Learning to Self-Edit

One of the hardest parts of the writing process, in my opinion, is editing my own stuff.  Not the adjective choices and comma placements, but cutting out scenes, identifying character arcs, and filling plot holes. 

Issues in those areas are difficult for me to recognize because I’ve seen every version of the story.  I know what the hidden message in that dialogue was supposed to be, and of course my character has grown throughout the story, and without question that twist adds to the overall plot line, because all those things make sense in my head! 

But what I think I’ve written and what I’ve actually written are sometimes different things. 

This is an area I struggle with every day, but I’ve picked up a few tricks that help a little. 

  1. Find a good crit partner or beta reader–one who won’t pull any punches:  Ask them to identify places where the story made them uncomfortable or where they felt something was missing.  
  2. Take a step back:  Don’t look at your WIP for a few days or few weeks.  Return to it with fresh eyes.
  3. Read it from start to finish, but don’t make any changes: Use a highlighter to identify phrases or sections that are off, or areas you think you can improve, but don’t actually do it.  Reading the story for consistency and flow may make new mistakes jump out at you.
  4. Edit with a purpose:  On my imaginary checklist (voice, pacing, setting, dialogue, character arc, subcharacter development, tension, timing, body placement, etc.), I edit for one or two things at a time.  As I read, I might try to focus on ways I can improve my character’s dialogue and reaction to the setting.  Or maybe, I’m looking for pacing issues and extraneous words.  When I limit what I’m editing down to a few simple things, the process goes faster and I feel less overwhelmed.
  5. Follow the thread: Every story has more than one thing that gives characters depth and pushes the story forward. Maybe–let’s use a super cliche example–your character is an orphan. As you edit, identify ways that particular thread will effect your character’s reaction, outlook, apparel, living situation, etc.  Can you flesh out the thread?  Is it really important?  How does it effect the overall plot of your story?  If it doesn’t, you can probably cut it. 
  6. Read it aloud: Hearing your character’s words or actions may make you realize there is a hitch in your story or you’re lacking some crucial element.  I can’t tell you how many pages of dialogue I’ve changed because I realized my main character sounded like an idiot when I actually spoke her words out loud. Hopefully, your characters just sound too smart. 
I think the best advice I ever read (and I have no idea where it came from) is that every word should propel your reader to the story’s climax.  If your writing isn’t doing that, you are wasting the reader’s time.  When all else fails, that’s my editing motto.

What tricks do you use to help you self-edit?

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