Friday, March 11, 2011

Top 5 Tips for Self-Editing

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.


E.C. Smith said...

Wow....these are all fantastic tips! I especially like the one about making sure you have the GMC in every scene.

Something I do that really makes a difference is printing it out after I've been through it once (after I've narrowed it down, added the layers, tried to get rid of all the unnecssary stuff). Now, now. I know what you're thinking...print it out? Waste all that paper and ink?

What I do is single space it in 11 pt font, double columned on each page in landscape format and use blue ink. I end up with a 120 pages, give or take and a hard copy. This really helps because it feels like a real book and I read it like it is. Wherever I stop as a reader I know needs work.

Great post! It got me thinking.

Lu said...

Excellent editing tips, particularly starting with the big picture, then zooming in.

One thing I do when I'm sure I'm done, is read aloud, making sure the house is empty first, hehe. This picks up awkward phrasing, overused words and stilted dialogue. It's amazing what the ear hears that the eye didn't see.

I love E.C.'s hint about printing it out in that format. I also edit from hardcopy, and always feel guilty about the paper and ink. Now I know how to save on both!

Clarissa Southwick said...

E.C.- What a great idea for printing it out. I've always heard printing is better, but rarely do it because it looks the same as the screen to me. Now I'll know how to make it look like a book. Thanks for a great tip.:)

Lu, I do read mine aloud, and you're right, it's a completely different experience than reading it on the screen. I catch lots of things I would have missed visually. Thanks for posting:)

Donna Cummings said...

Clarisssa, I love this. So many great tips. I start with the big picture and narrow it down from there. I typically read and edit on screen, but I put the Word doc in double page format, so it looks more "bookish". Something about that helps for some reason!

I think #5, knowing when to stop, is so important, especially not "murdering your voice". :)

T.H. Browning said...

Great tips, Clarissa! I especially liked the part about not "murdering your voice" trying to get rid of the word "was."

Also, knowing when to stop is very difficult. I loved how you called it "editing blindness" -- this is SO true and such a fantastic way to describe it.

Thanks for sharing your useful tips! :)

Keena Kincaid said...

I think faster than I can type, so my sentences usually have a missing word or the wrong word. During the line editing stage, have my compute read the story to me, paragraph by paragraph, and that's when I catch the bulk of my spelling and grammar errors.

Anonymous said...

Great tips, Clarissa! I'm creating an "editing tips" file, so when I'm ready to do my BIG edit at the end I won't be saying, "Now what did Clarissa say?" :)

VR Barkowski said...

Excellent tips, Clarissa!

I'm another one who edits on paper - multiple times. I also read aloud. That takes care of the majority of the grammatical errors, missing words, etc.

However, the most important step in my editing process is to read pages into a digital recorder and play them back. I can hear flow, rhythm, the beats, and voice. As writers, we're so close to our WIPs, it's difficult to imagine how a first time reader will "hear" our work in their head. Recording the text and playing it back approximates that.

Ann Marie Gamble said...

I'm another one who has to add a lot in on a subsequent pass and who drops words while typing the first draft. I'm a believer in think about big picture before worrying about the word-by-word, but I've had to resign myself to a line-ish level pass before I do--reading the gaps and gunk is just too irritating. ;) On the plus side, during this read/write-through I remind myself what I've got for story and get to deploy the colored pens.

Jill James said...

Clarissa, great tips. The best -- it is done, send it out. You can edit for years. You will always find a better word or phrase. A way to add depth to a scene. But at some point it needs to go out into the world.

Jill James said...

Clarissa, love the 'was' comment. My editor said I was trying so hard to not use was that I had convoluted sentences that made no sense at all.

Clarissa Southwick said...

Thank you all so much for the great comments and wonderful tips. You've given me some fun new things to try :)

Terry Spear/Terry Lee Wilde said...

Great post, Clarissa!

My wolf tales were getting to be 107-114,000 words long, way over what they were supposed to be. So I found I had to edit as I wrote.

Get stuck? I'd begin at the beginning and edit through. By the time I finished the story, instead of finishing it and then going back and fleshing out the scenes, which was making it way too long...I'd flesh them out as I went. So when I was at the end, I was at the end. :) And didn't have to pare down the story so much!!! Nor did I have to go back and flesh out the scenes, because I'd edited it all the way through.

This doesn't work for everyone, but it did work for me. :)

SG Redling said...

I'm printing this out! (Yes, I'm a printer. Fortunately, I'm also a recycler!) I love your mentioning of the big picture. Finishing a book is like paving a highway. You can't stand on mile marker 400 and see this first stretch. You need some perspective. Great post!

Joanne said...

Interesting and informative post. I edit almost with a microscope, yet I know I can go back to the same manuscript a week later and see other errors. I like your tips. They are very helpful.