March is National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo, as fans call it. As they polish their work for submission, novelists from around the world support one another with tips and sympathy. The goal is to complete fifty hours of editing before the end of the month.
So here, in honor of NaNoEdMo, are my top 5 Tips for self-editing.
1.Know how you write, and you’ll know how to edit: Editing is hard because each writer has to come up with his own system. No standard editing word list is going to contain my personal favorite over-used verb, skittered. I tend to write skeleton first drafts and then go back and add layers. So my process is very different from someone who needs to cut 50,000 words from a rambling historical epic.
2. Start with the big picture: There’s really no point in polishing each word if you’re going to have to throw away the entire scene. Start with the big picture and then zoom in. Does your story have a structure? Whether it’s classical 3 act structure, or the Hero’s Journey, every story needs a framework. Is there a character arc? Does every scene have goals, motivation, and conflict? Do you have the right balance of action and introspection? Does every chapter begin and end with a hook?
3. Look for themes and mirrors. Try to exploit those little gems that your subconscious has sprinkled throughout the piece. Got a white rabbit who kept popping up out of nowhere? Now’s the time to make it look like you did it on purpose. If you’ve got two scenes that are too similar, use them to show character development. Turn them into mirror scenes where the set-up is the same but the action plays out differently because the character has changed. Look at your opening and ending scenes. Does the final scene fulfill the promise you made in the first paragraph of the novel?
4. The Microscope: This is where we get down to polishing every word and punctuation mark. Have you chosen active verbs, used all five senses, and avoided passive tense? Sentences beginning with “It is” can almost always be improved. Does the action follow, not precede, the stimulus or motivation that caused it? Are dialogue tags necessary and not intrusive? Look for consistency. Do your hero's blue eyes turn brown halfway through the book? Time to go back and delete your favorite words. Again.
5. Know when to stop. At some point, editing blindness will set in. Perhaps you’re too close to the project, and can only see its flaws. Or perhaps you’re so focused on killing off the word “was” that you’ve murdered your voice in the process. Round up a few friends who will give you their honest opinions. If they say they liked it better before, or they can’t tell which version is better, it’s time to stop editing and start submitting.
So those are my tips for editing. How about you? Do you have a favorite tip for simplifying the process? Please leave a comment and let us benefit from your expertise.