Every writer has been preached to about the importance of self-editing.
“Good writing is rewriting,” blah, blah, blah.
However, there seems to be very little in the way of direct, practical advice for self-editing beyond basic proofreading. After all, when you discover a plot hole in the middle of your final chapter, knowing the proper use of a semi-colon isn’t going to help you much.
In this post, I’ve tried to confront a few common self-editing adages that nearly every writer has faced, and offer practical alternatives or clarifications. Remember: What works for one author could make another want to set every notebook they own on fire. Editing your actual content is much more subjective than parsing a manuscript for typos, so please take each tip with a grain of salt!
“Go back to the beginning.”
Let me set the scene:
You’ve finished your first rough draft! Yay!
You do a quick google search, and a 2011 HuffPost article tells you the next step is to, “take a break, and then start at the beginning.” Great! You walk away for a couple of weeks, and when you're ready, you come back, open up your draft, and...
Personally, the first time I review a story with fresh eyes, I tend to find myself overwhelmed. We’ve all been there right? Swimming in all the points you forgot to connect along the way, while being bombarded with the new ideas that pour into your head upon returning.
So how does one cope?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received which put the Big Read-Through into perspective was, “Look through and pick out what theme(s) seem to speak to you, and focus on bringing that to the fore.”
A-ha! Not so mystifying anymore, right?
While details are indeed everything, when you’re trying to pull together a manuscript, it can be incredibly grounding to reference the “big picture” before you attempt to tidy up all the stragglers and plot holes. Going back to the most basic and essential themes that are already present in your work will give you a sense of support, as well as a direction to work in as you edit.
“Don’t write for your audience, write for you.”
Folks love to invoke this one, especially when it’s followed by a lot of scary buzzwords like “pandering” and “inauthenticity”. However, when editing, it can actually be very useful to consider your potential readers, at least in an abstract way.
While I agree that audiences should generally be left out of what you write, acknowledging the outsiders’ perspective can be just the ticket when it comes to determining how you write.
For example, I had become stuck rewriting a rough draft of a horror piece, when my professor said to me, “You need your audience to feel scared here. What scares you?” While this is specific to the genre I was working in, the spirit of the advice can be applied almost anywhere!
If you’re going over a particularly stubborn passage or piece of dialogue that is just not working, instead of obsessing over what it lacks, consider the goal of that particular moment or beat. What feelings or reactions do you want it to inspire? Then, think about what might inspire your desired reaction in yourself.
Sometimes, writing for an audience and writing for yourself aren’t mutually exclusive. After all, a good writer is a good reader!
“Remember, this is your story.”
Uh, duh? This piece of advice might actually be useful, if anyone ever bothered to explain what it actually means.
Here’s one interpretation: When in doubt -- specificity is your friend! If you're writing fiction, don't think you can skip out on this one -- consider this tip the editor’s spin on the time-honored saying, “Write what you know.”
Even if you feel in your heart that you are writing authentically, ask yourself, “Am I writing specifically?”
If your work feels stale or nebulous, try injecting it with inspiration from a situation, idea, phrase, or even a tiny detail which is hyper-specific to you. It can be an inside joke, or even a repurposed conversation from your real life!
It can be scary to expose yourself on the page that way, especially if you are using private or fraught moments. You might even fear it will alienate your audience, by throwing in minutiae from your life that they may not necessarily relate to. However, some of the best-loved pieces of writing in history are reliant on even the smallest details to make them narratively rich and compelling.
(If you don’t believe me, look up “Taylor Swift + All Too Well + scarf”.)
“Kill your darlings.”
Don’t hate me, but I actually agree with the general sentiment of this old geezer. Sometimes, even our best-loved bits of writing don’t necessarily serve a manuscript’s cogency, and may even drag it down.
“Noooo!” You cry out in anguish. You can’t bear to let them go!
Well then, here’s my caveat: Instead of killing your darlings -- cryogenically freeze them.
I got this tip from a Tumblr post, and it’s really quite brilliant. Never delete anything! Instead, keep all of your favorite little scraps that you can’t stand to part with, but just don’t fit in a separate folder or document. This way, you don’t really have to lose them, and they’re always there for you to revive if need be!
This tip will make you an even fiercer editor, because you’ll be able to be more ruthless without actually having to throw away pieces of your hard work.
Remember to be kind to yourself. Writing, rewriting, editing, and polishing can be extremely mentally, emotionally, and yes, even physically taxing. If I know artistes, and I do, I know that we all tend to assign at least some of our self-worth to our work. You are your own toughest editor, and your harshest critic. As tempting as immersing yourself completely in your writing may be, it’s important come up for air, and for perspective. Take care of yourself. You’ve got this!