You can’t edit your own work... can you?
‘Don’t edit yourself’ is part of the canon of wisdom aimed at absolute newbies. It's often a polite way of saying: “You don’t realise it but you probably need a neutral third party to disabuse you of the idea that your work is remotely publishable yet.”
One step up the ladder, advice against self-editing reflects the basic fact that the creator of a story is never going to be in a good position to judge how it will strike a new reader. Also, the fact that it’s harder to spot your own typos. I don't know quite why that is, it’s just life.
Unfortunately a successful author is going to have to edit their work. Not in the sense of dumping their editorial team – a mainstream publisher is hardly going to allow that anyway – but in the sense of getting material ready for submission in the first place. Even if you have a book contract, an editor who receives a shoddy first draft is not a happy woman, and not a woman who likes her author any more. I’ve seen a few such documents, and believe me there was mockery in the office. Worst case scenario, the publisher will decide to cut their losses and the project will get dumped. (See the wise and crabbit Nicola Morgan on why authors shouldn’t leave their job to editors for more.)
A huge swathe of nasties that can be lurking in an apparently finished MS, including but definitely not limited to: plot inconsistencies, descriptive inconsistencies, forgotten plot strands, characters who merge into each other, excessive infodump, overuse of adjectives, overuse of certain phrases or grammatical constructions (you’d think the dash was the fundamental building block of English to read some of my drafts), “darlings”, randomly changing POV and of course bog-standard typos. All of these will hide from by whatever means they can, and the more this process involves persuading your authorial vanity (or mine) that they are signs of genius, the better they will like it.
But of course you can’t edit yourself, well-known fact. So, apart from the universal wisdom of putting the MS in the drawer for a month to give yourself as much of a fresh eye as possible, what can you do? There are a few tips and tricks to help you think as much as possible like that editor who is going to be bashing the MS into shape, or deciding whether to acquire it in the first place.
1) Read it aloud: This is a popular piece of advice for good reason. All sorts of problems suddenly come into focus, from pacing issues to characters’ individual voices. If it’s a book that’s likely to be read to children you could also get someone else to read it to you. It doesn’t matter how useful or otherwise that person may be as a literary advisor, the points where they trip over the language or rhythm will be the points where a parent reading aloud is likely to trip.
2) Simplify your plot into a numbered list of events: This will be dull, but it’s particularly good for complex narratives as it shows up timeline errors.
3) Think or read several times through your plot or story with a different secondary character in focus each time: Mary may be a more important character than John, but if John behaves inconsistently just because it’s important for Mary’s character development, the book is weakened. It’s worth giving John a bit of time at the front of your brain to make sure this isn’t happening.
4) Be honest about your own reactions, all of them: Sometimes you will just be too close to your own work to have much idea about it, but usually even early on there are clues. If, when rereading, you find yourself rushing over Chapter Four to wallow in Chapter Five, it might mean Chapter Five is great – but probably also that Chapter Four needs work.
5) Follow the niggle: In my rueful experience, if you have a niggling feeling that something is not quite on the money, then you are almost certainly right. If you absolutely can’t work out what the problem is just now, highlight the offending section in another colour and come back to it. These days I actually rejoice (well, in a mild sort of way) when I work out what’s wrong with a scene because I have almost invariably known on some level that the problem was there, and now I can fix it.
6) Kill your darlings: This one gets bandied about even more than ‘read it aloud’. But how to identify a darling? Sometimes you might like what you’ve written just not because you wrote it, but also because it's good. You can usually tell a ‘darling’ because it's a one-off that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the story. It may be a phrase that includes a stunning but thematically inappropriate image, or a scene which is terribly poignant but fails to develop the characters and holds up the plot. That said, the darlings which are most painful to remove are the ones that have been woven into the text because you loved them so much that you built some of the story around them by way of life support. If trying to work out what’s wrong with a specific scene is driving you fruitlessly mad, it may be that this is the problem. Look at each element of the story in turn, asking what the consequences would be if you removed it. Something that appears to be very well embedded in the text may on examination turn out to actually shored up by filler material, and this kind of analysis can detect that.
7) If you’re stuck for a solution, go back a stage from your apparent problem: I’ve spent dozens of hours sweating over my writing thinking ‘this bit doesn’t work!’ but being completely unable to figure out what I should replace it with. It took me a while to cotton on, but eventually I realised that a good proportion of the time the difficulty was that I wasn’t pruning back far enough. Very often the sentence or paragraph prior to the offending text was harmless in itself, but it was leading me gently down a dead end. This seems obvious for plot problems, but it also applies to subtler issues of characterisation and style.
8) Cut and cut again: This is another general one that everybody knows. The trick is motivating yourself to hack away at your lovely prose, even the bits that aren't darlings. It can be done – after some years, I’ve actually come to find cutting enjoyable. It’s liberating, and it allows the best bits of your book to shine out more, concentrating it into shinier and shinier pure diamond. The mild regret at the loss of some elegant touches pales in comparison with the thrill of regarding the taut new shape of the whole.
9) Keep note of things you repeatedly find yourself doing wrong: This isn’t a very edifying experience. But if I’d been doing it I’d have cottoned on to point 7 years earlier. A more positive spin on this would be to keep a file noting serious problems you’ve encountered with your drafts, and how you’ve fixed them. The chances are you’ll spot some characteristic weaknesses and may even be able to avoid introducing them at draft stage.
10) Keep reminding yourself that self-editing isn’t a boring extra, but a vital aid: It may not be fun, but that’s why a lot of people don’t bother. If you do, you’ve greatly increased your chance of getting out of the slush pile and/or of making your editor like you and want to acquire more of your shapely MSS.