Self Editing For Fiction Writers: 10 Top TipsOct 24, 2021
Writing a novel is incredibly hard. Then you get to the end of your first draft and relief sets in – but it’s short-lived. The seemingly insurmountable brick wall of self editing for fiction writers looms in the near distance.
Editing your own creative writing doesn’t need to feel so scary, or so dull. With these editing exercises and tools, you can not only polish your draft into something shiny and thoughtfully structured, but even enjoy the process of self editing for fiction writers. Yep, we said it.
Lizzy Goudsmit Kay – Editorial Director at The Novelry and former senior commissioning editor at a division of Penguin Random House – has laid out her ten top tips that will unlock your beautiful second draft and make the process of self editing breezy (or at least breezier…).
Why does self editing for fiction writers induce panic?
There is something inevitably chaotic about the first draft of a new novel.
The possibilities can seem overwhelmingly (and joyously) endless. Who are these characters? Where are they going? You can experiment with tenses and voices. You can shift the sex, age or outlook of your characters between one page and the next. You can switch countries or seasons, if you choose, following your instincts and trusting the story.
There are no poor decisions. There are no set-in-stone answers. There is only the blank page and the words that feel right in that moment.
It doesn’t matter if you identify as a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’; you can be sure of very little in the first draft. Even if you craft a detailed plan before committing to a single sentence, you might discover that a character has a mind of his or her own and walks off in an unexpected direction. There was no way to know that beforehand; it’s simply part of the process.
For many, that’s the joy of the first draft: the intense, limitless creativity, that sense of bounding into the unknown.
But not for me.
Why I love self editing
I like writing; but I prefer editing. I know, I know. That sets me apart from lots of aspiring fiction writers.
But I am far more comfortable knowing who’s who and what’s what. And these things are often discovered in the second draft (or even the third, fourth, fifth, maybe fifteenth draft!).
When you polish fiction writing, you get to hold an entire story in the palm of one hand and pick at it with the other, moving sentences, characters, even entire storylines into new positions.
This is the process of self editing your own writing. You’ll be reworking and revising until something really makes sense and finally starts to shine.
When you polish fiction writing, you get to hold an entire story in the palm of one hand and pick at it with the other, moving sentences, characters, even entire storylines into new positions. You interrogate every decision that you made in the first draft and ask yourself: does this feel right? Does this feel true?
If you can do this, then you understand the beauty of the editing process.
There’s no way to be a great writer without being a great editor
Yes, there are professional editors like me who will ask you all sorts of tricky questions about plot and character, about structure and language. But it’s the writer who decides the answers and is responsible for weaving them into the story. You have to take responsibility over your own writing.
It’s up to you to make sure it all makes sense, all flows, all engages your reader and compels them to keep turning the page.
So where should you start the editing process? What comes next, after you’ve finished the first draft and are starting to think about adding some good sense and a dazzling shine to your manuscript?
My ten tips for self editing
Just as there’s no formula for writing fiction, there’s not one neat solution for editing a novel. All novels are different, as are all writers.
I have, however, picked up some great tools for an editing process that can transform a first draft.
Here are ten of my favourite tips for self editing for fiction writers:
Self editing for fiction writers requires ruthless cutting
Ask yourself why we are here
Character mapping can help you self edit
Show, don't tell
Tell us something we don't know
Start your story!
The midpoint is crucial when you’re self editing fiction
Wordy words and more words
A satisfying ending
Be kind when you’re self editing as a fiction writer
1. Self editing for fiction writers requires ruthless cutting
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of self editing for fiction writers is, without a doubt, killing your darlings, and even your characters. But it’s a necessary cruelty.
I’m sorry to tell you this, but it is unlikely that every character and every idea in your first draft is a good one. That’s the nature of writing fiction; you get to explore and experiment. As a result, there are probably a few bland and wooden characters wandering around but doing very little.
We don’t need them. CUT!
There might be a storyline that felt great initially but disappears partway through and doesn’t feel worth reviving. CUT!
There might be – and there often is – a nugget that was there at the moment you decided to write this novel. It might even be what inspired the novel. But you’ve finished the initial fiction writing phase; now you have to self edit. Is it still serving a purpose? Often, we cling to these things, believing them to be the backbone of our story, when in fact the story has grown away from them. CUT!
It’s not the easiest writing advice to hear, we know. It’s challenging to look at a first draft and identify the parts worth keeping and the parts that need to go, particularly when all of that story means something to you. But it’s one of the most important parts of self editing for fiction writers.
My advice is that if you’re in doubt about an element, it probably needs to go.
2. Ask yourself why we are here
After you’ve identified everything that no longer deserves to be in your manuscript, it’s time to start thinking about the things that do deserve to be there. See: self editing for fiction writers isn’t all ruthless removal!
Assuming there are characters (there are, right?), then the next most important thing to consider is motivation. There are few things worse than characters who meander through a story. Your key players need agency, a goal to work towards. Your secondary characters need purpose, a way to contribute to another character arc.
Why are they there? What are they doing? What do they want?
If they’ve survived your initial cull, then being able to answer these questions is a key part of self editing for fiction writers. And it applies to every single one of your characters, from those who appear in all of your chapters to those who appear in just a paragraph.
If you can’t answer these questions satisfactorily, you have two choices from these editing techniques:
See #1, or
3. Character mapping can help you self edit
There are different ways to make your characters feel multi-dimensional and authentic.
But – in my opinion – the easiest way is to take them out with you for a few days, a little like a pet. Imagine your characters in every situation.
If you have a few key characters, take them each out for a day. Do you know how they behave in different situations?
What are they like at the supermarket? Do they write a list in advance or wing it when they get there? Do they use the self-check-out or prefer human interaction? Do they remember to bring their own bags or pay for another plastic one? How do they feel about buses? Would they prefer to walk? What if it’s raining?
If you have a few key characters, take them each out for a day. Do you know how they behave in different situations? Can you pinpoint the moment where they finally snap? What’s their coffee order? Did they pack a lunch? Perhaps take a couple of them out simultaneously to see how they fit together. Where are the alliances? Where are the tensions?
If you can answer all of these questions easily, then you likely know your characters well enough to draw them on a page and make them feel believable. And if that’s not a mark of successful self editing for fiction writers, I don’t know what is!
4. Show don’t tell
This is the most common – and probably most frustrating – feedback to receive.
What does it mean? Why does it matter?
If you were to tell me that your protagonist went on an amazing adventure to a school where the teachers were witches and wizards who taught magic and that your character felt more at home there than they’d ever felt anywhere else, I’d say: SHOW ME!
I want to see them arriving at this school. I want to see (and therefore understand) what makes it so special. I really want to see them settling in and becoming their best self. I don’t need you tell me what’s going on; I need you to become an artist with a canvas, drawing these scenes.
This is often a particular challenge for many writers aiming to create more literary fiction. But they, too, need to follow these same processes to create a really engaging story, no matter what other techniques they employ.
This is a crucial part of self editing, because it makes the difference between witnessing something from a distance and being in the middle of it. It is the difference between readers understanding your story and genuinely feeling it.
And we want the latter. We want them to laugh and cry, to be there on those pages with us.
5. Tell us something we don’t know
We know that the sky is blue. We know that the grass is green. We don’t need to be told these things and, when we are, they tend not to have much impact.
But if you show your reader that the sky is orange and describe something majestic happening at sunrise, that could feel powerful and intriguing. And if you tell them that the grass is straw-like and yellow, they can see a story instantly: the long hot spell that led to that dry grass.
How can you push this further in your own work? When, for example, might the grass be blue? I immediately imagine a child spilling paint, but I know you’ll have many more ideas!
Challenge yourself to tell your reader something new. Even better, tell them something old in a new way. There are so many blue skies. Take us somewhere else.
Challenge yourself to tell your reader something new. Even better, tell them something old in a new way.
6. Start your story!
I am an unashamedly lazy reader.
I am impatient and I will become easily frustrated if there’s nothing near the beginning of your novel for me to hold onto. I’m willing and waiting, my hands outstretched, but you need to give the end of a piece of string, one that will be woven through the centre of your story.
It could be an interesting and unexpected character, someone that makes me ask questions. It could be exquisite prose or an entirely new setting.
But, more often than not, it’s a plot-thread. As you self edit your fiction writing, I would encourage you to think carefully about where your story actually starts. It should be on the first page and, if not, then within the first few – especially if you’re aiming at mainstream publishing. Almost every editorial department will urge you to set that thread down early so that you can gently pull your reader through the hundreds of pages that follow.
7. The midpoint is crucial when you’re self editing fiction
It’s important for your novel to take a reader from A to B. But the unfortunate reality is that a very good sentence can do that too.
You have to keep readers following that thread, so two letters of the alphabet probably aren’t enough. You’re going to need to go from A to Z, via every other letter. And that means that at some point – near the middle – you’re going to hit M and the very important midpoint to your novel. We have plenty of writing advice on this crucial middle section here.
As you’re editing your first draft, make sure there’s a moment in the middle that serves as the point of no return: a realisation, an argument, a death.
But essentially, this is where everything changes. There’s no going back. There is absolutely no way for your characters to return to A.
As you’re editing your first draft, make sure there’s a moment in the middle that serves as the point of no return: a realisation, an argument, a death. It doesn’t much matter what you choose, but it has to switch things up for your characters and for your readers too. This is often what can turn promising manuscripts into publishing-ready stories.
8. Wordy words and more words
If you had a superpower, you’d want to use it as often as possible, right?
You’ve read the books. You’ve seen the films. You can’t use magic all day every day without consequences. Writing is your superpower. Words are your magic. But don’t get carried away. Use only the words that you absolutely need. Be selective. Be picky. Get rid of everything that isn’t absolutely essential. It’s an emotional part of self editing fiction, but you (and your readers) can’t do without it.
So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.
9. A satisfying ending
You can end on a high. You can end on a low. But the most important thing is to ensure that your ending is in some way satisfying.
It can be dark or unexpected or devastating, but it needs to make sense. You want your reader to reach the final pages of your novel and think Oh! Of course!
There are many ways to do this. Perhaps the characters finally get together, after pages of will-they-won’t-they.
Perhaps it’s a shocking twist in a crime novel that perfectly explains the few remaining loose threads.
Perhaps – and this is often my favourite – it’s your character finally finding Z, the thing they’ve been searching for since A, the beginning of the novel. But by then, things B to Y have revealed it wasn’t what they wanted after all. Heartbreaking!
10. Be kind when you’re self editing as a fiction writer
There is no easy way to edit a book. It requires you to read your story – something you’ve worked so hard on – and be the critical voice that finds the faults.
So don’t forget to be kind to yourself too through the arduous process of self editing fiction. Congratulate yourself on each and every brilliant sentence; they’re definitely there, so make sure to see them. Acknowledge the characters that leap off the page and feel fully formed already. Recognise that self editing feels tough because it is tough.
Eventually you’ll be ready to share your own work with a writing group, and even a professional editor who knows how to turn promising manuscripts into published novels. But for now, it’s just you and your own work.
There will likely be several rounds of edits – at least. Maybe many more. And you’re going to have to be kind to yourself to get through them. You don’t have to edit every day. You can do big smiley faces in the margins. You can skip the tricky bits and come back to them later. You are the one in charge, here, so take your time and settle in for the ride.
The Big Edit
You want a straightforward guide to formatting. It’s here!
You want to meet your team of professional editors? We say hello and welcome in the very first lesson.
You want the course to offer some contemporary examples of structure, sentences, openers, and brilliant editing techniques. We’ve packed these lessons with all sorts of brilliant books you know: from Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones to The Couple Next Door and Girl, Woman, Other.
You want tips and tricks from inside the editing trade? DONE! Check out our advanced technique for stand-out prose to open your book with a bang – Lucid Compression ®
You want to write a stand-out synopsis? We’ll make it a thing of sleek beauty and simple to write.
You want to write a brilliant pitch letter? There are two lessons to guide you.
Plus, find out more about what literary agents and the major publishing houses really, really want!
We’ll guide you step by step with killer logic through the wonderful process of drilling down from structural development and a narrative summary, to copy editing through to line-by-line style, the same way the major publishing houses work so that you become your own best editor for a lifetime of happy writing. Once you’ve mastered the thought process you’ll find it makes writing easier in future, and you don’t make those same mistakes next time you start a novel.
Our literary agencies
Did you know The Novelry is the online creative writing course recommended by more literary agencies than any other? Take a look at our list of partner leading literary agencies in the UK and the USA just crying out to see our graduates’ brilliant novels.
Get editing, folks! See you on the sunny side of a pitch-perfect manuscript.
Editorial Director at The Novelry
Before joining The Novelry, Lizzy was a senior commissioning editor at Transworld Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors like Kate Atkinson, Dan Brown, Bill Bryson, Lee Child, Richard Dawkins, Paula Hawkins, Rachel Joyce and Sophie Kinsella. As our Editorial Director, Lizzy works with writers on The Big Edit and Manuscript Assessment.