How to Self-Edit and Revise Your Fiction Writing

Learn how to make good editing and revising habits part of your writing arsenal. Using these simple, easy-to-apply skills, you can take the worry out of two of the most dreaded parts of being a writer, increase your chances for publication, and turn your “good” works into “great” ones.

One of the most daunting tasks that face any writer, no matter their area of speciality, is editing and revising their work. Many writers tackling their first book or trying to sell their first story or article come to the task with a fear that revision will “ruin” what they have. It leads to uncertainty about how they can clean up their writing and make sure that what the editor sees is the best they can give. However, there are a few guidelines that can make revision and self-editing as painless as the writing itself.

Editing: Things to Look Out For

Once your first draft is done, and you are sitting down to edit for the first time, there are a few things you can work on right away to better bring out the positive qualities of your work.

Remove excess words. If a word is not crucial to the meaning of the sentence, consider striking it. Many small, connective words such as “the,” “an” and “a” can be safely struck without negatively impacting the sentence. Many new writers are fond of words like “some,” as in the phrase, “this might be the result of some repressed memory in the patient.” Words like this become boring fast. A good rule of thumb for connective words is: use as few as possible and use them as naturally as possible.

Remove excess adjectives. This problem comes up in fiction more often than anything else. Always try to communicate the tone your character is using in the words they say, rather than using adjectives; for example, “Joe said loudly,” “Sally said sadly,” and “Tom said angrily” should raise a red flag. Your work will read faster if you use your dialogue to convey the feeling of the adjective. Using fewer adjectives, and using them only to draw attention at essential points or show contrast, makes each one stronger.

Use active voice. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence acts upon; in active sentences, the subject acts expressed in the sentence. Writing in passive voice sounds, as the name suggests, formal and slow. Differentiating between the two becomes second nature once you know what to look. Instead of saying, “This text is being studied by most of the students,” say “Most students are studying this text.”

Beware of dialogue tags: Dialogue tags can be clunky and distracting for the same reason as adjectives. Many professional writers agree that simple dialogue tags such as “he said,” “she answered” and so on are preferable over tags such as, “she exclaimed,” “he mused,” and the famous example from The Red Badge of Courage, “he ejaculated.” Verbose dialogue tags can be self-referential and silly. As with adjectives, use descriptive tags rarely, and only when drawing specific attention to something. Like Hemingway, you may decide to omit tags entirely when only two people are speaking.

Check for spelling errors: Though this seems obvious, you do not catch many errors by the average word processing program. It is generally easier to find these mistakes if you print out your work and read through it with a pen handy; on a computer monitor, what you expect to see, or remember writing, can make it difficult to catch some mistakes that are right in front of your nose.

Revising: A Vital Creative Process

After you have edited your prose, you will most likely want to take the process one step further and change your entire work, looking for sections that need improvement, clarification, or further support in the form of more scenes. It is a somewhat more tricky process and relies on developing strong writer’s intuition as to what works and what doesn’t. However, there are a few things you can do to help you develop that intuition and hone your story.

Keep copious notes. If you are writing science fiction, a tale of political intrigue, or anything that requires you to keep track of many details, consider keeping notes. Good ideas sometimes come out of nowhere and vanish just as unexpectedly if not recorded. Also, as you begin to write each scene, jot down something quick about what you expect that scene to accomplish, either in plot or character development – and then put the notes aside. When you finish the entire work, your notes can be a useful tool for deciding which sections need work and what you can do about them. Writing down your first impression, and then letting them sit in the back of your mind, has a way of causing them to emerge more fully-formed when you need them later.

Find a trusted reader. By “trusted,” I don’t mean someone who will spare your feeling or give softball commentary on your writing. Most writers come to crave constructive feedback that helps them improve their craft, and if you find a reader who has a keen understanding of what you are trying to say and how you can better express it, you’ve stumbled onto a gold mine. It may take sitting in on a few writing workshops to find such a reader, but I don’t, personally, recommend workshops on the long-term. Too much input, too soon, can dilute your story; on the other hand, helpful commentary from one person is more likely to leave you with an even more precise sense of your ideas.

Keep copies of your revisions. Save each change in a separate file, and dedicate a given portion of time – three days, say, or a week – to each revision. Work on one specific problem or detail in each revision: for example, strengthen your dialogue, or look for ways to make your crucial plot elements stronger, or add scenes, or cut them. Do not try to undertake all these takes in the same day or on the same file. Limiting yourself in this way keeps the job of revision from being overwhelming, and removes one of the major fears writers have about the process: that something they revise will “break” something else in the story, or shatter the whole work. This way, if you feel that a revision went poorly, you can backtrack, without any harm.

Don’t do too much too soon. After your first draft is finished, I recommend putting it aside for at least two days, if it’s a shorter work, or a week, if it’s longer. Much of what constitutes good writing is an instinctive process; trying to make all kinds of changes after you’ve just finished doesn’t give your mind enough time to adjust and encompass everything you’ve just created. After some time has passed, not only are you more likely to be precise in your revisions, but you have a more objective view of your work: it isn’t the best or the worst, thing you’ve ever seen.

Writing is much like sculpting, where you begin with a block of marble and each movement, each successive step, is a careful unveiling of the masterpiece that lies beneath. All writers, if they keep writing long enough, will learn the lessons that I’ve listed in this article, and all writers have the potential to develop instincts key to their craft. However, if you keep my advice in mind, you will find it much easier to discover the masterpiece that is your work. Write every day, work toward reasonable goals, and never give up, and you’ll soon find the vision and work ethic that makes the dreams in the fiction industry.

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