Friday, 11 August 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 7 - Self-editing

By Debbie Young
Images courtesy of JD Lewis

No matter which genre you write in, cultivating a habit of effective self-editing will make your books better and boost your confidence as a writer. As an author myself, I know that’s been true for me, and I’d like to help you gain the same benefits by explaining how and when to self-edit – and when it’s time to stop and hand over to a professional.


There are three main kinds of editing:

Developmental or structural editing: addressing your book’s shape and form, looking at story rather than style
Line editing: refining your story sentence by sentence, to make the language as precise and expressive as possible
Copy editing or proofreading: checking for technical correctness of the language e.g. spelling and grammar

Professional editors provide all of these services, and self-editing includes them all too. 


"But wait!” I hear you cry. “Isn’t it received wisdom that you can’t edit your own work because you’re too close to it?”

Sorry, I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. Even with a bottomless budget, you should still edit your own ms to the best of your ability before submitting it to your chosen professional editor for a final polish. Why?

To learn and grow as an author – if you let someone else tidy up  your mistakes, you won’t learn to stop making them 
To reduce the costs of a third-party edit - a good professional editor will charge less for a relatively clean script than for one riddled with errors
To build a better relationship with your editor – make him or her look forward to your mss rather than dreading them

“But I’m aiming for a contract with a trade publisher, rather than self-publishing,” you might be thinking. “They’ll provide an editor to do that for me.” 

Er, dream on. Yes, a trade publisher will provide an editor, but they’ll also be much less likely to offer a contract for a shabby script than for a polished one. You’ll still have to do much of the editing yourself, following their instructions. Surely it’s better to get it right first time, rather than being sent back your script covered in edits, like homework marked in red pen? “Must try harder” is not a pleasant message to receive at any age.


“I’ve got plenty of editing apps that will fix that stuff for me.” 

By all means run your ms through your word-processor’s spellchecker, or more sophisticated, algorithm-based apps such as Hemingway or Grammarly, but beware of their limitations. These mechanical methods will not pick up every error, nor will all their suggestions take your personal style into account. Its corrections may not be net improvements. For example, spellcheckers will accept words that are accurately spelled but wrongly used. No apps can replace the power of the human brain, or have your insight into your book’s unique concept and qualities. 

So if you want your book to be truly your own work, presented to the best of your ability, you should self-edit it thoroughly, rather than write the first draft and abdicate responsibility to all and sundry to turn it into a finished script.


Now for the good news: although self-editing is hard work and time-consuming, it’s also hugely rewarding. Many authors even prefer self-editing to writing the first draft, because this is when their story really begins to shine.  

If you’ve never done much self-editing before, you’re in for some surprises:

The number of edits you’ll make long after you thought your draft was finished (a quick check of my final draft of my latest novel yielded 350+ further tweaks)
How much easier you’ll find the process on each subsequent book, (I learn more with every book I write)
How intense and exhausting the process is, physically as well as mentally (if you’re not tired after self-editing, you’re doing it wrong)


So now let’s press on with instructions on how to go about it – and then I’ll give you an exercise to practise your skills in miniature, before you let yourself loose on your current work-in-progress.

First, take a break from the actual writing process. Writing and editing require two different parts of the brain – the first creative, the second critical. You need to turn off your creative brain and reboot your inner critic. 
The creative brain and the critical brain are like those two little weather people in a traditional wooden weather house: they should never both be out at once.

Received wisdom is that you should put a book manuscript away for about six weeks in a drawer (as if a drawer adds a special magic absent from a cupboard or shelf!) That allows time for your short-term memory to clear, so that when you come back to it, you will read what you actually wrote, rather than what you think you wrote, and so be more objective.

Plan to read through your manuscript very many times, with most of these times being for a specific reason, e.g.

- For plot structure – does the timeline work, does it make sense, will it meet readers’ expectations for your genre?
- To check speech – do conversations flow, do speech tags help rather than hinder (less is always more with speech tags), is it always clear who is speaking?
- For superfluous words – have you eliminated flabby padding that doesn’t add anything to the story except word count?
- For sentence and paragraph length – too many long blocks of text are hard on the eye, and it’s usually easy to them shorter, e.g. interjecting an action in the middle of a long speech to add a bit of movement and variety
- For writing tics - favourite words that are over-used (if you’re not sure what yours are, paste your whole ms into a word cloud generator, downloadable from the internet, and see what floats to the top – you may be surprised at the result)
- For continuity errors – do anyone’s eyes change colour from one page to the next, or their hairstyles or their names? (all frighteningly common) 

At each pass, key in  your changes before starting your next round of edits. This may seem an extravagant use of time, but it is the most effective way of fine-tuning your prose. 


The  more formats you read your ms in, the more opportunities for improvement you are likely to find. Many authors work exclusively on their computer, but paper print-outs can be surprisingly helpful. 

“But I want to save trees!” is a popular misconception.

In our environmentally-friendly age, many authors feel guilty at printing off paper copies, particularly of long works, worried about wasting paper and ink. Avoid a guilty conscience by buying paper from sustainable resources (which is pretty much most of it these days) and tell yourself you’re supporting the forestry industry instead. 

Read your ms in the following formats as well as on your computer:
- On paper (ideally in a different typeface to the one you wrote it in)
- On an ereader or ereading app (these apps are free and available for phones and tablets, so unless you’re a complete Luddite, you’ve no excuse to avoid them)
- On paper again – but this time formatted in the style you expect your finished book to be in  (suddenly your book will seem much more real, and you’ll see it more through your readers’ eyes and be more sensitive to errors you don’t want them to read)

Finally, read the whole thing out loud. Yes, that will take a long time, but the resulting improvements will justify the time spent. (If you dictate your first drafts, you’ll have already discovered how much better spoken text flows.)


You don’t have to wait for your next book to be finished to try this system for yourself. Here’s a quick and easy exercise that I hope will leave you convinced that self-editing will make you a better writer and help make your books the best they can be. 

1. Take a pen and paper and write a 200 word description of something you do every day, e.g. making a cup of tea, cleaning your teeth, getting dressed.
2. Get up and leave the room, get yourself a drink, then come back, with your writer’s mind rebooted in critic mode.
3. Type it into your computer, and as you do so, if an obvious improvement jumps out at you, feel free to include it.
4. Read it on screen a number of times, checking and correcting each of the following, one at a time: logical order, continuity, writing tics, sentence length, paragraph length.
5. Try to reduce its length by 10% by eliminating superfluous words. It may be easier than you think. Can you reduce it by 15%? 20%?
6. Print it off, and while it is printing, gaze out of a window to refresh your eyes.
7. Now read the revised new print out. Spot anything you missed? If so, input those changes and print again.
8. Now read it aloud. Anything else you want to change? Change it, and reprint it. 
9. Finally, compare it to your original manuscript. You should see a significant difference. And think how much happier your professional editor would be to see the self-edited version rather than the original draft.


Put your final version away in a drawer - ah, the mysterious magic of the drawer! ;) Take it out again at least 24 hours later, but preferably six weeks later, and see whether there’s anything else you’d like to change. I bet a professional editor would also still find room for improvement.


Don’t let the number of corrections you’ve made in the self-editing process dent your confidence as a writer. Instead, congratulate yourself on your craftsmanship and dedication at honing your prose to the best it can possibly be, just as a sculptor chips away at a block of marble, little by little, until a masterpiece stands before him.

But also like the sculptor, beware of applying the chisel for too long! There comes a point at which self-editing morphs into self-defeating. Don’t be the sculptor who chips off your statue’s nose. 

If you find yourself unwilling to stop self-editing, ask yourself whether you’re really just putting off the moment of declaring your work complete. I met a man the other day who told me he’d been editing a novel for ten years. Either he’s been writing the wrong thing, or for some reason he is afraid of publishing it: fear of success, fear of failure, or fear of being sued. 

Sometimes good enough is good enough, and it’s time to move on to a new writing project. 

A rigorous self-editing habit will make your work the best it can be, now and throughout your writing career. 

Good luck, and keep writing!

Debbie Young is the author of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, the first of which is Best Murder in Show, and various collections of short stories. 
She also writes non-fiction books, such as How to Get Your Self-published Book into Bookstores, part of the Self-publishing Success series published by the Alliance of Independent Authors, of which she is Publications Manager. 
For more information about Debbie’s writing life, please visit her website

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