Self-Editing: Fighting Emotion with Logic

locked.jpgYou’ve written your book.  The masterpiece has been marinating in a drawer (or buried on a hard drive) for weeks.  Somehow, you managed to not tear into it early, despite it whispering into your ear at night.  Let’s face it, you both needed some time and space from one another.

The time has come.  You unlock the drawer, or click the icon, and staring you in the face is months worth (maybe more) of semicoherent words. The manuscript gazes back at you with worried eyes.  It knows.  You are about to tear it to pieces.  Now the question becomes—will you tear yourself to pieces in the process?

Many people think writing a book is the hardest thing you can do.  Then an editor comes along and breaks your heart.  As an editor, telling a writer to cut something from the work is akin to telling them to sacrifice a cute little fuzzy kitten to the writing gods.  Much of this heartbreak would be avoided if writers would practice more thorough self-editing prior to submission to an editing service.

The goal of this post is to give you some basic guidelines to sharpen your self-editing chops.  Go grab the garden sheers and put on a rubber apron…this might get messy.


Print first—word process later. I believe in this concept so much I wrote an entire blog post about it (located here). Because it’s linked, I won’t go into this.  I do encourage you to give the post a glance if you haven’t seen it before.

Work big first, then get small.  We typically write our first draft in a hurry, tired, and running on three gallons of caffeine.  There are going to be large chunks of exposition and rambling.  They served their purpose.  The purpose was to help you continue writing and bridge gaps in the story.  Additionally, when we are writing the first draft we make assumptions about what is going to be important later on.  We tend to over describe certain items, places, and people.  Now that you know all the punchlines, it’s time to gauge their worth.

editing.JPGRoy Peter Clark in his book, Writing Tools, recommends that you, “Cut any passage that does not support your focus.  Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes, and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.  Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader” (p. 51).

It’s good advice, but it’s hard to follow.  The reason is emotion versus logic.

Here’s a real world example.  One of the people I edit for wrote a beautiful, page long description about a set of revolvers one his minor characters carries.  After reading it, I could picture every line and blemish on the them.  He told me he did extensive research to make them feel real, and it was truly great writing.  I bit my lip and recommended he cut it.

Why?  Well, it was placed in the middle of a heated interaction.  Everything was building, the action was coming, and boom—we interrupt this gunfight to bring you a dissertation on handguns in antiquity.  Worse even, the character wielding the pistols is only in the book for a handful of pages.

The takeaway here is this: no matter how slick the dialogue or description is, if it isn’t pushing the story forward, it’s got to go.  Your readers want to read your story, don’throw down roadblocks.

Redundant Meme

Get rid of all those redundancies.  I already wrote a post on redundant prose, so I won’t go into this too much.  The only additional piece of information I’ve found since then is an interesting rule.

This comes from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, written by Renni Browne and Dave King.  The rule is  1+1=1/2.  They explain that, “When you try to accomplish the same effect twice, the weaker attempt is likely to undermine the power of the stronger one” (p. 178). It’s a great tip and something to look for when you are going through with the hatchet.

Syllables—check those big words.  If you really want to wear your reader down, use words with a ton of syllables.  Conspiratorially.  Automatically.  Conversationally.  Many of these big beasts tend to be adverbs, but not always.  Look for those five-dollar words and ask yourself, Will the average reader know what it means?  Will something shorter work in it’s place?  Am I using this for effect?

Regarding effect.  I’ve heard this rationale used before,  “My character is a smarty pants so he/she uses big words in a condescending sort of way.”  Cool!  I’m all for it.  Just know there is only so much the reader can take.  Also, if this is the only tool you use to enforce this character trait, the character can feel one-dimensional.

measure twice cut once.jpgMeasure twice, cut once. Anyone who has done construction, or is a DIY weekend warrior, has likely heard this advice.  The concept is simple.  Ensure you know where to cut before you drop the blade.  I encourage you to do the same when you are self-editing.

William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, offers a brilliant bit of advice he developed while teaching his students at Yale.  “I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work” (p. 15).

Writers who edit onscreen (using a word processor) have a tendency to prolong editing time because they are constantly doing the, backspace, rewrite, backspace, rewrite, tap dance.  A way to defeat this is to utilize the tool Zinsser is describing.

Print out the pages then read through them silently, and then aloud.  Go slowly through the words and decide what is doing work and what isn’t.  Be realistic.  Throw those words, phrases, and pieces of dialogue into brackets.  Once you are done, read the copy and omit the bracketed words.  Did it flow faster?  Was it smoother?

copy editing_2

[Editor’s Note]

This is a timely re-post for me as I recently reopened the first draft of my book up and started rewrites.  I can tell stepping away for more than a month (as painful as it was) has really opened my eyes to some major issues.  It’s a good feeling catching those mistakes now and knowing readers will never see them. I’m also glad to be back with Drake and playing in the wasteland.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for stopping by and reading.  As usual, I only scratched the surface.  Do you have advice or ideas you use during self-editing?  Please share them.  I’m always looking to toss more pencils into my writing toolbox.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

34 responses

    • As always, I am humbled and appreciative that you stopped by and found something of use. Thanks for posting a comment too (it’s always nice to know what people are thinking).

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This post was so helpful! Just yesterday I was rereading Clash of Tides and thought, ‘It’s almost time for that rewrite’. This post had perfect timing 🙂 As always, thanks for the advice. I

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very useful post! And actually, I felt a huge relief as it seems I’ve done some of the steps right on my first try at editing my own work. A first read on print version, real quick and in as little sessions as possible, and now I’m almost through the second edit (the really ugly one that makes you think “oh to hell with it all” every once in a while). Up next, another read on paper again… I’ll certainly be looking into your other articles on editing once I’ve survived this week. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m flattered to hear you found some use in my ramblings. That first read on paper is always invigorating/painful. Like bumping into an old friend and they aren’t quiet exactly how you remembered them. Take my blog advice with a grain of salt, they are just my opinions, which I try to substantiate with reference material. The truth is, as a writer, I’m learning everyday just like everyone else. I’ll keep my peepers on your blog and check out the book when it finally goes through all of the paces. Again, good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like your post because it gave me some great advice on editing. I remembered the part where you talk about onscreen editing because I do a lot of that. I tend to edit as I write. I go back on my text, reading segments of it and inspecting it for loose parts, parts that do not fit. Mostly when I go thru the segments I check whether I am keeping my envisioned rhythm of the segment and whether I bridged it well. Over the years I learned not to overthink editing. If I feel the text doesn’t fit with the rest of it, regardless how much I love it, no matter how deep and profound it sounds, I just cut it. No regrets.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the great comment and for reading. Your editing techniques sound like they have grown over time. It’s the mark of a writer who has spent time honing their craft. I’m glad I was able to provide something useful in my ramblings still. Best of luck as you continue to refine your craft and thanks again for reading.


      • I really appreciate your feedback regarding my editing techniques. Coming from a man with such experience in writing helps me a lot!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You do realize, don’t you, that any mention of editing at THIS time of year is likely to cause serious anxiety in a high percentage of your blog followers? *evil editor grin* It’s nearly November, when many writers strive to complete a Very Small Novel in thirty days… Editing implies the work isn’t finished and perfect just because the first draft is written.

    “Much of this heartbreak would be avoided if writers would practice more thorough self-editing prior to submission to an editing service.” Yes! One (massive) novel I edited had been thoroughly edited by the author in terms of plot coherency, description, etc. All I had to do (although, believe me, it was still a lot) was fix forgotten his Mentor character’s name mid-story or that he’d accidentally relocated the kingdom’s capitol to the other side of the continent. I never had to tell him that he’d spent three pages too many on describing what the protagonist had for dinner.

    (There’s no hard-and-fast rule — or even guideline — for how much description is right, though. For every reader who complains of “too much description!” there will be another who complains that the same passage doesn’t have ENOUGH description. There are people who adore the “cannonballs” in David Weber’s Safehold novels, and there are people who stopped reading after the second book because they were bored by the minutia of military technology. There are people who demand that every aspect of the workings of a starship’s engine be explained fully in any SF novel they read, and there are those who don’t care how it works, only how the characters use the ship to achieve their aims.)

    Read aloud, then print out and edit… Worked for us. My clone used to read his stories to me, which would let him catch dropped words and let me listen for the flow of sentences, etc. Then he’d print out the manuscript, and I’d go at it with a red pen. (We tried green, but it doesn’t have sufficient contrast, especially in the poor lighting of the basement to which we were both semi-exiled at the time.)

    I’ll be honest: I HATE the usual “don’t use big words” advice. It’s often accompanied by some variant on, “Write with words that you use in normal conversation, not ones you just pulled out to make yourself sound smart.” It’s based on the assumption that the writer DOESN’T use “big words” in normal conversation and that the only reason anyone would use such words is to be condescending or “pretending to be smart.”


    • “There’s no hard-and-fast rule — or even guideline — for how much description is right, though.”

      I wish there was sometimes…it sure would make the job easier.

      As for the use of big words, I play it by ear (and eye). It’s something that could be argued, but I think it’s usually obvious when someone is using big words naturally, and when they are cherry picking a thesaurus. The latter reminds you of a high school essay while the the former is often rendered in a beautiful way. When the writer is true to their voice and ability, the result tends to be superior.

      The method you use with your clone is brilliant. I do this with my baby, Thor. However, he doesn’t provide me very useful feedback. Perhaps when he is older he can shame me.


      • “…it’s usually obvious when someone is using big words naturally, and when they are cherry picking a thesaurus” True. As it says on a t-shirt, some people use big words to make themselves sound more photosynthesis.

        It’s not just the polysyllabic words, though. I’ve seen some ridiculous homophone glitches result from writers using words they don’t actually know. (Sure, go ahead and put the healing potion in a vile, then dawn your cloak and go off to fight a dual… )

        Reading aloud to your kid when he’s too young to understand will still help him with language acquisition. He’ll have a bigger and better vocabulary than his preschool teachers.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I have to say, the idea of editing really does rustle my jimmies. I get scared of having to kill my darlings, especially those beautiful pieces of prose that add nothing to the story. Just thinking I could possibly end up cutting a quarter of my book is terrifying!

    But it’s all a part of the proccess. Of the painful, emotional, tear-jerking process, but necessary nonetheless. And your tips will be of great help when I get to that hurtle 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Best of luck to you! Just remember, the more you fix in revision the less readers will point out via the interwebs (because that seems to be all the rage these days).

      I try not to look at editing as a painful process, but a means to improve the quality of what I (or others) have written. The goal is to give our readers the very best story we can write. For most of us, that doesn’t normally happen on the first pass. There’s no shame in it, it’s just the process. For me, that makes it a little easier.

      I won’t go into darlings, because I’m with Thomas on that subject.

      Thanks for taking the time to read, I hope your revision process isn’t TOO painful.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thankfully, I’m yet to reach the stage where I need to go for editing. For the WiPs anyway, I might need to look back over the blog at some point. I’m actually scared about ever getting to that point as I’m only 4000 words into one of them and I’m super attached to everything. I have spreadsheets about them!

    At the same time, I realise that the editing side is going to be necessary. Brutal, but necessary. When it does come, I’m certainly going to be using your blogs to help me out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It won’t be so bad, Andrew 🙂 Especially when those final polishing steps take the brilliant story you write and make it sing.

      While is seems most writers hate the revision process, after it’s done they tend to be far more confident about what they have written. Like Thomas mentioned in his comment about darlings, and I’ve written a whole post on resurrecting them, even if a bit gets cut—it can live on in another way.

      I’m looking forward to reading some of your shorts today! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • I never realized how hard that advice was to follow until I finally wrote my first book. There were so many nights where stared at the ceiling and contemplated going to the computer to read a certain passage, or fix something I knew was wrong. I managed to hold off though. Now I’m looking at the original manuscript with fresh eyes.

      *heavy sigh*

      There’s some work to do! But it’s for the best 🙂 It’s definitely a yo-yo of emotions. One moment I’m smiling because I wrote something I am particularly proud of, the next I’m scratching my head wondering what the heck I was thinking.

      I’m looking forward to catching up on reading your posts today 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I particularly liked the photo of your printed draft. All that free hand ink: it looked like one of my re-writes – which I think puts me in good stead. As regards multi-syllables: I seldom use them because I don’t know many. And when I do use them, my wife picks me up for writing purple prose. She once complained when I used the word ‘recalcitrant’. “It means bothersome.” I explained. “It’s French in origin.” She replied with: “Well why not use ‘bothersome’ then? Why do you have to use words that nobody knows?” Conversely a French colleague was most impressed. It just goes to show that you can’t please everybody any of the time. So I just do my own thing and trust to luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Informative and insightful as usual. I am going to start using the brackets. I have a habit of using placeholders when the muse is upon me; that is, I put in a “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” phrase, the meaning of which only I know. I keep it there until I determine what I really want to say. The problem is I sometimes forget where they are. Brackets will definitely help.

    I also find it’s a great strategy to read my work aloud. Otherwise, I will silently read “King Rheynold felt the room” a dozen times and never see the error.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The bracket method I stole from MLS Weech who does this for his discovery drafts. I find most of the best techniques come from others 🙂

      I always feel very regal when I read passages aloud. My baby boy seems to enjoy it as well!

      Thanks for stopping in and leaving some thoughts. I attempted to leave a comment on the awesome blog post you wrote and messaged me about, but for whatever reason, I was having trouble getting blogger to recognize me (which is odd because I have a blogger account linked to this blog). Hopefully it went through!


      • I am glad you liked the post. I’m not sure why you were unable to add a comment. I double-checked my settings, which allows comments from Registered Users that included OpenID. Have a lovely weekend.

        Liked by 1 person

    • This is a great bit of advice and I really appreciate you sharing it. It’s funny to me how many seemingly obvious tips I hear, really aren’t all the obvious to me. I don’t think I would have thought about doing this. I even have a client who might benefit from this advice as reading is very hard for him.

      Thanks again for sharing and stopping by today. Happy editing and writing 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Self-Editing: Fighting Emotion with Logic — Quintessential Editor | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

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