A Rookie’s Guide to Good Self-Editing
Editing is important. It goes hand in hand with writing and publishing. You can’t publish a story without editing it, and you can’t edit a story without writing it…
But what is an editor?
Believe it or not, they are regular people, with regular interests and regular lives.
Editors don’t live in ivory towers, they aren’t out to destroy your career, and they aren’t heartless monsters. They are business professionals, and they are interested in a quality story.
Having a good story, a complete story, is the most important part of getting published. The second most important is telling that story with great writing.
So how do we make sure we accomplish these things before we send our work to an editor?
We edit it.
Yes, you read that right. We must edit our work BEFORE we send it to an editor.
Editors and writers are busy people so sending an editor a mess of a story with plot holes, inconsistent characters, and no understanding of grammar is a waste of time for BOTH of you.
You don’t learn anything as a writer by getting an automatic rejection based on the first or second sentence of your story.
The goal of sending a story to an editor is to have them read it—the whole thing. We do this by self-editing.
On my own blog, Allie B Books, I take you through a rigorous and sometimes painful step-by-step description of my own process, but today we get the cheat notes on the importance of self-editing.
TEN STEPS TO A GOOD SELF-EDIT
1. Keep a fresh mind.
Once you rip through your first draft, it is important to rest. Separate yourself from the work by taking a break, working on something else, or focus on your “real” life. Do whatever you need to do to get your head straight and make sure that you have taken enough time so that when you come back to the story, you are seeing it with new eyes.
2. Read it like you didn’t write it.
When you read over your story for the first time, do so as if someone else wrote it.
Keep this question in mind and ask it frequently as you self-edit: ‘What would I expect from this story if I hadn’t written it?’
3. Perfect the concept
I was told that if you can’t describe your entire story in one sentence, then it is too complicated, or you have not figured out the focus yet.
My first reaction to that was “Whatever, that’s just what agents tell you so you don’t ramble for hours.”. But now that I have decided to set my first novel aside due to self-diagnosed plot complications I retract all former snark and doubt. It’s true. I had no focus because I didn’t take the time to really think about my concept and perfect the base of my story, and it showed.
Write a one-sentence summary for your story; write it a hundred times in a hundred different ways if you have to. This is your concept and the stronger and more compelling the sentence is, the stronger your story is. If you cannot, for the life of you, come up with something, then there is something wrong with your story or your focus.
4. Write a review
To find out what is lacking in your story, refer back to the question “What would I expect from this story if I hadn’t written it?” Write a review of your story, and not one of the goofy reviews found on Goodreads with the gif’s of dancing cats. I mean rate your piece seriously and write a real review. It is here where you will find out if there was too much/not enough romance, if the characters were too flat, if the tension needs to be boosted etc. Remember: What would you expect from the story if you hadn’t written it?
5. The five R’s
Once you’ve focused your concept and decided the story’s strengths and weaknesses, you can go through the story scene by scene and make changes based on the five R’s.
- Review what you’ve written and make notes about what you could do to make it better.
- Refer to your one-sentence summary.
- Revise the scene based on your review notes.
- Rewrite it if there are too many problems with it.
- Refresh your mind by stretching, taking a break, napping, checking your email or whatever activity time permits.
6. Don’t be scared to CUT CUT CUT
Here are two of the most important questions to ask yourself for every scene, paragraph, sentence and word:
a) Does this advance the plot?
b) Does this develop the characters?
If the answer is “no” to both of those questions, CUT IT! Never hold onto something because you think it’s clever or funny or smart because chances are it’s not. As they say in the biz, “Kill your darlings!”
I wrote a newspaper article with a finishing line that I thought was the best line of the whole feature, and you know what? The editor cut it… it was the ONLY line that was cut from the piece. If it doesn’t help tell your story or bring your characters to life, get rid of it.
It’s easier said than done but divorce yourself from the work and remind yourself it’s not about you: it’s about the story.
7. Tighten up
Now that the story is complete, focused, and clear, it’s time to get into the POWER of the writing. Time to focus on the pacing, tension, emotion, and language of your story. Go through every scene, paragraph and sentence and ask yourself:
a) “What am I trying to convey here?”
b) “Am I achieving the desired effect?”
c) “Is there a better way to convey what I want?”
If the scene you are reading is a fight scene and you have massive paragraphs and sentences, loads of description and babbling characters telling backstory, chances are it’s a boring fight scene.
Fight scenes are fast. High tension. Clanging swords. Thundering hearts ringing out over short breaths. Fear. Short sentences. That’s how to speed it up.
Did you do that?
Can you do it better?
I dare you.
8. Be consistent
There is nothing worse than reading a story with inconsistencies in it. Nothing. I can deal with the odd spelling mistake but POV head-hopping, character inconsistencies, setting flubs, and an all over the place voice is THE most annoying thing about poorly edited stories.
Some questions to consider as you read through:
a) Is my character clear and believable in their actions and dialogue? (Keep your character sketches handy for reference).
b) Do I head-hop or is the scene from one POV? If I’m head-hopping, is it intentional? Is it clear and obvious who’s POV it is? Are the transitions from one POV to another clear and smooth?
c) Are my descriptions engaging? Are they consistent with other descriptions I’ve made about similar places? Are they vivid and clear?
d) Is the setting obvious and well-developed? Or do I just have talking heads with no clear idea of where they are, what they are surrounded by and the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the environment? Is my setting alive or do I have characters in a bubble?
e) Is the voice consistent? Am I staying true to the character’s voice (if first person)? Is the distinction between different character’s POV voices and narrator clear and effective?
9. Proof of quality is in the proofread
For the proofread I suggest three things. First, read this post on revisions by Sucker Literary Magazine and familiarize yourself with the common errors writers make.
Second, read your story out loud as if you were reading it to a hall of people. Project your voice and point to each word as you read it. If the sentence is not grammatically correct and/or well written, you will stumble over the words. Well-written sentences will flow off your tongue beautifully. The reason I say to point to the words as you read them is because as writers, we spend a lot of time with our stories and after a while we start to see what we THINK is there not what is actually there. Pointing to the words forces you to read what is written.
Last, check for clichés and over used words. I have a secret love for the word slightly. I use it ALL the time. It’s a toxic relationship, and I’m almost over it… almost. Slightly. I do searches of random words to see how many times I’ve used them in the story. For example: I’ve used the word ‘story’ 35 times in this post. I should find other words to use…
10. Be honest
The final step may well be the most important in the self-editing process and that is being honest with yourself.
I know you are excited and you want to send that story out and you want editors to love it and you want to get that letter that says you’ve been accepted for publication, but if the story is not ready, it is not ready.
If you don’t think the story is ready than go back to step one and refresh. Work on something else for a while then come back, take another look and decide if this story is worth fixing or if you are better off breaking up and moving on to stories that make you happier!
END NOTE: You are going to miss things. In every step you will miss something but that is OKAY! This is the self-edit! You CANNOT edit your own work to perfection, but the better you self-edit the more your editor will love you… and the better your writing will be, because the less time your editor spends rolling her eyes at your all-over-the-place character descriptions and your non-existent knowledge of comma splices, the better s/he can help you improve your story and your writing.
Happy Editing from Allie B!
I am not an editor. I am a writer that hates editing but knows how truly vital it is on the journey to publication. I developed a self-editing method that works for me and share it in hopes that it may help someone else. I value the hair on my head and my sanity and suggest if you also value these things that you take the time to do things right. It may take a bit more time and seems more painful, but in the end it will save you worlds of hassle.
That I promise you.
Allie B, an emerging Young Adult writer fascinated by the joys and tragedies that come with growing up. She grew up loving all things fantasy and all her work reflects that love. She currently lives and works as a Graphic Designer in Yukon Territory, Canada. When she is not writing or hibernating, she spends most of her time outside being inspired by the majestic northern landscape. Follow Allie B on Twitter at @alliebbooks and check out her blog alliebbooks.wordpress.com and visit her on Goodreads at
Allie B’s Urban Fantasy short story will be featured in the upcoming issue of Sucker Literary Magazine, so stay tuned!