This guide is designed to help get an author into the right mindset to self edit their own work. The goal for an author is not to be the only or final editor of their own work—but to be a capable first editor.
Created by Sarah Beckham, with an accompanying talk given at the May 24th Indie Publishing Austin event.
Think like an editor
Editing is just a part of writing
No matter how many times we read Anne Lamott talking about shitty first drafts, I think there’s still something in us as writers (or at least in me as a writer) that believes if we were truly gifted or special, if we were real writers, that what we write would emerge perfectly formed.
That can make editing, especially editing ourselves, a lot more emotionally charged and exhausting than it needs to be.
As much as you can, normalize editing – editing yourself, being edited by others, editing others yourself.
If your book is the only thing you are writing, I think editing can feel especially charged. Can you add some lower-stakes writing (and being edited) to your life?
Are there opportunities to edit at your job or to help other writers you know? Editing others both makes you a better editor when you approach your own work, and it makes editing more normal and less painful.
The times I do more than pay lip service to the Anne Lamott quote are when I am writing, editing and being edited a lot.
The reader is first
Whatever I am editing, I consider myself an advocate for the reader. When you self-edit, this is a shift — because when you were writing you were (rightly!) honoring your muse first.
I’m not saying that you should think in terms of “how should I edit this to make every reader like it?” That would result in a really boring book. You probably have a desired reader in mind. If not, firm up your idea of who you want your reader to be. Keep him or her top of mind. Make every editing decision about serving that reader.
Expect the worst
I go into editing expecting to find mistakes. I’m NOT saying that I go into editing expecting that the writer has completely screwed everything up and now it’s up to me to save it. What I am saying is that I go in with the assumption that I’ll find some things that are keeping the piece of writing from being what the writer wants it to be.
And I go in knowing that there are plenty of ways a writer could make a tiny gaffe that would embarrass him or her if it saw the light of day, and I want to save the writer from that.
Let’s look at this with an example that’s not related to books, but that we’ve probably all experienced: Do you have people at your job who send out emails and then have to send out five corrections on the email? Like, “oh, the meeting is actually Monday, not Tuesday” and “oh yeah – Monday’s a holiday so let’s move it to next week” and then “since we changed the date, we can’t use our usual room.”
OK, that kind of mind is completely alien to me. But what I am guessing is that they feel pretty confident in how they recall the information they’re sharing, and it doesn’t occur to them to second-guess things like whether the 4th is a Monday or a Tuesday before they send the email. They are probably more serene and less neurotic than I am, but I am a better editor.
An editor realizes that it’s easy to get details wrong. An editor questions whether everything is the best it can be: Is that word the most vivid and specific one I can use? Does this description really need to be here? Could my protagonist’s name also be the name of a dead celebrity before my time and have unsettling connotations?
Be respectful to yourself
As a writer, and as an editor who’s had others editing my work behind me, I’ve experienced both editors who made me feel like an idiot about small errors and those who made me feel like a genius even as they were suggesting big changes.
Be the second kind of editor to yourself. Sometimes when we self-edit we say things to ourselves we wouldn’t say to someone else. And I think that ultimately drives you away from writing. Talk to yourself with phrases like “What if we tried …” or “Could there be another way to?” Instead of thinking “Did I approach this scene the wrong way?” try to say to yourself instead “Is there a different way to approach this scene?” You want your self-talk when you self-edit to be to more like “What I can do to bring out the best in this work?” — not “Let’s find out what I did wrong.”
Trust your Spidey sense
Sometimes you just get a feeling that something is wrong or something is off. Pay attention to your reactions when you read back on your work. If you feel like there’s something wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it, keep delving into them.
Realize that when you do identify things that you want to change in your book, they are probably going to reveal themselves to you first in this “can’t put my finger on it” kind of way. You won’t know how to fix it immediately. But it’s important to notice those feelings, that unexplained uneasiness.
This would happen to me as a newspaper editor a lot. After editing a story or proofreading a page, I would still have a feeling something was wrong. So I would read back through the headlines again, or I’d look up a fact that I thought I knew. There was always an extra problem lurking. It just took a while for my conscious editing to catch up with what I was picking up subconsciously.
Seeing with fresh eyes
One of the challenges about editing yourself (and one reason it’s worth it to hire professional editors for your book) is that you’re so close to your work.
But there are a few tips and tricks you can use to see your work with fresh eyes.
Give it time
This is probably a practice you are already using. You can be a lot more clear-eyed about editing your own work if some time passes between when you write and when you edit.
When you’re writing, write. Try to minimize how much you edit as you write. I don’t think you necessarily have to write your book all the way through before you edit, but you don’t want to be rewriting after every sentence, either. You will make the best use of your time and do your best editing if you give editing its own stage in the process. I think that the more you wait to edit, the more efficient you are because you have a bigger sense of the work. You’ll be better able to see what needs to be done when you have a sense of the work as a whole.
Truth: I am really only starting to practice what I’m preaching here. For me, the breakthrough was convincing myself that my self-editing would be better and more efficient if I did it later in the process — instead of letting my editing self and my writing self work at the same time. Another reason we might do this is that editing is “safer” than writing sometimes – that it’s easier to tweak and play around with what we’ve already done when we are worried about moving forward and maybe failing.
Change it up
If you’ve only seen your work on the computer screen, print it out. Change the font from the one you work in. Change the type size from the one you work in. I had an extremely self-critical colleague at one of my newspaper jobs who would print out his stories using the typeface of a publication he hated to make himself read his work more rigorously. Read your book backward, or read the chapters out of order. Do anything that helps you see it anew.
Think visually as you self-edit
I find that as a writer, I tend to focus on the sound and rhythm of words. You can see your work differently if you focus on being very visual as you read.
I remember a scene in a romance story I was editing. The heroine and her guy did some passionate making out while he was leaning out his pickup truck window and she was standing outside the truck. It read fine – except when you really visualized, it was physically impossible.
There’s also another level of visual thinking that’s really helpful. When writing is not working and we aren’t sure why, a lot of times I think it’s because it’s creating some weird things visually for readers. You’ve probably heard the “blazing a trail through uncharted waters” line as admonition against using clichés. Of course, stringing together clichés is just lazy, but it’s also jarring to the visual part of the reader’s mind. (And it’s something I’ve seen writers do a lot.)
One trick I do sometimes is to imagine that I am physically walking through the writing. Are there too many things clamoring for my attention? Do I feel like I am going in circles, like I’m lost at IKEA? Are there long stretches with nothing to see?
Map it out
You may even want to get very concrete in your visual thinking, especially if you feel like there are some structural problems that you can’t quite pinpoint yet. I’ve used a mind-mapping app for the iPad called Simple Mind a lot, both when I was editing fiction and to help with my own writing ideas. Because I was doing choose-your-own adventure fiction, it was enormously helpful to see the various branches.
I’ve also gone low-tech and taped sheets of paper with key events in each chapter around my office. It helps to have kind of this 30,000-foot view. Doing something that looks different and uses different tools unlocks your problem-solving skills.
Things to look for as you edit
First, what not to look for
I really think the best use of your time is NOT worrying too much about grammar, proofreading, etc. Pay someone to do that edit for you. You have a limited amount of energy and time to put into editing. Put it into the areas where you can make the big difference.
The part where you got tired, or that you didn’t want to write.
In some of the books and other longer projects I’ve edited, parts will be beautiful and compelling, and other parts will less developed and feel rushed or like an afterthought. I imagine that these are the parts where the author felt like “I just need to finish this damn thing.” You know where these parts were for you. Give them extra love when you edit.
Too much description
Sometimes writers of the romance stories I edited would give every detail in a scene. Every. Single. Detail. “Carla knew she should go find Jim. So she went into her bedroom and changed out of her pink bathrobe into a T-shirt and jeans. She then found her purse in the kitchen and walked down the hallway to the front door. She opened the door, closed it behind her, locked it and walked down the driveway to her car.”
If you tend to do this, it means you’re imagining scenes fully in your mind. Which is great – keep it up! Just streamline for the reader.
Too little description
Then there’s the flip side. An example: An awful lot of guys in the romance fiction I edited were described as “darkly handsome.” And that was kind of it. These poor darkly handsome guys needed a little more to bring them to life. “Darkly handsome” is a cliché, a too-thin sketch. But a darkly handsome guy who tells corny jokes or a darkly handsome guy who looks like a rake but is really a softspoken introvert is more of a character. Have you filled your characters out enough?
Dialogue that doesn’t need to be there
Sometimes a writer will include all the dialogue of an interaction that could have been glossed past. Think about a scene, say, where your character is checking into a hotel. I don’t need to hear every detail about the key and where the elevator is. As a reader, I just need something like “she checked in, awed by their brisk big-city elegance.”
This can be a hot-button issue with writers and editors. Writers sometimes feel defensive if they think an editor is simply cutting words because they can be cut, not necessarily because they need to be cut.
Writers feel like editors aren’t hearing the music of what they’re writing. And indeed, sometimes editors don’t. Those are bad editors.
Because there are multiple levels of editing at newspapers and in other settings where I’ve worked, I’ve seen other editors tighten where I hadn’t – and I’m a tighten-up kind of editor.
But I have also seen writers become indignant over much-needed tightening. They thought the trims butchered their artistry; I (or another editor involved) thought the trims spared the readers from a lot of self-indulgent rambling.
I say all this as a buildup to how I would suggest that you handle trimming and tightening when you edit your own writing. Know that you are pre-disposed to love each word. Know all the “rules” – like slashing adverbs. Don’t follow them blindly, but hold yourself to rigorous standards when you break them.
An added layer between the reader and the action
You know what I’m talking about:
“She heard an explosion” vs. “An explosion shook the air”
“She saw him pull a knife” vs. “He pulled a knife.”
In each of those pairs, the first example dilutes the power and momentum of the writing.
Most of the time, if you notice that you are writing about what your character saw or heard, you can streamline as in the examples above.
This was a bigger challenge in fiction editing than I ever realized. Pay attention to things like whether the agent has already told her bodyguard about her dead partner in one scene, and don’t make it her big secret in the next scene. Be careful to keep details of your characters’ backstories consistent throughout. Maybe in one scene the agent remembers working in Caracas with her now-dead partner. But later, she references being separated by their Venezuela assignment.
Pet words and phrases
I don’t know why, but the romance writers I edited always loved to have someone quirking his lips into a smile or waggling his eyebrows. I also remember having a conversation with a fantastic writer at a newspaper where I worked and gently pointing out that in his last several stories he had used variations of the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups tagline (“You got your punk rock in my reggae!” “You got your reggae in my punk rock.” “They’re two great tastes that taste great together!”. He was mortified and steered clear of peanut butter cups thereafter.
“She wore a blue dress that flattered her” vs. “Her aquamarine dress swirled around her long, tan legs.”
It’s probably in there more than you think it is, and it’s almost always bad.
About Sarah Beckham
Sarah has 20 years of experience as a newspaper editor.
She has also been a freelance writer and editor for almost two years. The book-related work she’s done during that time includes memoirs, novels, ebooks, web copy, and a variety of editing work from development to proofreading.