Hi, and thanks for having me guest on your blog! It’s a pleasure to be here.
Some weeks ago, Mary, you mentioned the revered book on self-editing, Self-editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne and King. It is a little long in the tooth now (first published in 1996 with a second edition in 2004), and predates Amazon and Kindle and the whole self-publishing phenomenon, but it still contains much valuable information, and helped me with my own writing, back in the day. It also taught me something important – that self-editing should be looked at as a distinct “phase” of writing a book.
There’s now a new kid on the block, called Self-editing for Self-publishers, which I hope will eventually come to be seen as picking up where Browne and King’s book left off. I felt the subject could be brought a little more up to date and also, more importantly in the light of self-publishing, set out the process of self-editing in a more structured way so that the books of those authors without the support of a publisher could be put through a process that approximates the rigours of a traditionally published book.
Because make no mistake – self-editing is hard. Many people would say that it’s harder than writing the book in the first place. You don’t have the inspiration and excitement as your writing carries you toward a dramatic and profound climax. Instead, you have the drudge job of looking for plot holes (it’s fun spotting them in other people’s work – not so much in your own), realising that you fell out of love with one character half way through and they became dull as ditchwater as a result, and trying to spot typos and punctuation fails even though your own brain is doing its best to tell you that your eyes are deceived.
A key part of the self-editing process that Browne and King’s book totally glosses over, is the preparation. What do I mean by that?
Self-editing is not writing—it’s a completely different skill, and requires a completely different frame of mind. It requires you to look at your work as a reader will, not as the author. Being able to distance yourself from your own work, acquiring the objectivity needed to properly self-edit, is a skill that can be learned. Part I of my book is all about this preparation, and I suggest four important steps in getting in to the right frame of mind to edit your own work effectively:
The secret to editing your work is simple. You need to become its reader instead of its writer.
So how to achieve this objectivity? Perhaps the most simple and easily accomplished method is to put some time between finishing writing the draft and beginning your editing process. This is a key step and one that’s overlooked by most writing guides. Jane Austen used to literally lock away her first drafts in a drawer and give a friend the key, with strict instructions only to let her have it back after twelve months had passed. Not many authors will have the self-control of Austen, but if you start editing your book as soon as you’ve finished writing it you’re not in an objective state of mind. You won’t see plot holes. You won’t see flaws in characters. You won’t be able to see where sentence structure is a bit clunky and, even if you do, you’ll struggle to come up with different ways of rephrasing. I suggest leaving your book at least six months, but even three months will help hugely.
FORMATAnother way to trick your mind into thinking you’re reading something completely new is to read it in a different format to how you wrote it. If it’s possible, print it out in hardcopy, or even get a local printer to print it off in book form. If that’s impractical, doing simple things like changing the font or font size can give a bit of a jolt to the brain. Change the document to landscape format instead of portrait, or change the page size. Change the text to “justified” from “left-aligned” (or vice versa). Read the file on a different device, a laptop if you wrote it on a desktop, or a kindle if you wrote it on a laptop.
AUDIOAnother great tip to appraise your work in a fresh way is to listen to it, rather than read it. That needn’t mean expensive audiobook creation or pricey software. Most word-processing packages have a simple text-to-speech function which might sound a bit robotic, but will show you clunky sentences.
PLACERemove yourself physically from the place where you wrote the book. Not everyone has the luxury of choosing to work in a different room in the house, but if you can, it might help break yourself out of “writer” mode. If you have a good friend with a spare room, go and stay with them for a few weeks while you do your initial read through – the unfamiliar surroundings will impact your perception of your book. If you’re going on holiday, take your draft with you. Do a house swap. Sit in a public library, or, if the owner is okay with it, a local coffee shop. If all of that is too complicated, follow the example of my playwright friend who wrote his drafts in a studio in a barn, but did all his editing in bed!
There are four tips for getting yourself in the right frame of mind to edit your own work. It’s all about achieving some measure of objectivity, so that you can see your work as others will see it, instead of as you wrote it. I hope it helps!
Richard Bradburn is a professional editor running editorial.ie, a successful literary consultancy with clients spanning four continents. He writes about editing and writing in publications like The Irish Times and Arts and Letters Daily, and speaks regularly at writer’s conferences in Europe and the UK.