Self-editing is a major part of the writing process for those serious about publication. In theory, most writers would claim they go through some sort of self-editing process after the first draft.
In reality, what defines “editing” varies so much from writer to writer, that what one writer considers editing may be nothing more than a basic read-through by another writer.
There are no hard core definitions for editing. And there are no set rules to guide writers through the daunting task of re-reading and correcting page after page of our books. Of course, there are helpful books that can get us started through the choppy waters.
My two favorite books on editing are Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. Both offer practical advice for polishing our manuscripts. I highly recommend them (and they're both on the Helpful Writing Books list above).
Yet, even with excellent books such as these to help us, we still struggle to grasp what editing really involves.
How many times should we read through our book while editing? How long should it take? How picky should we get? How much time should we spend self-editing before sending our work to critique partners? How long before sending to agents? When is enough?
I blush when I think back to my attempts at self-editing early in my writing career. I’m not sure that my feeble read-throughs could even be considered editing. But like everything else in the writing journey, the longer we’re in it, the more we learn, and the better we get.
Over the years, here’s what I’ve learned about the basics of self-editing:
• Self-editing involves much more than re-reading our books. Yes, reading them is part of the process, but there’s so much more. The same way we need to learn the basic techniques of fiction-writing, we also need to educate ourselves about the basics of editing. (More specifics in the next post.)
• Self-editing is just as important as the writing itself. It’s not something we should haphazardly tack on after we’re done with our first draft. We need to plan concerted time into our writing schedules for editing. I usually set aside four to six weeks for self-editing before I send it out for others to critique.
• Self-editing is critical, but we can’t come to rely too much on the editing process. In other words, we can’t give ourselves an excuse for sloppy first drafts because we’ll “fix” everything in the editing. Yes, first drafts are the time to give our creativity free reign. We shouldn’t let our internal editor inhibit the flow. But. . .
• We should strive to incorporate new techniques and instill good habits in first drafts. Whatever we’re learning whether from books or feedback, we should consciously work to put it into practice a little at a time. If we’re aware of the need to cut adverbs or dialogue tags, we can make an effort to specifically work on becoming better in how we handle them. It may require slowing down the muse for a time and working more deliberately, but eventually that skill will become effortless.
• Expect that no matter where we’re at in our writing careers, we’ll always have to edit. We’ll never become so good that we outgrow the need for it. I’ve chatted with other Bethany House authors about editing, and have learned that even multi-published, popular authors are subjected to major rewrites and editing.
Self-editing is part of the job of writing. It’s not optional. The more we can learn about it and grow in our editing skills, the better chance we give our books at succeeding.
What about you? Have you made self-editing a routine part of your writing process? Have you come to rely too much on the editing process for fixing your manuscript? Or do you try too hard in the first draft to get everything right? Is there a way writers can find a balance between the two extremes?