Self-editing is an essential skill for any writer. It allows you to polish your work and create a more compelling story. In this comprehensive guide, I lay out various tips and techniques to help you become a proficient self-editor, focusing on novel writing.
Drawing inspiration from Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing and my own The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, this article will provide you with a roadmap to successfully edit your novel.
1. Establish a Strong Foundation: Time, Character Goals, and Logical Behavior
Ensure Time Tracks Accurately in Your Story
An essential aspect of self-editing is ensuring that time flows consistently throughout your novel. This entails verifying that the sequence of events and the pacing of your story are coherent and logical. Pay close attention to details such as the progression of days, weeks, and months, as well as the timing of specific actions and dialogues.
Clarify Your Character’s Goals
Your characters’ goals are the driving force behind their actions and choices. As you edit your novel, make sure their objectives are clearly defined and effectively communicated to your readers. This clarity will provide a strong foundation for your characters’ development and enable your audience to connect with them on a deeper level.
Ensure Your Characters Behave Logically
Characters must react and make decisions based on their previous experiences and knowledge. During the self-editing process, scrutinize your characters’ behavior and ensure they act logically and consistently, given their circumstances and history.
2. Refine Your Language and Style
Use Adverbs and Adjectives Sparingly
Overusing adverbs and adjectives can weaken your prose and distract readers from the story’s core message. Be selective when incorporating these descriptive elements and use them only when necessary to enhance your narrative.
Adopt a Natural Language for Your Point of View (POV) Character
Your POV character’s voice should reflect their unique personality, background, and experiences. Whether they speak formally, casually, or with a specific dialect, ensure their dialogue and narrative voice are consistent and genuine.
3. Strengthen Your Sentences
Eliminate Unnecessary Words and Phrases
During the self-editing process, identify and remove redundant words, such as qualifiers (e.g., “a bit,” “a little,” “fairly”) and circumlocutions. This practice will result in stronger, more concise sentences.
Write in the Positive and Avoid Redundancies
Emphasize what is happening in your story, rather than what isn’t. Additionally, eliminate redundancies like “past history” and “tall skyscrapers” to further streamline your prose.
4. Enhance Your Descriptions
Be Specific and Evocative
When describing characters, settings, and objects, aim for specificity and vividness. For example, instead of simply mentioning a dog, describe it as a “toy poodle” or a “white Labrador” to create a clearer image in your reader’s mind.
Utilize Similes and Metaphors
Similes and metaphors can add depth and creativity to your descriptions. However, ensure these comparisons stem organically from your POV character’s perspective and experiences.
Engage the Five Senses
Incorporate all five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) into your descriptions to create a more immersive reading experience. This multi-sensory approach will enable your readers to fully engage with your story’s world.
Provide Description through Action
Whenever possible, convey descriptions through action and dialogue, rather than lengthy narrative passages. This approach will maintain your story’s momentum and keep readers engaged.
5. Address Walk-On Characters and Autonomous Body Parts
Treat Walk-On Characters as Furniture
Walk-on characters should serve a specific purpose in your story without stealing the spotlight from your main characters. Treat these minor characters as “furniture,” providing just enough detail to establish their presence and role in the scene.
Eliminate Autonomous Body Parts
Avoid phrases that imply body parts are acting independently, such as “His lips curved into a smile.” Instead, attribute the action to the character as a whole: “He smiled.”
6. Eliminate Repetition and Mitigators
Don’t Tell Your Reader Something Twice
Repeating information can frustrate and bore your readers. Ensure each sentence adds new information or builds upon previous details to maintain a dynamic and engaging narrative.
Mitigators, such as “appeared to” and “seemed to,” can dilute your prose and create ambiguity. Strive for clarity and decisiveness in your writing by eliminating these phrases.
7. Limit the Use of “Was,” “Is,” and “Were”
Excessive use of “was,” “is,” and “were” can make your prose passive and less dynamic. During the self-editing process, identify opportunities to replace these words with more active and engaging verbs.
8. Final Thoughts
Mastering the art of self-editing takes practice and dedication. By implementing the tips and techniques outlined in this guide, you will be well-equipped to refine your novel, creating a polished and engaging final product. But remember, self editing is not a replacement for an editor; it’s a step you take before submitting your book to an agent, publisher or editor. The more editing you do yourself, the more likely a publisher or agent will be to read the whole book, and the cheaper your editing costs will be (assuming you employ someone who quotes according to amount of work required). So trust in your ability to guide yourself but also get professional assistance to pick up the things you miss.
For more detail on self editing, pick up my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine,