Self-Editing: Four Questions You Need to Ask

Richard Dawson: “One hundred writers surveyed, top ten answers on the board, here’s the question: What do you like least about writing?”

Contestant: “I’m gonna go with ‘Blue cheese,’ Richard!”

BZZZZZZZZZ!

“Oh, I’m so sorry, thanks for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts for you.”

For those of you playing at home, if you said, “Rewriting,” you’re probably not wrong.

In some of the interviews I’ve been doing lately to promote Hedge King in Winter, this question has come up more than once, and my answer is always the same: editing. I love the whiz and zing of the first draft, the jazz of words rising up out of my subconscious and fighting their way out through my fingertips to the keyboard and the page. I love the act of creation.

if-you-feel-bad-about-procrastinating-remember-that-mozart-wrote-the-overture-to-don-giovanni-the-morning-it-premieredBut I’m not stupid enough to think that my first efforts are the stuff of legend and folklore. Mozart might have been able to write the overture to Don Giovanni on the morning it premiered, but the odds are pretty much against you and me. We’re not the modern Mozart’s of literature (and if you, slouching back there in the corner, think that you are, please, send me your manuscript so I can disabuse you of your pretensions).

So, with all due diligence, when I finish a manuscript, I put it away in a drawer for a few weeks to ripen. One has to get away from the initial flush of excitement that comes from creation. Get up, walk away, get it out of your system and don’t think about it. Then go ahead and open that drawer.

If you’re like me, you’ll read it over and wonder what ham-fisted jackass wrote such terrible dross and muck. And that’s when you’re ready to start editing.

Deliberate Self-Editing

To begin with you, like me, have to resist the urge to rush the editing process in order to pursue publication. Take the advice of Janice Gable Bashman and Kathryn Craft in their excellent article, The 7 Deadly Sins of Self-Editing: Don’t be greedy.

“The revision process doesn’t have to be any less enjoyable than the writing itself: You’ll be setting out to find the magic in each word, sentence, paragraph. You’ll be tapping your creative soul for ways to add tension to every page, to find clever solutions to tough story problems.”

Remember that one of the first rules of good craftsmanship is to enjoy your work. You have no control over the fickle rewards of publication. In a cruelly competitive book market, as in any other game or contest, winning and losing depends on who shows up and what kind of game they bring. But if you enjoy your work and put in the time to hone your craft, you’ll be bringing a higher level of game to the market than 90% of your competition. It may seem like a slog and a delay in the short-term, but it will pay its dividends down the long road.

So how do you find the joy in editing? How do you learn to love it? There are a lot of different resources you can use to learn a thing or three about editing (and I’ll provide a few resources at the end), but for my money, you can start with George Orwell. He was a consummate professional. From Animal Farm to 1984 and everywhere in between, it’s impossible to say he wasn’t one of the finest writers to ever grace the English language, so let me quote the best advice I know:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”

This is where dictionary and thesaurus become the hammer and sickle of the working writer. This is where you go to the grammar and style guides. This is where you start killing your darlings. Is that participle dangling? Is that infinitive split? Is that a whole scene straight out of Shakespeare?! Like a surgeon, you need to be willing to cut off a few fingers if it means saving the patient.

But what should you cut and what should you merely shave? Here are a few examples.

  • Bodily functions. If your characters’ hearts are perpetually pounding, their jaws grinding, their fists clenching, and their brows sweating, then they need to see a physician. Clearly, they’re sick and in no fit state to be at work in your writing. While emotional reactions do often have outward physiological symptoms, your reader is much more interested in the emotional reaction. Describing only the physiological symptom as a metaphorical substitute for delving into the emotional state of the character is lazy writing. Show the readers what it feels like to be frightened, excited, frustrated, and angry. Don’t tell them what the character’s body is doing as a consequence of that emotion.
  • Passive voice. The cardinal rule here is to look for sentences in which the phrase “by zombies” could be easily substituted into the sentence and the meaning would be effectively the same. “The chair was pushed into place under the table [by zombies]” and “The plate of cookies was knocked off the counter [by zombies]” are examples. Make your prose active. Push the chair under the table. Knock the plate of cookies off the counter.
  • Stage directions. The reader doesn’t need to know every time your character scratches his nose or his butt. Your character can’t put her hand on someone’s shoulder without reaching that hand out, so we don’t need to know that “she reached out and put her hand on his shoulder.” Keep your prose tight. If the intervening body motion is self-evident, trust that your readers will see the evidence for themselves. Readers aren’t stupid, and they don’t like to read writers who seem to think they are.
  • Adverbs, metaphors and similes. Adverbs that merely make a verb more “verb-y” are nothing but redundant. Whispers are by definition quiet, your characters don’t need to “whisper quietly.” So you should only use adverbs that add an additional dimension to your verb that isn’t already implied by the verb itself. And metaphors and similes might be some of the best tools in the toolbox, but they are best used sparingly or they lose their sharp edge. If you have more than one or two per page, you probably have too many. So redundant adverbs and excessive metaphors and similes: cut them off. Again, keep it tight, but also make it fresh.

Self-Editing is a Process

To be fair, you could spend a lifetime going line-by-line through your manuscript answering each of Orwell’s four questions for every bloody word. And from that view in the weeds, it may seem like there is no end in sight.

That’s where a calendar and a process might be of some benefit. Because if you’re going to be a professional, you have to remember that a professional doesn’t just write, doesn’t just edit. A professional gets it done.

So what process should you use? It depends a lot on who you are, how you work, and what you’re working on.

In her article How I Self-Edit My Novels: 15 Steps from First Draft to Publication, K.M. Weiland recommends a fifteen (actually sixteen) step process, and that seems very manageable. Keep in mind, however, that for a particularly long work, each step might take weeks to accomplish, and she doesn’t offer a time-limited approach. This might be good for the “pantsers” out there who don’t like to be too limited by imposed structures like hours, days, weeks, pages, and word count. It does give you a process, but also lets you set your own schedule. On the other hand, it’s also structured enough for a “planner” as a jumping off point for a more detailed project map. I will certainly be including many of her steps into my own next big project.

But for myself, I have to paraphrase Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a calendar.” With that in mind, for full-length novels I suggest Alan Watt’s day-by-day guide in “The 90-Day Rewrite.” This is my method of choice, and I’ve found it can be very effective.

jabberwockyBut even that’s not enough for me. To pile on process to process, I also break up my draft manuscript into bite-sized chunks. I drafted a novel about this time last year, and it came in at a hefty 420 manuscript pages. So for my rewrite, I spent the first seven days writing a new outline for the book, then broke that monster down by a factor of eighty-three remaining days. Every day, my responsibility toward that rewrite was to eviscerate at least five to six pages, with an end-goal of reducing the total page count to a maximum of 350-360 manuscript pages. Because let’s face it, 420 pages is a gargantuan monster. But five pages? That’s just a little baby monster. With my vorpal sword in hand, I can kill one 5-page baby monster per day and soon snicker-snack my Jabberwock and be galumphing back, beamish boy that I am. Calloo-callay, o frabjous day!

But what if you’re dealing with a much shorter work? Surely, ninety days on a short story or a novella is too long? Well, if you’re like me, it probably isn’t. Most writers have at least a touch of obsessive-compulsive perfectionism and could go on for a lifetime tweaking and nudging even a short story. But yes, let’s be more realistic and consider that writing is a career, and a career depends not just on working, but on executing, on getting things done.

With that in mind, for Hedge King in Winter, and for my next release, A Merchant’s Tale, both novellas of less than 50,000 words, I have a much more abbreviated Five Step Process:

  • Garbage draft
  • Outline draft
  • Preliminary draft
  • Surgical draft
  • Final draft

In other words: get it out of your head, re-organize it, write something readable from it, edit, and then re-edit. This process will give you something reasonably well-polished for the marketplace, and for a shorter piece, can be completed in a month or two if you’re dedicated to it.

The world’s largest champagne flute, made entirely of Waterford Crystal.

Craftsmanship

On a recent trip to Ireland, I had the pleasure of visiting the Waterford Crystal facility and taking a tour of the factory floor. Each piece of Waterford Crystal is handcrafted by a series of master craftsmen. They start with an amorphous glob of white-hot melted sand, blow it, shape it, carve it, and love it before it ever gets to the showroom floor. If at any point a flaw is found, the piece is shattered and melted back down to be re-used. To become a master craftsman for the Waterford Crystal Company, each apprentice has to master more than one hundred different wedge-cuts. During their apprenticeship, they create two “practice” bowls that highlight their proficiency to that point in their studies. To complete their apprenticeship, they must complete one final bowl that represents every known cut they’ll be expected to perform during their career as a master. It takes eight years to master the craft of making Waterford Crystal. And if you shatter that third bowl on your final day during your final cut? Back to the end of the queue with you. You can try again in eight more years.

Whatever method of self-editing you select, the point is that no one is perfect, and there is no one’s work (myself included) who can’t benefit from a thorough rewrite. Every day, remember your sixth grade grammar lessons, break out your Strunk and White style guide, thumb through your thesaurus. Polish your work to a high shine. Don’t make your readers send you back to school.

Other Self-Editing Resources

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I am currently publishing a serialized fantasy novella, Hedge King in Winter, on Wattpad. I also have a full-length heroic fantasy novel currently on offer to publishers, tentatively entitled Heron Cry.

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About

Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Editing, Writing craft

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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