I picked up Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by editors Renni Browne and Dave King because several of my editing colleagues recommended it as a solid resource for authors. There are many books on how to write and comparatively few on how to edit your own writing. Yet this is such a critical task for writers if they want to submit a solid manuscript for further editing or publishing. I was really looking forward to reading through this book, and I’m glad to say it was a winner.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is focused on the details of stylistic editing. The authors assume that you have already dealt with the larger structural concerns of plot, character arc, and theme. The book covers a broad range of topics relating to the mechanics of editing: showing vs. telling, characterization and exposition, point of view, proportion, dialogue, interior monologue, sound and voice, repetition, and scene beats and breaks.
What I Liked
I mentioned that a lot of topics were covered in this book. Each of them are discussed in a great amount of depth without becoming overwhelming. The authors cover several angles and explain why certain situations require different treatment from others.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter, “Show and Tell,” which brings new life to the old chestnut that you should be showing something to the readers rather than telling them about it. All writers receive this advice at some point, but Browne and King bring a balanced perspective to the discussion, clearly illustrating when to use show and when to use tell.
To write exposition at length — describing your characters’ pasts or events that happened before the story began or any information your readers might need to understand your plot — is to engage your readers’ intellects. What you want to do is engage their emotions. (p. 10)
The writing style is clear and engaging, and avoids the lecturing style that sometimes happens with “how to” books. Editors have a somewhat unfair reputation as nitpicking sticklers, and I’m happy to say there is no sign of that here — instead, the authors are positive and supportive as they outline the issues that writers often struggle with and potential solutions.
Plenty of examples are used in each chapter to illustrate the points, and at the end of each chapter there are useful checklists as well as practice exercises.
What Could Be Better
This book is so well-written that it was difficult to find any issues with it. However, as we writers know, there’s always something that can be improved!
Most of the examples in the book are bracketed with detailed explanations of what the examples are illustrating. Once in a while, though, an example is thrown out where the authors assume that the reader will identify what is right or wrong with the passage without help. One place that stood out for me was in the chapter on “Voice,” where the authors provide an example of five different character monologues from the same book and say, “Every voice is distinct.” How they are distinct is never explained, and I feel this weakens the helpfulness of this example.
My only other wish is that the book contained even more practical exercises. There are usually about three per chapter, and having more (and shorter) exercises would make this resource even more valuable.
Favourite Learning Moment
My favourite part of this book is not a particular moment but an overall thread that gets woven throughout the narrative. There is a lot of focus in the book on how to bring out characters and their emotions. The authors discuss several areas where these can be displayed, such as through dialogue, interior monologue, and exposition from the character’s point of view. They also talk about how character development can be combined with the advancement of plot, the establishment of setting, and the revelation of key information.
If each element of your story accomplishes one thing and one thing only, then your story will subtly, almost subliminally, feel artificial. When everything seems to be happening at once, then it will feel like real life. (p. 183)
This is the best book I have ever read on how to edit your own writing. Pick it up, read it, and read it again. You won’t regret it.
If you are interested in reading about other writing resources, you may want to take a look at my Resources page. And if you’re looking for more tips on self-editing, I have recently written a post on why you should try a style sheet when editing your work.
What do you find is the most challenging aspect of self-editing? Which resources have helped you with this difficult task?
© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015