Want to be a published author? Then learn how to self-edit.
This, by far, is the most common mistake that inexperienced writers make. The most common complaint from publishers, across the board, is that writers will send in their first draft. Most of the time, publishers don’t want to see your first draft.
Every writer, including Dickens, Orwell and Shakespeare, learned how to self-edit. The difference between draft one and draft two can be miraculous. But it’s about more than just dotting i’s and fixing errant commas. It’s often large, tectonic work that can re-shape your story.
The tricky thing is that a lot of writers know their first draft isn’t brilliant, but lack the skill or experience to bridge their first draft to their second. With that in mind, here are some key principles that should help.
Step Away Stephen King says at least six weeks. Others say longer. The vast majority of professional published authors I know do this. They pour their entire heart into the project, and then they put it in the drawer for a break. Attempting to edit right after you’ve finished a first draft is destined to be a disaster. You’re too close to it, and probably too exhausted. Have a break. Pat yourself on the back. You’ve done the hardest part: writing the damn thing. It’ll be there for you in a few weeks.
Attacking the work with fresh eyes will be a startling discovery. First of all, there are probably going to be entire sections that you don’t remember writing. It’s a wonderful thing. This insight will allow you to see bigger problems with the work, and provide a solid foundation for the next step.
Don’t worry about spelling At least to start with. Think about self-editing as a pyramid. Things like spelling and grammar are at the top of the pyramid, the thin bit. They’re fiddly things that you don’t need to concern yourself with right now. Worry more about the base of the pyramid: story structure. Examine scene to scene, chapter to chapter, how your story moves. Does it make sense? Does it drag? Does it move?
Don’t be disheartened. There is likely to be a good chunk that needs fixing. You might end up deleting a character (or two, or three), or realising that there’s 10,000 words in the middle that’s just plain wrong. This brings me to my next point.
Be brutal Cut. Probably around ten percent, maybe more.Save your old drafts and just go for it. You can always go back. Be courageous. If the book can survive without a particular section, than cut it.
This more than just an exercise in butchery. It’s a deeply helpful lesson in writing. As you cut, you’ll be forced to justify every choice you’ve made as a writer. You’ll get to know the work a lot better, and you’ll discover new pathways that you hadn’t considered. It may sound frightening, but believe me, it’s thrilling. Often finding the slimmer, more dynamic version of your story will feel like relief to the writer. It’ll feel much closer to what you originally had in your head.
There are entire courses in self-editing, and it’s a life time practice for a writer. But in today’s publishing world, it’s possibly one of the most important skills you can exercise. Writers are being expected, more and more, to carry the weight when it comes to editing.
So get your red pen out. I promise, you’ll feel better for it.
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