Self-Editing Fiction

Many published authors will tell you they spend twice as much time self-editing and revising than they did writing the first draft. As an author of historical fiction, I feel that self-editing is the most creative and important part of writing a novel. If you want people to like what you’ve written, if you want to get your book into the hands of a literary agent, if you want to have your novel published in print or ebook—get in the habit of slashing, burning, revising, and rewriting when necessary.

I love the feeling of finishing a draft, of getting all those words on the page; it’s a gratifying moment, but the work is far from over. Now I get to polish and tweak, add and delete, rethink, reorganize, and reorder. It feels like being an artist moving paint about on a canvas with a brush, but instead our canvas is the page, and the words are our tools.

After almost twenty years of writing, my abilities have evolved from being almost blind to what needs to be done next, to feeling as if I know I can do it. That has come from experience. But it doesn’t negate help from others; that comes later. All authors benefit from making changes and revising well before the manuscript is seen by a publisher or reader, and it starts on the first page.

Self-Editing Techniques and Tips

1. Don’t self-edit while writing a first draft

Most authors are in some way editing all along as they write. Some authors tell me they find it helpful not to move on from one chapter to the next unless they’ve done some self-editing first. But for most of us, the so-called “editor sitting on your shoulder” is limiting. It can stifle the best part of writing: creativity. In fact, many people believe their best work comes out when they simply let the words flow while writing in something like free association. Without pausing for thoughts beyond the words going down on the page, they can let themselves go.

My first drafts are somewhat awful. The best process for me is to get the bones of the story down freely with no thought as to how it will read in a final version. Then edit later. All authors have their own processes, but unless you’re one of those rare people who can write creatively and edit themselves at the same time, avoid any urges to self-edit as you write original words.

2. Set the book aside for a while

This may feel counterintuitive. You’ve finished the first draft, so why wouldn’t you dive right back in wearing your self-editor’s cap? You’ve probably heard of “being too close to your work.” If you read it over and over with few breaks, you’ll probably lose perspective.

Leave the book alone for a month so you can come back to the project with somewhat fresher eyes.

What to do while you’re letting the manuscript simmer? Live, have fun, start another project, read good books, and rest. Another author once proposed going with the three Bs: bed, bath, and book. Get lots of sleep, take long luxurious baths (or whatever you find relaxing), and read authors you admire. After you’ve separated yourself from your story for a while, you’ll be surprised by how much the distance has helped.

When you pick it up again, read it through before you begin your self-edit. Make notes, but at this point, just read the story from start to finish.

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–How is my opening line? My opening paragraph?
–Will the first two pages impress a reader? Or a literary agent?
–Does the drama start soon enough or did I overdo the build up?
–If the preface, prologue, or first chapter is ho-hum, can I take a portion from another part of the draft and open the book with the BIG event? A murder? A body? An unexpected kiss and the emotional response?

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3. Look at character development

Now it’s time for the detailed self-editing to begin. I’ve been professionally editing for almost eleven years, and the most common problem I see in manuscripts is a lack of character development. A reader needs to connect with at least one of the characters early on, and most often this happens when the author quickly develops a multi-dimensional character(s). But make sure you didn’t add too many characters too quickly, or you might end up with unmemorable ones.

Ideally, all of your major players should be known and understood by the reader. They should not be caricatures or follow stereotypes. They can and should have weaknesses as well as strengths. They should also be a part of at least one relationship so the reader sees how the character connects with the outside world.

Often I read manuscripts in which not much has been revealed about the protagonist’s inner life—his or her history, hopes and dreams, nature, love life, level of intelligence, and education, etc. When I see this, I recommend “fleshing out” the character. I’m not advocating that you write long paragraphs telling the reader who your character is. Instead, start strong and don’t let up, but do it in pieces. Show pivotal moments in characters’ lives instead of trying to describe their entire histories in a summary. While looking at your characters and perhaps adding depth, make sure you develop their relationships, too.

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–Are my characters well-developed?
–Are they changing and growing?
–Are my characters empathetic?
–Will my readers know who to root for? Who to hate?
–At the same time, are my characters complex? Are they both sympathetic and flawed?
–Did I do a good job of making my characters interesting and not black-and-white?
–What about character backstory? Does it work itself in seamlessly? In the most sensible spot? Is there too much or too little?

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4. Read dialogue aloud

Writing dialogue is one of the most challenging things authors do. Some find it easy, and some find it difficult, but good dialogue is essential in today’s novels.

When self-editing, make sure the dialogue isn’t flat or trite, that it reveals something about the character and/or plot, and that it changes something, even if it’s only in a subtle way. Make sure you have included interruptions, periods of silence, changes of expression, gestures, laughter, smiles, frowns, etc., as these things will make it ring truer.

Be on the alert for common mistakes made by new authors—too much addressing each other by name and lack of contractions in dialogue. Example: Mary, I am so happy that you are here. Thank you, Mary.

Read your dialogue aloud to gauge how it sounds. You can enlist the help of family or friends to play parts. As a bonus, you’ll get feedback about realism and where you should rewrite because they laughed when you didn’t mean the dialogue to be funny.

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–Does each character have a unique voice/style or do they sound too much alike when they speak?
–Did I include nonverbal communication? Inferences, omissions, glances, body language?
–Did I get the emotional reaction I intended?

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5. Look for plot holes and missed opportunities for drama

Many of my editing clients believe they’ve succeeded in writing a book with a riveting plot, and sometimes they have. More often, however, I see that the skeleton of the story is there, but the plot needs to include higher stakes, a rising sense of action and drama, and more twists and turns. I find that many plot elements need to be ramped up, and there aren’t enough complications to give the sense of tension building. Other times I see the need for additional threads and developments, and I make suggestions to authors that are either taken or spark their own even better ideas.

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–Are there places where I fell into “tell” rather than “show?”
–How can I elevate the ramifications and results?
–Does the story progress and change throughout the book?
–Does it build in momentum and “hook” the reader?
–Did I adequately foreshadow the arc?
–Is the conflict between characters realistic or contrived (somewhat or a lot)?
–Does the book have a subplot? If so, does it work?

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6. Eliminate or edit words and descriptions that are overused

While writing the first draft, most authors will overuse many words and expressions. We might have inadvertently used cliches and repeated ourselves, too. The self-editing process allows us to go back and correct those things. It gives us the opportunity to substitute better words, phrases, and descriptions, and remove the tired and old.

Make sure you use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, and when they are used, they should be explicit, descriptive, and never vague.

Look for words that are not necessary throughout the book. Deleting words will often make a sentence stronger. Read with an eye toward cutting the extras.

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–Have I avoided overusing words I like?
–Have I enriched the writing by using descriptive words?
–Are there too many adverbs and adjectives? Or not enough?
–Are there words that are unnecessary and should be trimmed?

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7. Make the setting feel like another character in the book

New authors sometimes neglect their settings, and in historical fiction and science fiction the setting needs to feel as real and alive as a character.

Other aspiring authors write too many setting details. If you’ve created a new world in a science fiction book, you’ll probably have to spend a lot of time on what is called “world-building” for the story to work.

But even if your book is not as dependent on the setting as it is for historical and science fiction, many readers love what is called a “strong sense of place.” Making a reader feel as if he or she has been transported to another place is always a good thing.

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–Have I done too little or too much development of the setting?
–Have I made it vivid?
–Have I included all the senses?
–Is it related to my story?

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8. Expand or trim as needed

In my experience, writers fall into two groups: those whose drafts need to be expanded and those whose drafts need to be trimmed. Few people start out with the perfect length for their novels, and I’m no exception. My first drafts always need more expansion, and often I add entirely new scenes, developments, even a new character if I think the book needs it.

First, look at guidelines for word counts in all genres. Then after you’ve read your draft the first time, ask yourself:

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–Is it too long or too short?
–Does it feel rushed or dense and slow?
–Has everything been covered that is essential to character and story?

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Shorter books usually need to be added to in ways that involve a lot more writing. Although some authors don’t find it enjoyable to add new material, most of us do.

It seems more difficult for authors to cut back on what is already there. But if you’ve written a book of more than 120,000 words, often that’s exactly what needs to be done. It can be painful, and I always advise my clients to hold onto everything they’ve written, especially the cut passages from a novel. You never know when you might be able to use that material later.

While adding and deleting, reexamine your transitions. Make sure you know how to change the scene, the point of view, and how to start and end chapters. Make sure you don’t have any point-of-view slips (also called “head hopping”)—inadvertently shifting from one character’s head into another’s.

9. Look closely at your opening

Never underestimate the importance of a strong opening in a novel. Readers are impatient these days and will not wait long for something to grab their attention. Some editors believe that even a literary novel needs to have a strong “hook” in its opening. In my opinion, it never hurts.

All aspiring novelists should know that an acquisitions editor or reader at a publishing house decides to pass on a manuscript or asks for more based on only about five to ten pages, if they get past the first page.

Even if you’re going to self-publish, strive for a strong hook and present your best writing in those early pages—it could pull readers in and make them order the book or keep on reading. Self-publishing does not mean lowering the standards of good writing.

An ideal opening chapter establishes an original voice, introduces the reader to a compelling character(s), shows the setting, and starts with conflict right away. It’s a tall order but can definitely be done. Check your opening many many times and revise it until you feel it’s the best it can be.

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–Does my opening contain a “hook?”
–Is there enough conflict?
–Does my writing voice stand out from others?
–Have I introduced an interesting character in the opening, if applicable?

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10. Reexamine your ending

It used to be that, after a climactic point in a novel, the author could simply move forward to the conclusion. They managed to achieve closure on most of the issues and characters in a book and thought they were done.

In today’s market, endings should go beyond simply giving closure and tying up loose ends. The best endings have a twist that no one saw coming. Make a list of all the things that are true in your novel, and then ask yourself, “What would happen if one or more of these things turn out not to be true?”

Keep in mind that everything doesn’t have to be tied up neatly; in fact, I prefer a bittersweet ending, as I feel they’re the most realistic. But I’m probably in the minority on this, and most readers want a clear happy ending. It all depends on the genre and audience for the story you’ve chosen to tell, and whether or not you intend to write a sequel or series.

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–Did I achieve closure?
–Is there some satisfaction in the end?
–If I intended to surprise my reader, did I?
–Did I foreshadow well while not giving away the ending too early?

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Try to accomplish these things with as few words as possible. These days, long endings are less desirable than shorter ones.

11. Hone in on your theme

All books, even the most lighthearted ones, should say something. In good books, theme is often unstated, but the message still comes through. Look back after you’ve completed your first full reading of the draft to determine if the story is complete and well paced; subtle but powerful.

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–What do I want to say in this book?
–Do I have a message that comes through, even a subtle one?

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Most important, make self-editing a pleasant process. Don’t dismay if answers and ideas don’t come right away. Good revisions take time and should not be rushed. Allow yourself to celebrate completing the first draft, put the book aside for a while, and then edit and revise the book on your own until you can’t do more.

It is a good idea at that point to hire a professional developmental editor for a critique, at a minimum. There may be issues you didn’t see, and the editor might have suggestions to strengthen one or more elements of your book. Learning about your strengths and weaknesses will help you produce a book you’ll be proud to publish and help you when you write your next book. And your next …

Ana Howard

ANA HOWARD writes and edits contemporary and historical children’s, young adult, and adult literature. She has seen one of her novels made into film and has won numerous literary awards.

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