Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Monster In Your Closet

Otherwise known as...

Self Editing.

{{{{Eewww}}}}, shivers rush up and down my spine just at the thought of the task. Granted, we all write our books in our own unique way whether it’s blowing through the plot and padding later or shaping each chapter to its most comprehensive form before moving on to the next chapter. All the different methods work to get the story down on paper, but editing is the final hand-rub finish you want to give your book that glossy glow before you declare it worthy for editor/agent viewing.

Disclaimer – I’m about to talk a good story, and I really wish the following steps came second nature to me. They don’t. Editing to me is like a weight control diet. I know I need to cut back on calories, pass over the gravy, deny the home-made fudge, but do I do it? Depends on the mood.

Editing hits me the same way. Whether I want to trim the fat from my waist or the baggage from my manuscript, I need to keep the rules in my frontal lobe. Then it’s up to me whether I take them or break them.

Back in 2004, Mick Silva gave a great workshop at the ACRW conference on Self-Editing. I have his 5 Commandments of Editing staring at me:

Thou shalt begin with big changes and progress to small, never the other way around.
Thou shalt make thy information as compelling as possible.
Thou shalt never give in to self-indulgence.
Thou shalt honor a trustworthy second opinion.
Thou shalt write these rules on the tablet of thine heart.

Oh Mick knows what he’s talking about. Trust me, I listen to conference workshops on my MP3 player almost every night as I walk the dog : )

So, Commandment Number 5 I’ve gotten a firm grip on only because when something is posted over my monitor, it’s tough to ignore it : ) Number 4? I hope everyone has a confidant you trust to read your most precious possession with a critical eye and not a critical tongue. And that aforementioned trusted confidant will smack you silly if you dare to use your fiction platform for self-indulgence as stated in Commandment 3. Needless to say, without Number 2, what’s the point of writing a novel?

Which brings us to Commandment Number One. The hardest one of all to keep. It’s not for lack of trying, mind you. It’s just keeping all the intricate details of an entire book in perspective isn’t natural! (OMG! Did I just whine?)

Okay, give me a moment for self-composure. There, that’s better. Now, where were we?

Make big changes and progress to small, never the other way around. Let’s dissect it, shall we?

Outside of the entire body of work, chapters are biggest chunks of information. Look at them first. Can you clearly define an element of conflict in each chapter? Is there a concrete reason for each scene or does it stall out because the sentiment is boring? What about action and dialogue to propel the plot forward and enhance the pacing? Do your characters run the show…or do you? Have you utilized scenes and sequels? Does your chapter end with a hook?

Human nature keeps us reading “just one more chapter.” Do each of your chapters entice the reader to move on because they have to find out what happens next?

After studying the overall content of the chapter, move on to paragraphs. Do you stick with one thought in each paragraph? Nothing worse than two trains of thought competing for space in 3 to 5 sentences. And speaking of 3 to 5 sentences, is there sufficient white space on the page or does the paragraph indent at the top and pour words relentlessly down to the bottom? I don’t care how sweeping your description or poignant the introspection, snip that gigantic paragraph into a digestible segments! Quick thoughts and dialogue keep the reader engaged! Does the paragraph keep a consistent point of view? Are you explaining too much? Too little? Showing? Telling?

Paragraph breaks keep the eye moving along. If too much ink flows across the page, the eye/brain becomes overwhelmed. Word count and page count are important, but keep in mind black and white space, and jagged right margins, keep the eye from straining.

Heavy stuff here, huh? And oblivious folk think writing a novel nothing more than sitting in a field of clover and scribbling words in a journal. Silly nonsense. Take a moment and catch your breath. Grab a Danish – I brought cheese and fruit – and pour a tankard of coffee.

Okay, ready? Let’s move on to sentences. Comb through the paragraph and look for run-on sentences and fragments. The rules have slackened a bit in regards to fragments, especially if you need to stay true to your character. Keep in mind, 250 pages of fragmented thoughts and dialogue is overkill. Same way with clichés. Use sparingly; use wisely for maximum impact. Do you detect long passages of passive voice? Are your sentence lengths varied? Are you up-to-date on the latest punctuation tactics??

Speaking of punctuation, consider enrolling in a brush-up English class. Kathy Ide offers an excellent online class called PUGS. You’ll be surprised what you can and can’t do with a comma anymore : )

We’ve worked our way down from chapters (largest changes to make) to paragraphs to sentences and now finally, words (smallest changes to make). Word choices make or break the overall success of your novel. You’ve worked so hard to craft clever characters and intriguing plots, don’t let the smallest denominator cause your downfall. Have you kept adverbs and adjectives to a minimum? Have you taken it easy on all the –eses of fiction? Research-ese, Christian-ese, medical-ese, and a host of other traps? Always allow characters to be themselves, but in a context that doesn’t make the average reader feel they need Merriam-Webster as an armchair companion. Hey, I’m all for educating our readership, just do it in a manner where they feel they’ve learned a new word because they grasp its meaning from the situation usage.

So, have I missed anything? Please share your ideas and tips on self-editing with us. If you refer back to my disclaimer at the beginning, you’ll remember this all works in theory, but it’s a theory I need to turn to time and again, LOL!

If you’ve stuck with me to the end of this dry subject, I applaud your fortitude! Leave your email address and I’ll have a drawing for a bar of Rocky Mountain Chocolate to whet your appetite until my novel, Rocky Mountain Hero, debuts January 2011!! Winner will be announced in the Weekend Edition!


  1. This is great. I always look at the chapter. I look to see if it flows, to see if it has a good beginning hook, and a good ending hook. I have difficulty looking at paragraphs, but I think looking at them as one thought sinks into my brain.

    Thank you, for a great post.

  2. I agree with Renee--this is great! I recently took a novel writing class at college, and it is amazing how much work goes into the writing process! There's a lot to think about, and I confess to having a very hard time with self-editing. With much of my writing, I try my best to write something really well the first time, and then I am loathe to change it later. But I know it's important to make sure I'm doing my best! Even if that means self-editing. ;)

    Thanks again for sharing this, and I would love a shot at that chocolate! :) I'll get the coffee started for us!



  3. Great post, Audra! :) I may be weird, but I love editing. Something about knowing a poorly written (because all my first drafts are that way. Ouch) story can finally be fixed and polished until it's ready to show others makes me happy.

    Still, I'll admit, I'm almost done with the first draft of my WIP, and the editing is going to be daunting. It's easy to be overwhelmed, but I'll remember your tips when I actually start editing :)

    Oh, and leave me out of the giveaway, please. Not that I don't love chocolate (who doesn't?), but I already eat more of the stuff than I should :P

  4. First:

    Mia needs to be smacked. Just knowing someone lives, works, breathes and gets through the day with THAT SELF-CONTROL is daunting. I might have to eat and entire FOUR-PACK OF MALLO-CUPS just to get through the day.

    Perhaps two four-packs. ;)

    Mia, I am in awe of you.

  5. Ooops, it sent... I didn't press anything and it sent. Googles way of telling me to hush up and stop insulting Mia...

    Sorry, Mia. (head down, sad face here)

    (Audra, I'll eat the chocolate, 'kay????)

    Amber, great coffee.

    I love editing. I think it's a control thing and I think that's what helps me push through a manuscript to the end because I want to trim it. Polish it.

    I do not have these same issues with my home.

  6. Morning Audra, Loved this post because I'm like Mia. I love the editing part of the writing. Its like putting together a puzzle.
    Hush up Ruthy, 'cause the first draft daunts me. shudder.

    Audra you gave us great tips and a thorough plan. Thanks. This is a keeper for sure.

    Since Ruthy is wallowing in mallo cups, I'll bring some coffee and burritos to share. Chorizo, eggs and papas to start the day for this great self-edit process.

    Audra, do you have any extra Rocky Mountain chocolate to share with us Seekers? yum

  7. Amber, thanks for getting the coffee going! You are a saint. I'm slurping one down as we speak : )

    I use to write like my life depended on the first draft. I wanted to get it right from word one. Then my critique groups smacked me down, completely destroying the illusion of a perfect first draft.

    Now, I let my mind twist and turn at will. Sometimes I amaze myself with the path of my thoughts, LOL! But hey, we're writers. If we can't have fun along the way, what's the point??

  8. I'm with you, Renee. I THINK I have hooks bracketing my chapters, but it isn't until the whole thing is done that I realize sometimes my hooks are nothing more than giant run-on thoughts.

    Amazing how our perspective changes throught the course of a book : )

  9. LOL, Mia! A girl who can resist chocolate! Now that's just not natural : )

    Revisions R Us has become my motto. I think I race through my story just to see how it ends, knowing I have the mop and bucket to clean up after myself after typing the final word : )

  10. Really, Ruthy? It's a control thing? I'm sending you a case of Mallo Cups just for admitting it, sweetstuff : )

  11. Mornin' Sandra. Thanks for adding protein to our breakfast. My blood sugar was rising with all the talk of Danish and chocolate : )

    I just pulled a chili and egg casserole out of the oven to compliment your chorizo. Oooo I just love Mexican breakfasts : ) Pass the salsa.

    And Sandra? Guess what I"m bringing to the ACFW conference...your choice milk and dark : )

  12. Thanks for writing this process out. I know how to do it, but a reminder never hurts. My critique partner and I often rely on each other's strengths when editing. For example: she's great at looking at the big picture and can name dead-on why a scene is or isn't working while I'm the detail person and grammar queen of our dynamic duo. It works for the two of us well so I would add to your advice to find a partner who completments your ability during the revision/editing phase.

  13. Audra, let me say again that's a totally wonderful, awesome picture.

    I love it.

    And I know it's a control thing.


    I'm a controlling, bossy, obstinate beast.

    The Mallo Cups help. Please feel free to send them to Ruthy ASAP. Save a dust mite. Save a hero from certain death. Save all gracious people from total destruction.

    Your contribution of Mallo Cups could save a life. For just your sacrifice of a few dollars a month (plus postage) you could improve the quality of life for Ruthy and other writers like Ruthy.

    Please contact for complete mailing instructions and thank you from upstate New York.

  14. Good morning, Audra! The self-editing stage is one of my very favorite parts--right up with those times when the character "voices" are chatting so loudly in my head I can't type fast enough. Great method you've outlined for self-editing -- large to small. No point in fretting the word choice if it may be gone with the wind when you later hack out the entire paragraph.

  15. EXCELLENT BLOG, Audra!!! I am one of those crazies who actually LIKES self editing ... I get a little thrill when I'm able to pare sentences down and see how much cleaner they become.

    In fact, I love it when I finish the book and the next step is rereading it for editing purposes -- I do it once on the computer, a number of times on hard copy, then a once more on the computer and one more hard copy. Sounds anal, I know, but when you consider that I proofed/edited A Passion Most Pure over 60 times before I sold, not so bad!

    Now agent/editor editing??? Uh, not so much.


  16. You are so right, Dianna! It's nice if you're bosom buddies with your crit partner, but, if you both view plotting, characters, edits through the same eyes, I can't really see the benefit.

    I have screenwriter friend who is excellent at telling me I've placed the cart before the horse, and my other bud doesn't hesitate to tell me I've written a bunch of kaa-kaa because (insert excellent points here).

    I also have to thank my fellow Seekers who answer the call to arms whenever any of us throw hands up in frustration, shielding face in hands with an I-can't-take-it-anymore attitude.

    Of course, lots of times, said drama queen gets smacked down, but hey, what are sisters for??


    Oh wait! Of course this doesn't apply to Ruthy. No ma'am. She's the most encouraging, understanding, complimentary one of us all...

    Dianna, I think you've found your groove. Keep going!

  17. Thanks Ruthy. I hubby showed incredible patience during my photo op.

    Then handed me the camera and told me this better be a timeless look : )

  18. Hey, Glynna, Julie! I didn't say I didn't like the editing process.

    I'm just not as great at it as I could be : )

    When I listened to Mick's workshop, something clicked. The whole trickle down approach works for me. I really do need to tear the overall picture apart before worrying about word choice.

    Julie, I couldn't imagine keeping track of the volumes you write! And you do it flawlessly.



    You're my hero.

  19. Yay, Audra! You can do it!
    I love editing. Seriously. It's easier than writing the first draft. With the first draft I have all these self-doubts. I wonder if the story is boring or if the scene I'm writing is even necessary. In editing I can see the big picture and it's so much easier to snip here and there, nip and tuck, polish and hone.

    That's just me.

  20. Great post, Audra! Interesting how each approach is different. I line edit as I go because the thought of a big mess awaiting me gives me the shivers. Then when I'm finished, I do the big adds and deletes--mostly adds. What helps me keep control of all that is the mantra "For every action there is a reaction." When I'm done with the first draft, I go back and make sure those reactions are necessary, and shown, not told. It keeps things simple for me so that the editing process is pretty cut and dried, and a lot less stressful.

  21. Thanks for breaking the process down so simply, Audra. This is definitely a daunting process for me. I have trouble deciding where chapter breaks should go, then end up with some chapters way too long and some way too short! LOL.

    Always learning.

    Don't worry about me for the draw. I just got a truck load of chocolate for my birthday. Lucky the kids are helping me eat it! My hips will thank them!



  22. Melanie, if you do for edits what you do for book trailers...WooHoo!! You've got winners!

    Getting the story down is the hardest part; making it shine has it's moments, too.

    All depends on the mood : )

  23. Mornin' Kaki : )

    That whole "for every action there's a reaction" thing is a life saver for me.

    If there's anything I NEED to catch in edits, it's giving a reason for something to happen and then watching the outcome.

  24. I'm with you, Susan. I usually write one big, long story then decide where I need chapter breaks. Way too much stuff to handle all at once : )

  25. EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT advice, Audra! I've never heard commandment #1. And so helpful to me right now as I'm revising. Although I'm looking at the line by line edits because I need to know the page numbers before I go cutting out chunks, I'm also thinking of the big picture as I go.

    It's so hard to look at the big picture! Sometimes I wonder if the problem is my pea brain or if it's like that for everyone. :)

  26. I'll be checking in sporatically during the day. Work has given back social networking...I must use my priviledges sparingly!!!

  27. LOL, Missy!

    The big picture confuses my pea brain, too. I need small chunks to digest or I get overwhelmed!!

    Good luck on those edits...I'm still in the creating phase of my next book : )

  28. Audra,

    Thanks for sharing those commandments. They are a great reference tool to be sure we're really revising all areas of the manuscript.

    RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

  29. Audra, thanks for this excellent post! Big to small is a sensible way to handle self-editing. I love polishing the manuscript. For me making sure my POV characters have goals, motivations and conflict in each scene is most important but also the trickiest. Tightening sentences and tweaking word choice is my favorite aspect of editing, alas also the easiest. Notice I prefer what's easy? :-) But all are important.

    It's a long wait until we get to read Rocky Mountain Hero!!! But I'll ease the pain of waiting with the cheese danish. :-)


  30. Yay! I guessed it was Audra's "voice" before I actually read your name at the end! Spunky, fun, yet dead-on good advice.

    Dianna, I'm a lot like you--got nicknamed "The Grammar Queen" early on in a crit group. I sometimes have to shut off my detail-oriented brain in order to pay attention to the big picture--plotting, scene effectiveness, character arcs, etc.

    "Thou shalt never give in to self-indulgence." That "commandment" jumped out at me. A great reminder that writing a compelling story is more important than fancy turns of phrase or interesting rabbit trails that take the story nowhere.

    Great post, Audra!

    For lunch, I've brought some pita sandwiches stuffed with tuna, feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and chopped walnuts. Also a big pitcher of Constant Comment iced tea.

  31. Great post! Self-editing is not my strong point. I always miss those tiny annoying errors. *uggh*

    Maybe using the commandments will help me to sharpen my self-editing skills. Thanks!!! :)


  32. Sorry to be slow checking in today, Audra.

    RWR-Romance Writer's Report, the monthly publication of Romance Writer's of America included mention of a FIRST SALE BY AUDRA HARDERS!!!!!!!!!


  33. Thanks for the great thoughts!

    It's always a comfort to know that the first draft doesn't have to be perfect and to just keep writing. I often edit on the computer, but love the feel of paper and flipping through them when I edit. The cost of ink however is another story.

  34. Audra,

    Glad you liked the coffee! ;)

    It's so true--we need to have fun and let our imaginations roam! I need to work on being more open to criticism, because it is wise to listen to what others have to say and learn from them. :)

    It's interesting, because I enjoy editing--I just don't enjoy editing my own work so much! Like you said you used to write, I like to try to make everything right at the beginning so I won't have to go back. But I'm not perfect, and I need to remember that! ;) Sometimes others offer feedback that's so valuable that I would never think of!

    Thanks again for posting this!


  35. Have I mentioned I really like revisions?

    That's the wrong thing to say at this point isn't it???


  36. Hi Rose!

    My pleasure to help any way possible with revisions : )

  37. Janet, I'm all for easy : ) And what's easy for me highly depends on where my mood is at that moment, LOL!

    Polishing manuscripts makes me feel good all over : )

  38. I have a list of stuff I look for which includes all the stuff mentioned. I'm getting to a point where I don't have to look for each individual thing, but where I can read it and look for multiple things at once. That's a real feat for a multitask-challenged person like me. I tend to be be linear and sniper rifle-ish rather than shotgun-ish about tasks, including editing. I'm better at picking out one thing at a time rather than focusing on several things.

    But I do NOT edit AT ALL until the rough draft is complete and fairly polished. I edit very late in the game otherwise I get frazzled and frozen and forget where I'm going in the story.


  39. I so envy your grammar-eze, Myra. I have a problem shutting off the parts of my brain that tend to take over revision details I don't want to deal with at the moment : )

    Like when I've written myself in a canyon and need a way out, my brain makes me want to pick outfits for the heroine. Talk about denial, LOL!!

  40. Angela, I don't care how diligent I am in combing through the details, inveritably I'll print off the manuscript and right there, smack on page one, I'll see a spelling error, or realize I never fixed a sentence, or changed a name...

    You name it, I've forgotten it : )

  41. Even my critique partners and I wait until the book is complete before sending it to one another.

    Early on we would send chapters and a time and we eventually gravitated toward waiting until the book was complete.

    Especially if there's a space of time passage between when the person sent the last chapter to the next.

    Doing the entire book at once enables me to pick up on pacing, flow, timeline and continuity issues that tend to get missed when doing crits chapter by chapter as they get written.


  42. Mary!! You made my day!!

    I hope the RWR is in my mailbox when I get home : )

    They didn't misspell my name or anything, did they??

  43. Hi Eva,
    I love scribbling thoughts in the margins of my mss as I red line the living daylights out of it : ) But most time, it's just so much easier to view the process on the computer screen : )

    Oh Amber! I so prefer the term "feedback" to "criticism!!" I cringe when "critique group" is mentioned. Warm fuzzies, that's what I like : )

  44. Mary? You mean your creations don't come out perfect the first time around??

    You've burst my bubble.

  45. late as usual these days.

    Audra, thanks so much. I Read this last night and had nightmares, of red pencils and POV problems. LOL

    I don't exactly hate editing, I do enjoy it more than a toothache.

    Honestly, I try to go over the stories and am amazed at what I still miss. I suppose that's why a few more eyes on a story is better.

    As is setting the story aside and looking at in with clearer vision.

    I hear some people use a computer reader and then they can listen for the mistakes as the story is read aloud.

    Since I don't have the reader.

    I try to break the story down, haven't looked at the paragraph as a whole, I tend to go right to the sentences. I must admit over the years I've gotten better at editting, but better doesn't always mean much.

    And learning more, keeps me from adding some of the doofus mistakes I did before. That's the hope anyway.

  46. LOL, Cheryl! I definitely see you as sniper fire rather than shotgun blowout!!

    When I first started working with crit groups, we did 10 pages once a month. Talk about holding you back! I was so stuck on the feedback I'd receive at group, I'd stall out as soon as my 10 pages were written.

    Awful system.

    Only years later when my group pared down to 3 of us, did we wait until rough draft was complete before introducing our brain children.

    I'm with you, babe!

  47. Tina! No nightmares allowed!

    No toothaches, either : )

    Remember my disclaimer -- I'd like to eventually edit as well as an editor suggests, but I'm not there yet.

    Not even close.

    I still need trusted friends.

  48. I can self edit myself right out of a story. I have a bad habit of trying to edit as I go. I really need to break that habit as I'm not getting very far with my WIP.

    Many blessings to all!

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  49. Cheryl and Audra, I am totally with you about saving critiques until a draft or two (or three) is complete. Critiquing piecemeal is SO hard anymore.

    It seems to me that the farther along you progress as a writer, the more important the BIG picture becomes. You know you can clean up the little stuff in the final polishing, but if you have major plot or character or continuity problems, that's where the main thrust of revisions needs to start.

  50. Love the accompanying pictures! It also strikes me how very familiar this adages sound when compared to what I talk about as I tutor at my local community college. Good writing has some real similarities at all levels!

  51. Cindy, I'm with you. If I don't have a really good grasp of the goal and conflicts, I can edit myself right into a new book.

    I think it's important to realize what you're looking for when you turn her editing eye to your work. Are you looking for flow and continuity, or are you fishing for plot points to expand that have no business being anymore than ground fodder for your plot.

    Keep your message in mind.

    Follow it.

  52. Myra, I knew I was growing as a writer when the first time I didn't want to attend crit group, and it had nothing to do with Kathe and her purple pen.

    I wanted to move on with my story, not cope with the self doubt well meaning buds planted in my brain.

  53. You've got that right, Erin. What we write should follow the basic crafting techniques of authors and students alike.

    At least, that's what I tell my kids : )

  54. absolutely loved this posting :)

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  55. This is SO hitting home.
    I'm working on that fine hand-polish to get my WIP to the writing coach by Monday.

    But always have time for Seeker chocolate. :)

    may at maythek9spy dot com

    What I'm finding (after 3 yrs on this puppy... literal puppy!) is that each time I read through, I tend to read for something different.

    It's coming together but oh so slowly. But it's MUCH improved, in large part to Seekers! Thank you. Looking forward to lingering over commentary after deadline.

    And now, back to our story...

  56. And I love your new pic, Audra! Can't wait to see you again at the ACFW Conference!!!

  57. I'm currently revising a wrecked book. NaNovel, actually. I'm using a kind of a notebook system and it's working very well. Without this, I'd be polishing up the deckchairs on the Titanic and figuring I was doing good, useful work.

    Some people like revision, but I suspect those are the ones who write nearly-perfect first drafts.

    Thanks for the ideas and the post--and the coffee & danish!

  58. Texanne you made me pause. Are there really people who write perfect first drafts???? Tell me this is a fairy tale.

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  62. Deni Cary PhillipsJune 6, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    A really good reminder for me. I still get so caught up in my stories that I sometimes forget I'm editing and not just reading them -- and I'm sure I miss things in the process. The "little bit" method is a good one. Thanks for posting!