soften the edges of a lot of information, block it out, or keep it in the peripheral of our consciousness, allowing our brains to make up a great deal of what we take in, through context.

It can be the same as when we edit. We tend to be in a taking-things-for-granted-because-I-read-it-so-many-times-before haze. We coast over the words and retell ourselves the story we already know in our heads, rather than focusing on what is actually on the page.

You, the author who created this magnificent book, know what it’s supposed to say, you know what you meant when you wrote it. So in your brain, when your eyes pass over the words, it will fill in the missed words, ignore the double ones, and forgive the dangling participles because in your brain, it’s reading correct. Very rarely do we ever approach our own work as a completely new reader. It’s practically impossible to do.

Does that mean we shouldn’t edit? Fuck no. Unless you’re incredibly rich and can afford an editor to take your first draft to your final over the course of 9 rewrites. And if you are that author, why the hell are you reading this blog? This is for the poor, struggling authors who are trying to procrastinate their own editing by reading my blog. Not for big money-bag writers who bang out twenty political spy thrillers a year because they have a nanny, and a cook, and a dog walker, and a personal shopper, and a house cleaner…

Where were we—ah yes, self-editing. Here are some of the biggest tips that have helped me produce a much better final version (before I send it in to an editor for the one or two rounds I can afford).

  • Take it line by line, sentence by sentence. Is the structure sound? Does it make sense? Is it passive? Is it clear who is doing the action, who is in control of the perspective? Is there a random “pineapple” thrown in at the end of a paragraph?
  • Read it out loud. When all else fails, read it cover to cover, out loud. That’s when I find most of my mistakes. Or, if you’re not into that (or you live with people who aren’t into listening to you and by people, I mean cats) at least read aloud the passages, paragraphs and parts that feel awkward or over the top.
  • It’s not too late to kill some darlings. I have been known to cut out scenes/sentences/dialogue, in my final rounds that I knew didn’t belong but I clung to them like a freezing poor boy on the wreckage of the Titanic. Save them in a different file, but if you know in your heart it’s there to stroke your ego at your brilliant wordage but it’s not doing the story any good then show some humility and axe it.
  • Check your tense, check your POV, be consistent in those little things because they make a HUGE difference on whether or not your reader can follow the story and isn’t frustrated trying to do so.
  • Print it out. You can get a good deal at local or national printing companies (my local FedEx cashier knows me and it is so heartening every time she asks “new book?” and hands me the brown box of hope). Double sided, nothing fancy, cheapest version possible will still only set you back about $30 for a 250 page book. You will see things in ink that you cannot see on the screen, guaranteed.
  • Get a Beta reader or twelve. Yeah, it’s not really self-editing, but it’s part of the process that will help bring new eyes to your work. And usually it’s a low cost way to get a ‘real readers’ perspective on your work.

All right, that’s all I’ve got. Good luck out there. Don’t think this bullet list will take the place of a good professional round of editing, but it should help in your process. And maybe it can even help turn your first drafts into better drafts.