Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#109) -- Self-Editing

What advice do you have for helping people learn to edit their own stories?

First, go buy the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It's the best resource I've seen on learning how to edit your work.

Now, while you're waiting for that to arrive in the mail, here are a few practical hints I suggest to help you become a better self-editor.

1. Give it a break. Let a few days pass between when you finish writing and when you begin editing. If time it tight, at least give it a good night's rest. You need to clear your head from writing mode so you can better enter editing mode.

2. Don't edit when you're tired. You need fresh eyes to edit.

3. Mix it up. Find spelling errors by reading your sentences backward. Read your story pages out of order. You won't be able to improve your structure that way, but you will be more likely to find true grammar and spelling errors for proofreading.

4. Read your story aloud. Or better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you and have a second copy in front of you to make notes on as you listen. KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT DURING THE READING. JUST LISTEN. (A friend suggested using your computer to read the story to you as well, and that sounds like a good idea too. I just haven't tried it myself.)

5. Use a highlighter. When you notice yourself reading the same word over and over again in your story, start highlighting it. Then go back and change the ones that need to be revised. Kill your go-to words that you fall back on out of habit during your draft stage.

6. Use a highlighter, part two. When you notice helping verbs and weak verbs and anything with a present participle construction (was helping, were dating), mark them. Do the same for any verbs that have adverbs beside them to help strengthen them. Then go back and see what needs to be changed. Most of them will typically need to be replaced with stronger verbs (which won't need the help of an adverb), but not all.

7. Play the "What's next?" game with your story. No matter what actually happens in your typed draft, ask yourself, "What needs to happen now?" If your answer improves the story or makes the characters more consistent, then consider revising it. A caveat here: Resist the urge to totally rewrite everything. This step is simply to play "What if?" with scenes or sequences -- not a writing law to mandate a complete reworking of the total project.

8. Realize that when it's done, it's done. The story is over. You've edited it, and you have to let it go. Don't get trapped in the time paradox loop of death. There comes a point when "the end" means "move on to what's next."