First, a definition. By self-editing, I don’t mean grammar, spelling, and basic English skills (which every writer should have and develop). I mean the ability to step back from your work and see it as a reader.
Self-editing is a necessary skill in a writer’s arsenal. Without it mistakes are repeated, and the writing never grows. It’s like a child who never stops throwing temper tantrums. At some point it shows a lack of self-control and maturity. Weak self-editing can also discourage beta readers, turn off possible publishers, and force a writer to pay more for editing.
Asking trusted friends to read a rough draft and a polished work is vital. They can provide the writer insight when they’re blind and bored, having read the work over and over and over.
The Alpha readers should point out glaring plot, character, or writing issues. They’re here to help the writer self-edit with fresh eyes at an early stage. They will skip over many of the grammar and writing issues. They’re here to taste the story.
Beta readers do catch minor grammar errors (I mean minor) because there should be very few of them by this stage. The goal for Beta readers isn’t editing. The goal for Beta readers is to read. Their job is to give a reader’s feedback, so the writer can gage the reader’s reaction. They should be dealing with as polished a work as possible by this stage.
If, instead, Beta readers find themselves giving major re-writing suggestions, sentence by sentence edits, issues of telling and not showing, POV problems, sentence and paragraph restructuring, and stage directing corrections, the writer needs to brush up on their self-editing. As discouraging as it is, if Beta readers are doing this work, they’re not Beta reading. They’re editing a work for the writer and the work isn’t ready for Beta readers.
- Write the rough draft. Pour your heart out and bleed onto the page.
- Read through and clean up. This is a good place to do the first round of edits and to self-check plot, characters, and voice. (Sentence by sentence corrections, grammar, showing and not telling, POV issues, sentence and paragraph restructuring, and stage directing.)
- Hand off to Alpha readers. Their job is not to correct the grammar side. Their job is to help you gage the amount of editing needed next and to cheer you on. You may need some major re-writes at this point. Or you may need to start polishing.
- Re-write as needed based on Alpha critiques and self-editing.
- Submit your story to a more in-depth critique. Use a trusted friend armed with a red pen or something like Scribophile to give you a feel for how you’re doing.
- Set your work aside. The amount of time you spend away from your book is up to you. Step away and work on a new project. (I’d say six months to a year.)
- Return to your work with fresh eyes and try to read it like a reader. Look for things you can cut out, writing that makes you cringe, and characters that seem flat. Use your red pen!
- Send as highly polished a story as you can off to your Beta Readers!
- Keep working on your other project.
- Fix your writing based on suggestions and start down the road to professional editing for self-publishing, or submit to a publisher.
Obviously, this isn’t a strait jacket. Some writers write clean rough drafts skipping much of the polishing. Some are so good at self-editing, their work can go from rough draft, to polish, to Beta Readers, to published. Others of us circle the drain of polishing, and hand our story off to readers so many times we need more terms than Alpha and Beta. Every writer has to find what works for them.
The important thing is for the writer to step back and imagine they’re a reader picking this book up for the first time. Good self-editors allow themselves to see the holes, the characters no one likes, the weak villains, and the bad writing. Writers must read their story like someone who hates it, and someone new to the genre. They must put the imagination that wrote the story in the first place to work pretending to be a reader.
Get busy with that red pen.
Accepting critiques, and critiquing those critiques for value, is another sticky, but important skill. There are dangerous pits a writer can fall into when being critiqued.
On one hand sits the Pit of Pride. Every critique is immediately disregard. The writer labels the critiquer as an idiot who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. More time is spent mocking the critique than listening. No humility is applied to the story or writing style. Instead, the greatest writer ever, who has nothing to learn, pouts in a corner. They’re like one of those moms whose child is brilliant in every way and everyone needs to know, but when you meet the child they’re picking their own nose and eating their boogers.
The other pit is Overly Open Mindedness. Every critique the writer gets is God’s truth. They immediately make all the suggested changes. If someone tells the writer to change a name to make the critiquer happy, they do it. If someone says they don’t like something, this writer hurries to take their advice. Soon you have a story written by committee that looks nothing like what the writer originally wanted to say.
How does the writer avoid these two pits? Humility and confidence are important. A writer should humbly acknowledge they need critiques, even the harsh ones. A writer should confidently stand by their story. This confidence is easier to have when the writer knows what their story is trying to say.
Human beings want stories. Don’t tell us what an undeserved rescue is, show us. We want to see how an undeserved rescue affects people. Don’t tell us children left on their own resort to horrible behavior. Write Lord of the Flies. Don’t tell us England needs a better mythology. Write Lord of the Rings. The stories stick with us longer. The stories have layers so that they become so much more than what they’re trying to say.
So, to accurately judge critiques, the writer needs to know what they’re trying to say. If they don’t know what they’re trying to say, how can they judge the veracity of a critique? Not only that, if the writer doesn’t know what they’re trying to say, they’re in danger of saying something false. It’s like having a worldview. Everyone has a worldview. Everyone. But, if you don’t think about your worldview and your presuppositions, you’re in danger of believing something untrue and possibly dangers. If a writer just writes what pours out of their heart with no thought given to what they’re ultimately trying to show in the story, they might write something false.
If they do, their story won’t ring true with people. They’ll disregard it, laugh at it, and never suggest it to friends. But, if there is truth there, then that truth shines out and resonates with people even if they don’t agree. It also pours out into different layers of the book.
So, there are two very important tools writers need to develop to write well: self-editing and critiquing critiques.
Self-editing allows the writer to write more polished first rough drafts and to present writing to Beta readers which they can read and not have to edit.
Critiquing critiques is vital to keeping your way in the story, but a writer can’t do that unless they know what they’re trying to say.
Like a baker, mechanic, soldier, or any other profession, the writer must practice, practice, practice. Get help. Read, read, read. The writer must talk with their readers. They must learn to see what they’re doing wrong so that they can stop writing only first rough drafts and can move on to a polished, readable, valuable book.