Being a demanding self-editor is a must if you want to be the best writer you can be. What’s the point of pouring weeks, months, or years into a manuscript, then settling for something other than your very best work?

Whether you’re striving to land a traditional publishing deal or planning to self-publish, you can exponentially improve your prospects for success by learning to edit your own writing. The crisper your prose, the more you’ll separate yourself from the sea of competition that floods this vast new publishing world.

What’s the point of pouring weeks, months, or years of your life into a manuscript, then settling for something other than your very best work appearing in print?

Do an Internet search for “Self-Editing” and you’ll find numerous checklists that challenge you to examine your manuscript for things like character motivation, active voice, pacing, similes, metaphors, context, description, hooks, synonyms, and engaging the senses.

Yes, all of this is important, but let’s home in on the writing itself.

Author Francine Prose (how’s that for a scholarly name?) once said, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, or especially cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.”

Early in my magazine career, I learned self-editing by working for a boss who edited my work and then second edited my editing. Every day he found things in my writing I should have caught, and I eventually made it my goal to submit something he couldn’t improve upon.

While I never entirely succeeded, I got better at ferreting out errors in logic, redundancies, excessive adjectives, and other maladies listed below. Perhaps more importantly, I developed a thick skin and realized that every piece of published writing is a duet between the writer and the editor, not a solo.

Today, 190 published books into my career – with over 70 million copies sold and 21 New York Times bestsellers – I am a ferocious self-editor. When I set out to write a book, I always work the same way:

  1. My day begins with a heavy edit and rewrite of the previous day’s rough draft.
  2. When I’m satisfied with every word, I turn off my internal editor and produce the rough pages I’ll edit and rewrite the next day.
  3. When the first draft is completed, I go back to the beginning and give it another heavy edit and rewrite.

When I’m editing those rough pages with my fine-toothed comb, I:

  • Excise what I call “throat-clearing,” that tendency to philosophize, describe, or explain before getting on with the story.
  • Ensure, whenever possible, I’ve chosen the “normal” word over one that requires a dictionary. I don’t want to interrupt my own story just to show off my vocabulary.
  • Omit unnecessary words.
  • Avoid redundancies, even subtle ones, like “shrugged her shoulders” (what else would she shrug?), “clapped his hands” (ditto), “squinted their eyes”… see what I’m saying?
  • Almost always delete the word “that,” unless it’s necessary for clarity; usually it isn’t.
  • Try to give the reader credit for understanding by resisting the urge to over-explain. For example, I’d cut out what you see in brackets: Eleanor [was mad. She] pounded the table. “Frank, this is going to drive me crazy!” [she said, angrily].
  • Avoid telling what’s not happening, such as, “The room never got quiet” or “He didn’t respond.” If it doesn’t happen, it probably doesn’t need to be explained.
  • Avoid adjectival mania. Good writing is produced by strong nouns and verbs. As novelist and editor Sol Stein says, “one plus one equals one-half,” meaning we should choose the better of two adjectives and not deplete the power of our prose by using both.
  • Don’t hedge, like “frowned slightly,” “almost smiled,” or “laughed a bit.” People either frown, smile, or laugh, or they don’t.
  • Remove the term “literally” when I mean “figuratively.” Literally means something actually happened. “I literally died when I heard that.” Did you really?
  • Avoid unnecessary stage direction and describing every movement of every character.
  • Limit myself to a single point-of-view character for any given scene.
  • Avoid awkward dialogue attribution. Typically, people just say things, they don’t pronounce, declare, or exclaim them. And when you describe action first, your reader knows who’s speaking without attribution. John flopped onto the couch. “God I’m beat.” Not: John was so exhausted, he flopped onto the couch and declared, “I’m beat.”
  • Avoid mannerisms of typestyles, sizes, and punctuation. “He. Was. DEAD!” does not make a character any more dramatically terminated than, “He was dead.”

As you write, be a demanding self-editor until you’re happy with every word, and watch where it takes you.

 

Find your way to self-publishing success in just 5 easy steps with this 62-page book. Yours absolutely free.

 

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How To Turn A Good Manuscript Into A Great Manuscript

 

Jerry Jenkins

About Jerry Jenkins

Jerry Jenkins has written 3 posts in this blog.

Jerry B. Jenkins has written 187 books with sales of more than 70 million copies. He’s had 21 New York Times bestsellers, including the Left Behind series. He now shares his writing knowledge with aspiring authors at JerryJenkins.com.

31 thoughts on “Improve Your Writing: Become a Demanding Self-Editor

  1. Wendy says:

    Actually, “He. Was. DEAD!” IS more dramatic than, “He was dead.” At least if your character is talking to some bonehead who keeps insisting that he wasn’t dead and needs to repeat. for. emphasis.

    I would also point out that one may have “shrugged into a jacket” or “shrugged off the comment” and could have “clapped him on the shoulder.” But if one didn’t do any of these, then what did they do?

    ”Don’t hedge, like “frowned slightly,” “almost smiled,” or “laughed a bit.” People either frown, smile, or laugh, or they don’t.”

    –So what do you call it when someone’s “mouth quivers at the corner”? “Almost smiled” is actually the edited, “shortened” form of a much longer description that might not get communicated to the reader effectively. You can laugh a little, you can laugh a lot. How do you indicate that one is on the opposite end of the laughter spectrum form “rolling on the floor” without saying “laughed a bit” or something wordier?

    I’m not saying these are bad guides, but they have the feel of “don’t start a sentence with ‘because'”–they can stop a beginner from genuine wordiness, but can also create unnecessary awkwardness when “blind followers” try too hard to adhere to them. Speaking as one who’s had her facts “de-corrected” by editors trying to make my work “crisper.”

    1. Actually, “He. Was. DEAD!” IS more dramatic than, “He was dead.” At least if your character is talking to some bonehead who keeps insisting that he wasn’t dead and needs to repeat. for. emphasis.

      That really would be a bonehead, wouldn’t it? 🙂

      I would also point out that one may have “shrugged into a jacket” or “shrugged off the comment” and could have “clapped him on the shoulder.” But if one didn’t do any of these, then what did they do?

      They simply shrugged, and the reader would understand that. (But wouldn’t you shrug OUT of a jacket?)

      –So what do you call it when someone’s “mouth quivers at the corner”? “Almost smiled” is actually the edited, “shortened” form of a much longer description that might not get communicated to the reader effectively. You can laugh a little, you can laugh a lot. How do you indicate that one is on the opposite end of the laughter spectrum form “rolling on the floor” without saying “laughed a bit” or something wordier?

      I would say what you said, but without quite as much stage direction: His lips quivered.

      I’m not saying these are bad guides, but they have the feel of “don’t start a sentence with ‘because’”–they can stop a beginner from genuine wordiness, but can also create unnecessary awkwardness when “blind followers” try too hard to adhere to them. Speaking as one who’s had her facts “de-corrected” by editors trying to make my work “crisper.”

      That’s why I want you to become a demanding self-editor. There will always be people who hear a suggestion and wrongly assume it’s a cardinal rule. I’m just trying to point out things that I watch for.

    2. Frances says:

      Thank you Wendy!
      If you are at the BookBaby conference in November, I would love to meet you to say hello and thank you for all your great advice and expertise!

      Frances Laskowski

  2. Thank you for the great piece. I saw some things I do and shall stop doing. Very helpful. Loved the “avoid redundancies.” Now I must look through pieces for them.

    thanks again.

  3. Great tips! I like the idea of doing the rough writing one day, and then starting the next day with self-editing that portion before starting the process again. I have a tendency to write and edit at the same time – a good way to stifle the creative juices. I’m going to try this method on my next historical novel.

    1. Great, Catherine! I resonate with that temptation to edit as you go, but you’re right, it slows the whole process.

    2. Sounds just like me! I’m finding it a hard habit to break.

    3. Major Robert J. Wells says:

      Hi,
      I remember when I first starting writing, an established author on a talk show said, “write from the heart, and edit from the head.” That’s what I do. Don’t let editing interfere with your thought process.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this great article. I’m in the midst of writing my first book, and it’s been a challenge. I really don’t like lists of what an author should or shouldn’t do. But I appreciate this reminder that every word contributes or detracts. If I can ever get a first draft done, I will try to be a demanding self-editor.

    1. I’m with you, Jennifer, in generally eschewing lists. Just take ’em as suggestions, and if they help, great. If they don’t, ignore them. And you WILL get that first draft done when you override the perfectionist in you until the next stage.

  5. F. Weldon Clark says:

    l have read so many great articles on writing a great book that to actually begin my own book is beginning to appear even more daunting. When we reach that point of desperation, where do we go from there?

    1. To the keyboard. The only thing you’re sure of if you DON’T try is that you’ll fail. You don’t want to live wondering what might have been.

    2. Laura Bentz says:

      Just start and you’ll be surprised at the inspiration that will come your way…

  6. Mike Smith says:

    Hi Jerry – great list. One question: People don’t necessarily speak in tight sentences. Do you edit the character who breaks your rules in the language they use?

    1. Good point, Mike. No, I do cut dialogue to its essence, but if someone is wordy or repetitive by nature, that has to be depicted.

  7. Mae Cardinal says:

    I am 90 years old, Ten years ago I wrote my book , “A Life Of Deception the truth by Mae Cardinal” . The true story of m y life as I lived it, and yes, without a real education my memoir of greed was expressed simply and to the point.

    1. That’s great, Mae! And that you wrote it when you were 80 answers a question I get all the time: Am I too old to write a book?

      I’ve never had an editor look up from a great piece of writing and say, “How old is this author anyway?”

  8. Ronald Morgan says:

    I’m now quite certain that I could post my work as an example of what not to do. 🙂

    1. Recognizing the problem is the first step to success, Ronald. Believe me, every successful writer was once where you are. This doesn’t come naturally to many, and certainly not to me.

  9. Michael L Rynne says:

    Hi Jerry, thanks for this really wise post. I usually find these “advice”-type posts quite redundant, but I found myself nodding all the way through yours! I liked the advice on dialogue attribution a lot (one of my editing struggles); likewise the advice on hedging, adjectival mania (!), and redundancies. Just good solid, practical advice. Excellent.
    Michael

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Michael.

  10. Ruth Miranda says:

    I happen to slightly frown and almost laugh a lot in my daily laugh. Especially almost smile, I tend to almost smile everytime my son does something he should not do – something cheeky, for example – in the funniest way possible and I have to stop myself from smiling because I need to scold him for what he’s done. But for a second there, I almost smiled. Now imagine you want to convey just that in your narrative, about one of your characters, you’ll have to write down they almost smiled. As for my slightly frowning, believe me, it’s very different from one of my actual frowns. Even the meaning it conveys to people is very different, and they know when to run for it – frown – or stick around – slightly frown. But that’s just me.

    1. Ruth, I hear you, but I would write that you “…suppressed a smile,” or that you “…allowed a hint of a frown.” All I’m saying is that there are ways to depict such things without hedging.

  11. Sound advice. Thank you.

  12. Just me . . . but I think making the sentence “He was dead.” a paragraph in itself (assuming it needs emphasis in the given situation) gives the declaration just the right amount of .punch.

  13. Great article and a reminder of what to do, or not.

  14. Roma Allison says:

    Encouraging post. I neither “almost smiled” nor “nearly frowned” as I swallowed it whole. Thank you.

  15. Shirl Boatman says:

    Appreciated your advice, especially your next-day editing. I usually wait longer to edit, but I see the value of working it sooner. It’s like an extra edit.
    I sometimes write interview articles for newspapers. Rule is to always use attribution, so I do. But I always mutter “duh” when I write “he said” for the 20th time in the article.

  16. Ron Lindsey says:

    What I’ve written so far is flash fiction, short poetry/prose and whimsical stories. I know I’ve spent more time rewriting them and self editing that the actual first to three writes from their origin. I guessing, hoping that’s a good sign.

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