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:
- My day begins with a heavy edit and rewrite of the previous day’s rough draft.
- 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.
- 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.
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