how i self-edit
In a word: scattershottedly.
Thank you to the reader who asked me to discuss how I approach edits, both self-guided and external feedback. To be honest, I’ve been stumped about how to answer this seemingly simple question! That might be because I don’t have an ironclad approach; it changes book to book. I’ll do my best to explain the range of approaches I’ve taken. Let’s start with self-editing.
The “write to the end, then revise” approach
With past books, I’ve written my first draft looking forward only. By that I mean I write Chapter 1 on Monday, Chapter 2 on Tuesday, and so on—without revisiting previous chapters. Once I reached the end, I’d put the manuscript away for a few weeks, then print it out and read the whole thing with fresh eyes.
The ideal “put it in a drawer” approach is to work on something else in the meantime, to leave the story in the drawer for so long that you can read it with a more objective eye. Sound in theory, questionable in execution, IMO. Most publishing contracts are way too tight to allow for a WIP to sit untouched for the length of time I would personally need to gain true objectivity.
An example: I recently discovered a TV pilot adaptation I wrote TWO YEARS AGO for TMH1. It had been so long since I touched the project that I’d totally forgotten I’d even written it! I read through the first few pages of the script and could honestly and easily assess what was working and what I’d change. For any given project, I think I’d probably need six months—three at the absolute minimum—away from a draft to see it with fresh eyes. A couple weeks or a month is not going to cut it. Most professional writers are publishing a new book every 1-2 years, so you can see why spending 3-6 months not working on said project is totally unworkable.
The “revise as you write” approach
With my WIP2, I’m editing as I go. Reading and making edits to yesterday’s writing helps me ramp up into the day’s new writing. Remember how I told you the first 5-10 minutes of writing are the most painful for me? It’s a lot easier to spend those 5-10 minutes making existing work better than staring at the blank page. As a general rule, and I think most writers would agree, revising is easier than first drafting.
It’s near impossible to avoid any revising whatsoever as you write the first draft, in part because something you write today will contradict something from three chapters ago… and that happens all the time, every day. For me personally, I get fixated on these discrepancies and can’t concentrate until I’ve jotted the edit down somewhere or actually made the edit in Word.
Novel journal vs. Notes app
Alexander Chee said somewhere (and I can’t remember where, I’m sorry) that he keeps a journal for every book he writes. I found the concept brilliant and have kept digital journals (Word docs) of each of my books ever since. It’s a place for me to puzzle out plot points, jot down new ideas, figure out how I feel about something. Much of it reads like a conversation with myself, e.g. Bear in mind most of the flashbacks need to carry some sort of mystery or intrigue. Some notes are bullet-pointed lists; others are just one line: “X should be planted in X’s room.” The journal is chaotic, but it’s where I store longer-form, forward-looking thoughts.
The iPhone Notes app, on the other hand, is where I jot down more immediately relevant stuff, often times actual prose I want to change or add to the manuscript. My phone is the one thing I almost always have on hand, so it’s the easiest place to write down something I don’t want to forget. After I add said item to the relevant Word document, I delete the Note. No need for long-term storage, whereas my novel journals I will keep forever.
There are plenty of tips and tricks writers use to help them see their work with fresh eyes. (There’s that phrase again!) Many people change the font size or the font itself. I only ever write in one font, Garamond, and shudder at the idea of reading 350 pages of Comic Sans—but props to those who do!
The two tips I use with every single draft of every single book are printing the manuscript and reading it aloud—sometimes concurrently, but ideally not. My eye catches a lot of stuff on paper that it misses on a screen, so reading a printed draft is essential for me before sharing my work. Reading it aloud helps me recognize when the prose isn’t flowing, if I’ve overused words, etc. I recommend having plenty of liquids and cough drops on hand; your throat hurts after six hours of reading aloud! Worth it every time.
Next up I’ll share my proofreading checklist, a document I use later in the process, once the story is closer to finished. After that, we’ll discuss how I tackle revisions from other people, i.e. editorial feedback.
This Might Hurt
work in progress