Writing: Self-editing Your Novel

Writing is rewriting, the saying goes. And self-editing is a must-have skill for good rewriting.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some strategies for developing your self-editing skills?

Read, Plan, Draft

Self-editing skills take time and practice. Sure, some seem to have inborn talent for storytelling. The rest of us can learn to craft better stories by writing a lot and reading a lot. Read stuff in the genre you write or hope to write. Remember, when you read a story you love, it didn’t start out so grand.

Another saying goes (thanks, Anne Lamott!), First you get it down, then you fix it up. New writers in general shouldn’t try to edit while they draft—doing so slows down your progress. Go ahead and correct your grammar and spelling, but don’t try to overhaul your scenes the same day you write them. I almost never rewrite a scene at the same session that I draft it—I’ve learned that even the next day, I’ll be much more objective.

Draft away, but it may make your self-edits easier if you decide at the scene’s beginning why readers will need this story bit acted out. A scene that is just because or that “takes a break from the action” is probably a scene without a purpose. If you ask yourself the why of each scene, you may find rewriting a tad easier later on.

Start Macro

When “later on” comes, most effective writers begin with the Big Picture—how does the scene fit into the overall story? This macro approach helps you revise the story before you catch all the clunky sentences and miscues. Be sure you’ve let your story “cool off” for a period before you jump into revision.

Ask yourself: What’s the reason (purpose) for this scene? Does it move the story or march in place? “Moving” generally means either something new happens or else readers understand something in a way they didn’t before. Is there “rising action?” Rising action means that every scene has more at stake than the last, all the way to the climax. Tension should also rise accordingly.

Another macro self-edit evaluates the scene’s pace. Pace refers to how slow or fast the scene unfolds. If you stay too long with set-up, narration or description without getting to the character action, your pace will drag. If you don’t orient readers as to where and when they are, say who’s on stage and reveal the scene goal, readers will be confused. Grab a free pdf on SCENE WRITING at the end of this post!

Ask yourself, “what’s the purpose of this scene?

Getting Nitty

When you’ve gone as far as you can with Big Picture self-editing, you can begin to correct, smooth and sift for tone your individual paragraphs and sentences. Volumes have been written about sentence structure, usage and grammar. Get yourself a Strunk & White The Elements of Style if you need a refresher in these smaller, but important details.

If you have some sort of critique group, you can get more input on what your scene lacks, but beware: Some writers seem to have an agenda to “nit-pick” in unhelpful ways. The best groups have a combination of advanced and newer writers to help you learn without diving down rabbit holes that lead nowhere. Take what feels true about their feedback and ditch the rest. If the advice is to “kill your darlings” and you’re not ready to do that, just set it aside and reevaluate if you hit a brick wall later on. After a month or two, most of my darlings look silly to me, and I off them without a pang of guilt.

As you practice self-editing, keep reading the best novels you can find. Be sure to include the genre you write for, as style and pace differs widely. Practice evaluating your drafted scenes for purpose, set-up and pace, and if you’re the analytic type, compare with scenes you’ve read in novels that you liked. Keep the smaller revisions like sentence rewriting for later when your scenes better reflect the story you want to tell.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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