4 Tips For Self-Editing

This is courtesy of Michael Stackpole’s lecture at Dragoncon.

First, remember that you are not editing as you go along. As Stackpole says, “first, dig the hole” – get the manuscript down before you play with it.

In order to edit the most effectively, Stackpole recommends printing the manuscript out and working on it in a different location from the one in which you write. This forces your brain to switch to editor mode and keeps those two “jobs” separate for you. You should be able to “turn off” one side of your brain and work either as a writer or an editor, but not switch back and forth at the same time.

When editing, if you come across a place in the manuscript where you want to make changes, simple write “FIX” in the margin and keep editing. It’s very important not to switch back into writer mode, but to keep working with the analytical side of your brain to complete your edits. You will go back to writing once you’re done with the edits.

Here are four tips to help you with this process:

  1. Create a scene inventory for the manuscript. This is a one-line description for each scene, giving general plot points, tone and nature of the scene (action, technically intense, emotional, etc). For each scene, ask yourself whether it moves the story forward – if not, cut that scene
  2. Check the story arcs for each of your characters. Are they genuine? What are the character’s goals, and what obstacles prevent them from reaching those goals? What is the character’s emotional journey? Be sure you have not dropped anything from the arcs, or left out any important information.
  3. Make sure your content is genre-appropriate in terms of emotion, action, and thought percentages. For example, for a science-fiction work, you should have something in the ratio of 40-45% action scenes, 40-45% problem-solving scenes, and 15-20% emotional scenes. For romance, the ratio would be more like 15% action, 5% problem-solving, and 80% emotion.
  4. When are you through editing? You’re going to write the first draft and then edit, then write a second draft and edit that, and maybe even do a third pass. Stackpole proposes a 10% Rule: when you change fewer than 10% of the words at the end of an edit, it’s time to wrap it up and send it out.

The thing to keep in mind about writing and editing is to keep them separated in your mind. When you’re writing, just write. When you’re editing, just edit. In this way, you’ll develop two different types of skills which will work together to produce your best possible manuscript.

What are some editing tips you’ve learned that help you improve your manuscript?