Will I Ever Improve? Tips on Self-Editing

by Marg McAlister


Writers all want to be published. No matter what they're writing - short stories, novels, articles, biographies - there's nothing like the validation of seeing it in print. The downside is this: unless you're self-publishing, you have to wait for someone else (usually an editor) to say 'yes, we want to publish your book'.

The question in most writers' minds is this: "What will prompt the editor to vote 'yes' rather than 'no'? What is she looking for? Is there anything I can do to improve my chances?"

Some things you have control over; some things you don't. You don't have any control over whether another writer might have sent in a similar story to yours in the same week. You don't have any control over an editor's personal quirks, preferences or moods. You don't have any control over an editorial panel that might outvote an editor who is presenting your work with a view to publication.

What you do have some control over are the following:

  1. The originality of your plot. (Most of the time this involves a new twist on an old theme - forget about trying to think of something that hasn't been done before.)
  2. The appeal of your characters. Editors are not likely to want to publish a book featuring dull, two-dimensional characters.
  3. The 'voice' you use. This means the general tone and style of your writing - think of the difference in the voice of Janet Evanovich, author of the popular 'Stephanie Plum' books, and the voice of Lee Child, author of the equally popular 'Jack Reacher' books. Editors are always eager to find a writer with a 'new voice'.
  4. The quality of your editing. Good writers are able to proofread and polish their scenes to a high standard. They edit for grammar, spelling, and style. If something seems wrong, they try to work out what it is and fix it - they don't give up, shrug and say 'It's close enough'.

All four of the above-mentioned things you do have control over are important, but for now, we'll look at the fourth - the quality of your editing.

The biggest problem by far for most writers is working out WHY something 'sounds wrong'. They know there's a sour note in there somewhere - but what is it? How can you fix something when you can't pinpoint exactly what's wrong?

Nobody is pretending that it's easy. It takes time to hone your writing skills and improve your technique. At times, most writers feel that they'll never really 'get it' - it all seems like such hard slog! Remember that, and when you're feeling down, remind yourself that you're not alone. It helps to have feedback from other writers who can help you analyse your work, but you can also gradually improve your skills by buying 'how to' books, doing short courses, or using a critique service.

The following tips will help you to improve your self-editing skills - and thus improve your chances of acceptance.

1. Keep Your Tools Sharp - and Invest In New Ones When Necessary

Why is it that many people think nothing of upgrading to a better TV or coffee machine, but baulk at the idea of investing in their writing career? You may well have a dozen books on plotting and writing - but how old are they? How often do you refer to them? How much have they taught you?

From time to time, browse sites like Amazon.com and The Writers Digest to check out the latest books for writers. When you see one that appeals, Google the name of the book plus the word 'review'. This will help you to find what other people think of the book. When you locate one that seems popular, think about buying it for your professional library.

Keep updating! Every so often, consider doing a new course on writing. Make sure you research the course carefully before you start. Is the author of the course well-regarded? Are there testimonials from satisfied students? What kind of feedback/testing is involved? Your tools also encompass your computer, word processing software, printer and seating. Look for ease of use, comfort and enough power/memory to do the job properly.

2. Edit One Thing At a Time

When the time comes to edit a scene or chapter, most writers just sit down and read through their work without any kind of plan or systematic approach. They hope that if something's wrong it will jump out at them. All too often they're tired or pushed for time, and don't give their work the time and effort it deserves. Wrong approach!

You've probably spent hours constructing a plot and creating characters, and weeks or months writing the chapter (or chapters). Does it make sense to sabotage all your effort by rushing through that essential editing stage? Of course not. Divide your editing time into (a) proofreading for spelling and grammar (b) checking style and technique and (c) checking story structure.

You might find it most fruitful to do these in separate sessions. That way, your focus for the session will be on just one aspect of editing - far less confusing, and more likely to produce rewards. Let's look at each in turn.

  1. Spelling and grammar. Use the spell check / grammar check function on your word processor for the first run through. If you're naturally strong at spelling and grammar, this will probably be enough. If you are not strong in these areas, then you'll need to enlist the help of someone who is: another writer, a friend or a family member. (You can't rely just on the word processor to check these things - it doesn't pick up everything, and sometimes suggests really weird options.) Don't skimp on this step, thinking that it's an editor's job to fix spelling and grammar. Editors are busy people. They are far more likely to take on a writer who has mastered basic technical skills.
  2. Style and Technique When you're reading through your scenes to check for style and technique, you are looking for things like these:
    • wordy sentences that slow the pace and cause reader confusion
    • run-on sentences (including the common habit of using a comma to 'splice' sentences together). This is really part of the grammar check, but crosses over into technique.
    • dialogue - do you always know who's speaking? Do you have too many speech tags? Is the dialogue cleanly integrated into the other action of the scene? Can you picture the setting where the dialogue is taking place? Do all of your characters have an individual voice? Is the tone of the dialogue appropriate for each character (age, level of education, occupation, historical era)
    • viewpoint - do you have a viewpoint character for each scene? Do you clearly establish who this person is at the beginning of the scene? Have you unintentionally slipped into the viewpoint of other characters?
    • are you over-using the word 'as', both at the beginning of a sentence and in the middle?
    • are you starting too many sentences with words ending in "-ing"?
    • are you starting too many sentences with the same word? (Especially pronouns - "He" and "She")
    • are you unintentionally repeating words or phrases so they set up an 'echo' that may distract or annoy the reader?
    • is your writing becoming dull because too many sentences are the the same length or have identical patterns?
    • is your writing style jerky and uncomfortable for the reader because you use too many short sentences or sentence fragments?
    • are you 'telling' too much rather than 'showing' what is happening?
    • are you 'dumping' too much information into a scene and spoiling the flow and pacing?
    • are you spending too much time describing the setting, rather than blending in only whatever description is necessary as seen through the eyes of the viewpoint character?
    • are you boring the reader with too much interior monologue or agonising over the character's situation?
    • are you slowing the pace through 'too much' of anything - too much information, too much description, too much incidental dialogue, too much introspection, too many examples?
  3. Story Structure You need to check the structure of your story both as a whole and for individual scenes. Each scene should have an inciting incident - that is, a reason for the characters to be where they are and doing what they are doing.

    What triggered the scene? Is this a logical progression? Do we believe in the motivation? Can each scene justify its presence in the book?

    If you took a scene out, would it affect the book as a whole? If the answer to that is 'no', then why is the scene in the book?

    When you are looking at story structure, you are checking for:

    • pacing - are there any sections of the story that are too slow? Do you need to introduce another complication or another character to liven things up? Would you be better off simply cutting a few unnecessary scenes or chapters
    • motivation - is the motivation believable for all your characters? How does the story start? How will the main character's life change? Does each scene lead logically to the next? Are there identifiable 'turning points' in the novel - where a character's actions or decisions lead them in a new direction, with no turning back?
    • suspense and tension - does this build throughout the novel, leading to the climax? Do you always have something else for the reader to find out (thus creating a page-turner)? Does each scene have its own tension?
    • Is there a 'bleakest moment' when everything seems lost or under threat?
    • Is there a satisfying conclusion?
    The above points are just the basics of what you should be looking for. You will probably find more as you develop as a writer. The most useful checklists you can use are those created by yourself. If you have weak areas, give these prominence on your personal checklists.

Edit One Scene at a Time

The tighter your focus, the more likely you are to do a good job. Sitting down to edit a whole book in a day is too big a task. You're sure to get fatigued and miss obvious errors and 'clunky' structure. You'll also be tempted to skip over sections that are 'pretty much okay'. 'Pretty much okay' is not good enough.

It's easier to stick to a high standard of editing when you're not taking on too much in one go. Be strict with yourself about this. The only time you should sit down to read through the whole book is when you feel the book is as good as you can make it on a scene-by-scene basis - now you're doing a final run-through to assess general flow and pacing.

Learning to be an effective editor for your own work is largely a matter of experience teamed with an organised approach. It can be made a lot easier if you team up with another writer to proofread each other's work, but you can do it yourself.

The reward for all your hard work is an increased chance of getting that 'YES!' from an editor. That's got to be worth it.

© Marg McAlister


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