Self-editing for writers: how to approach revision and drafting effectively

I bought my first house a few years ago. It’s a well-maintained home in a quiet residential area with a quaint little office overlooking the street, which makes it an ideal place for an editor to live. I’m grateful that the previous owner took such good care of this house, and for the most part few things have gone wrong.

Of those few mishaps, most were things we could fix ourselves. The latch on the front gate shifts out of position now and then, but it’s nothing I can’t fix in a few minutes with a wrench. The deck needed a new coat of all-weather stain, and even though the job led to sweat, sunburn, and sore muscles, it was doable in one day. We’ve installed a new dishwasher, a new washer-dryer unit, and a new element in the stove. We even did our own vinyl flooring.

But then there are the major problems. Late last year, we became aware of a leak in the bathroom. On heading down into the crawl space under the shower (we have a dugout basement and the shower hovers over an expanse of dirt ) it turned out a bracket on the pipe draining the shower to the sewer was wide open. Water was pouring out onto the now-mud. We called in a plumber and, on inspection, it turned out that was just the beginning of our troubles. The pipes behind the shower were also leaky and had caused considerable rot in the wall and the bathroom floor, which in turn was making the toilet slowly sink through the floor.

That was when we reached our limitations for homeowner repairs. We lucked out finding a handyman who not only provides excellent service at a competitive price, but he also likes to teach homeowners how to do further repairs. So he came in and told us what to tear out for him (saving us money by not having to pay him to do it), then he fixed everything, he put some things back in place (like a new wall and a new floor), but then to save us more money, instructed us on how to put down vinyl flooring rather than having him do it. As a result, not only do I now have the bathroom put back together again, I know much more about how this house is constructed, and I’m also experienced at laying vinyl plank flooring.

Self-editing vs. hiring an editor: knowing your limitations

Many authors feel they can edit their books themselves.  To a certain extent, they can. This process is called self-editing.

Self-editing a book is like doing the basic repairs on a house. You can fix tense and POV and verb agreement issues.  You can fix plot holes and pacing and dialogue.  You can tighten sentences, cut your word count down by 10% (a pretty standard recommendation across the board), make great scenes awesome, make weak scenes great, improve sensory details…I could go on and on.

There’s no limit to what you can do with self-editing, and the more experienced you are, the more you can apply your skills to self-editing to make your editor’s/editors’ job(s) less tedious.

However, no matter how good you are at self-editing, you are the equivalent of one hand clapping. Why is this?

No matter how detached we try to be, as writers, we are prone to seeing what we want to see, not what a reader will see. So, while we can self-edit and perfect our book until there’s not a thing more we can find wrong with it, this will be limited to our sense of how we react to our own book. Where this becomes a real problem is in scenes or elements of our book we feel are exceptional, which might actually be lackluster and problematic — sometimes even having the opposite effect on readers.

That scene you can’t stop laughing at? You might not realize there’s a problem until your editor gets back to you on it and tells you it’s self-indulgent and eclipsing the gravity of the mood. The kick-ass climax that had you buzzing while you wrote it and which you can’t stop playing over and over in your head because it’s so awesome? Your editor might be the one who has to break it to you that the scene doesn’t even fit in your book, that as a whole it’s not consistent with the promises you set up in your opening. It has to go, or if not, it has to change to line up with the expected payoffs.

Now, you might learn to identify these things, but it can be a two-edged sword. We could have definitely tried to rip our floor up, replace the rotted sub-floor, cut away rotten boards, replace a toilet, do the plumbing, learn how to do drywall and paint our own wall…but all that time we could have been busy living our lives and working while someone with the refined skill set would do the job right, efficiently, and quickly.

Likewise, a writer can consult a dozen craft and editing books and try to be objective and become their own editor, but all that time they could be busy writing more drafts; the revision to follow when they work with an editor will take them eons further than if they did it all themselves, and for a fraction of the time in.

But, like we did with out major home repair, through self-editing, a writer can pick up many of the pieces through learning from working with their editor(s) over time. The greatest skill is developing detachment and learning to identify your blind spots.

In my own self-editing, I have become as cynical as the King Solomon of Ecclesiastes. In fact, this last week I just wrote the plot climax of A Thousand Roads and I thought I pulled off something amazing, I was pretty sure, but I kept a healthy skepticism because I knew that, while that ending definitely paid off for me, I have deluded myself all too often in past; off the pages went to my editor and I heard back from her a few days later — indeed, I did rock that scene, but there were some issues, nothing that couldn’t be fixed, but it wasn’t the perfect Hollywood production I saw it as in my mind; essentially, my instinct was correct that the scene was working, but because of the emotional intensity of being in the middle of it, living it as only an author can, I’m prone to being blinded to other things that, without being addressed, will hinder the reader’s experience.

I applied this feedback and already the chapter is taking on a dimension of payoff it wouldn’t have without that professional input, and light-years faster than were I to kick my way there through self-editing alone.

Self-editing to death: how to avoid circular revision

The floor in my detached garage is badly cracked and starting to sink.  I need to fix the problem and I know that means fixing the concrete floor, perhaps by laying down fresh concrete.  However, I happened to show it to the same handyman who fixed our bathroom, and with his professional expertise and his emotional distance (as it’s not his house), he was able to point out the painful truth.  The garage was poorly constructed and is very slowly falling down and is irreparable.  It might be a good decade before it actually needs to be demolished, but due to faulty construction, the fix is not at all easy. In fact, it’s a waste of money unless we’re willing to re-pour the foundation and build a new one from scratch.

I came across a similar situation in a novel I wrote several years ago — my first one. As most first novels go, there was something major wrong with it, but I didn’t know what.  When I was in the midst of writing and revising again and again and again, I was rapidly identifying and repairing all of the little things that were wrong with it, and it was improving a lot with each revision. I even worked with an editor and he pushed me through further revisions, inspiring me to dig deeper. I even cut two of the characters who I really liked when he helped me understand they didn’t serve the plot, but still, it just wasn’t working. We got up to an eighth draft, and I pushed into a ninth and I was determined that this time I was going to figure out what that deep problem was.

What I had run into was a case of circular revision. Eventually, I had to put it down and walk away.

Several years passed and I wrote several more novels, and always that novel was lurking somewhere beneath the surface of my mind. Gone, but not forgotten, as it is with stories we create, no matter how we go about producing them.

What I found was that over the time that passed, I gained emotional and creative distance that’s allowed me to appreciate that book on a deeper, conceptual level. Most importantly, I’d grown so much as a writer and developed my self-editing skills to the level where recently, riding the wave of some caffeinated inspiration, I was able to map out an outline for what a new draft would look like. But like the handyman with the garage, this isn’t a plan to “fix” the older story; rather, it’s a plan to write something completely new, using the the viable parts of the plot ideas and the same overall concept. Basically, when the time comes for me to pick this one up and redraft it, I’ll be making a new novel that works; a new draft vs. a mere revision.

The key lesson for me has been that self-editing is a skill that helps us improve our edge as writers so that our time with an editor, or with revision and redrafting, will be more efficient. But, just as critical to the art of self-editing, is the wisdom to know when self-editing is killing your story, and that it’s okay — in fact, it’s good for you and your health and growth as a writer! — to walk away for a bit and write something else.

Putting it all together: always write, always self-edit, always revise; develop your own sequence

With writing, we can’t always take five years away from a project and rewrite from scratch.  We need to write, polish, publish, repeat. We have to put out books for our readers. We need to build our career.

I’ve always liked the wine bottling anecdote to describe an effective writing routine. Some bottles of wine can spend years in the cellar before they are sold. But the vineyard produces grapes every season. Grapes are pressed with care. Yeast is added and fermentation begins. Sugar converts to alcohol, then when the desired amount of dryness or sweetness is reached clarification begins. Wine is racked, then it’s bottled and the wine maker can decide if it should be bottled for sale or aged. Some wines must age, while others are good to drink right away. But the wine maker makes lots of wine so that every harvest, there’s wine to sell, even if some of the finer wines must spend years aging until they are finally corked and ready.

Likewise, a writer must write. Draft daily (as most do), your necessary output. This is your grape harvest. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of a given manuscript, and the draft is done. You can self-edit, work with an editor, and decide, depending on the needs or considerations of that given book, if it’s ready to publish, or if it’s not ready and you need perspective. This is your choice of if the wine needs aging or not.

If your given draft needs more time, put it away, but if you have the habit of drafting every day (my habit is to spend 2 hours drafting every day, no matter what), then this means if your given draft is put away then you have no choice but to write something else. (You will probably find, as I did, that what comes out of this conundrum is a very very good realization about just how much wider your storytelling universe is than one simple book.)

Eventually, this is going to add up. Most likely you might write different things. As a rule, never write something unless you really want to be writing it. But always be writing something, and try to write something different after you finish any given draft and its relevant revisions.

This is your sequence as a writer — think of it as the equivalent of a to-read pile, except as a writer, it’s your to-write pile. The point, though, is that you will continually be writing and self-editing and revising, and, for many of these drafts, you will be publishing and making money and building your readership, and your career.

In all this, you will come back to your older drafts. When you have the right perspective on those, you’ll know it and you’ll write that new draft with the expert skill you’ve gained because in all the time that’s passed, you’ve kept on writing, and self-editing, and revising.

Self-editing might not be a means to an end, but, used with these other principles, it can serve to add an edge that lets any writer push their drafting power upward in steady quantum leaps.

Where do you draw the line between self-editing and editing? How do you decide when you are done self-editing and when you need someone to step in and give you input? Have you ever had to abandon a book before, and if so, did you find you gained the perspective you needed after writing something else?

If you want to receive more of these kinds of inspiring posts on writing, editing, and productivity and wellness practices for writers, sign up for my weekly newsletter with Story Perfect Editing Services, here.

You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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4 Responses to Self-editing for writers: how to approach revision and drafting effectively

  1. Susan says:

    Great post — some really good points and advice. For a future posting, I’d be curious on your perspective about finding an editor so you can get that objective perspective (or perhaps there is one, I have not checked your archive yet). Friends are wonderful, but still aren’t totally objective (or necessarily professional editors)

    • John Robin says:

      Thanks for the suggestion. I’m actually keeping a content calendar for this blog and I add to it based on natural fallouts and requests, so I’ll add this as a future topic. I’m an editor myself and run an editing company so I’ll be writing often on editing-related topics to help writers here, but one small thing to mention — even though I’m an editor for a living I still need an editor for my own writing. Publishing a book requires a good partnership of author editor, and you’re right that it means finding a good editor who is worth their salt, and (even more important) gets what you’re trying to do and brings to the collaboration the right perspective to get your creative juices flowing in the right direction. The problem with friends in particular is they might not want to spoil your friendship, whereas an editor means business, and they are in the business of making your book great no matter what (and using effective communication to tell you hard-to-hear things in a way that’s constructive).

  2. landofoyr says:

    personally i do not separate writing and self-editing they are two aspects of the same thing
    to continue your example of the home improvement – repairs example writing is the first paint, self-editing is the second hand where you cover all the imperfections done in the first but both are needed and aim at the same goal a complete manuscript. the final touch is done by an editor were you clean the doors cover small areas the have been ignored and put everything into a perfect (or near perfect) condition.
    the problem is the procedure and not the theory though…

    • John Robin says:

      Writing and self-editing can definitely be integral, depending on your preferred method for how your draft. The big thing though is where you draw the line between what you can edit yourself and what only an editor will see; self-editing techniques can help you tremendously to get the most out of edits — your editor cleans doors, covers small areas ignored and puts things into general final perfection, but can’t do so if the doors are broken, or if so many things are ignored they have to pick their battles. That’s said, even if you do your due diligence self-editing, sometimes it’s great to have your editor come in to do very minor work because if there is something critical missing they can spot it.

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