Self-editing: Where do I start?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Credit: Sidewalk Flying | Flickr
In my last post, I asked for questions about self-editing. Angela asked a great question about how to start self-editing on a novel she hasn't touched since 2005. What I would advise for tackling an edit after such a distance is:
  • More time. Okay, so not eight more years. But before reaching into the drawer to pull out the manuscript, I would take some time to think about what the novel is about. Not what you thought the novel was about so many years ago, but what you think the novel is about. As if you were recalling The Great Gatsby. Describe the main character and his or her motivations. What is the conflict in the novel? Sketch out a basic idea of the plot. Although you may not have touched your novel since 2005, I'm positive your brain has worked on it some, maybe even working through some of the plot issues. Capture that before you start editing.
  • Read it! I'd like to offer the advice to keep your pen down the first time you read through, but I find that difficult to do. To keep you from marking up or rewriting during the first go-round, promise yourself to only use a highlighter to indicate where you think there may be problems (punctuation or other difficulties). With a highlighter, you won't be able to change and rewrite like you might with a red pen. It will also allow you some fluid reading time. If you need to note something, do so on a notepad during your first reading. (This is something possible electronically, as well.)
  • Study your notes. Before you take up the red pen, study the notes you've made to determine if the plot or characters' motivations need adjusting. Note if there are any big picture changes you can make.
  • Start editing! Keeping your notepad by your side, now you can start editing. Tackle one chapter or section at a time. Don't try to tackle the whole manuscript in one sitting as the frustration may force you to throw it back in the draw. During the edit, refer often to your notes and make more notes to keep the consistency throughout. Pay particular attention to the highlighted areas.
 As Angela mentioned, her voice will have certainly changed. Personally, the change is something that I would try to embrace. Yes, your grammar and punctuation may have shifted in the time since you last touched this novel--just make the changes without judging your earlier self. As much as possible, enjoy the editing process as you did writing the novel.

You're in a different place now. Take your novel there with you.

Do you have a self-editing question you would like answered? Just ask in the "Comments" section and I'll do my best to answer it in my next post.

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a North Carolina-based writer and editor. She earned her master's in creative writing from UNC Wilmington and her editing certificate from the University of Chicago, Graham School.


Sioux Roslawski said...

This only works--or it works best, unless you're a true glutton for punishment--when it's a shorter piece, like 1,000 words long or less.

Retype the piece. Pretend you do NOT have it already in your computer's files. (This happened last night. I had written the piece during my lunch hour at work a week ago and actually did NOT have it at home, nor did I bother to send it myself, because I knew it needed to be looked at carefully again.) You really have to carefully read a piece if you're retyping it. And you have fresh eyes, so you can revise and edit as you go.

Great post, Elizabeth. I like the last lines--"You're in a different place now. Take your novel there with you." That's wonderful advice.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Elizabeth--This was a great post. What I sometimes do (it only works on shorter pieces, like 1,000 words or so, unless you're truly a glutton for punishment) is retype the piece. Pretend you do NOT have the story/article in your computer's files. If you are retyping a piece from a hard copy, you have to carefully reread it. You have fresh eyes, and can edit and revise as you go.

I like the lines you ended with: "You're in a different place now. Take your novel there with you." Great advice.

Anonymous said...

I have an entire MS I need to rethink with fresh eyes. I am putting it away for a bit, reading craft books to learn more, then I will pull it out and give it the once over with the tips you are suggesting. It almost feels too big and too impossible, but the alternative is to let it die, which may be an option too.

Margo Dill said...

I also thought this was excellent advice, but I don't know if I would have the patience or will power not to mark it up the first time I read it. OR could I even get through the whole thing without wanting to never write again? :) LOL

What are some good ways to keep track of character details?

Elizabeth King Humphrey said...

Thanks for the great comments.
Margo, I'll tackle your question in the next post.
Sioux, that's a great idea for shorter pieces.
Julie, don't let it die, just take a series of small steps to reach your goals.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Thanks so much, Elizabeth, for answering my question! :)

Excellent advice--all of it. I agree with Sioux, I love your last line. Interesting idea in your "More time" section. I think that could be the trick... I will definitely give it a try and let you know how it works!

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