Handing your story over to someone for editing is nerve-racking, to say the least. You’ve worked on this for a long time, pouring your heart into it, and you’ve got darlings. You may be afraid those darlings will be killed, or that your story will be changed to someone else’s taste, or that you can’t trust the editor to know what’s good. Being edited by someone else requires skills and traits you have to develop—but those are for another post.

First, you should self-edit. This doesn’t mean you’re doing the editor’s job for her; she’s just going to repeat this process with fresh eyes and an objective point of view. You want to self-edit so that when your story goes to someone else to look at, it already tells the tale you want to tell, how you want to tell it—at least, to the best of your ability.

So how do you self-edit? Once your draft is finished, how do you approach your own story and see what needs to be done when you’re so close to it?

You may feel several things, such as:

  • Know what? It’s fine as it is.
  • OMG, I have NO idea if it’s good or not. I don’t even know where to begin.
  • I have no idea how to fix this!
  • I’m so effing sick of this story. I can’t even stand to look at it.
  • Ugh, I hate this. The writing sucks.
  • How do I know when it’s finished?

If you feel any of these, step back. You may want to step back anyway, even if when you look at your story you ready to get to work. This is the first step to self-editing.

You need distance from your story first, so you can approach it with a fresh mind and heart. I do this when I’m copy editing, too. If I see something that needs fixing but I can’t figure out how to fix it, I go for a walk or make lunch or even watch TV. When I go back to the work, the solution usually comes to me immediately.

Go out in nature, spend some time in a quiet room meditating, have a bath, sit and stare out the window. Allow yourself about an hour (though you can step away for a day or more, too). Just get calm and still and open. Then you can sit with your story again.  Make tea, light a candle. Feel prepared and receptive. Invite in your intuition and creativity. Invite your characters. These are the ideas that have been presented to me by others. And they work.

When I approach a draft, I first ask: What is this about? What do I want it to be about?

Then: Whose story is it?

When I have these answers, I read the story with them in mind. I can check for focus and to verify that the story is indeed about what I want or think. I also check that the point of view is is consistent with whose story I’m telling. This can take some time, especially if you find that you meant to tell one person’s story but another character has taken the limelight.

Next, I examine the mechanics of the story. Here are a few things to look for in this regard:

1. Tense issues and most effective tense for the story: When does your story take place? Is it in the present, past, or even future tense? Is your story in the present tense with flashbacks? If so, do the tense switches happen appropriately? If your story is in the past tense, how would it sound in the present? And vice versa?

2. Perspective problems: Is your story told in the first, second, or third person? Whichever you choose (and experiment with this, because, like tense, it can make all the difference), make sure the perspective is consistent throughout. It can start to get a little tricky when you’re doing third person, because there are actually several third-person perspectives—for example, do we know only what your protagonist is thinking? Or do we know what all the characters are thinking? I’ll be writing about perspectives in another post.

3. Dialogue tags: Scan your draft for anywhere you didn’t use “said” when you’re indicating who’s spoken in dialogue sequences. Examples of dialogue tags can be found here. Make sure you didn’t use any non-speech verbs, for example, “I don’t think so,” she sighed; “Not likely,” he laughed. Other examples are “hissed,” “growled,” “nodded,” and “groaned.” In these instances, your character is saying something: she can’t chuckle or sigh those words. However, you can write: “he said, chuckling”; “‘I don’t think so,’ she said, and sighed.” You can also change the punctuation so that the sentence reads, “I don’t think so.” She sighed.

Using dialogue tags other than “said” can clutter your writing with too many unnecessarily descriptive words. The point of dialogue tags is simply to indicate who’s speaking and when. And if you do use something other than “said” as well as add an adverb, make sure it’s not repetitive—for example, “he shouted loudly.” There’s really no other way to shout, so “loudly” is redundant. Beware that too many adverbial tags can also call the readers’ attention to the writing and thus pull them out of the story.

In a nutshell, let the dialogue do the talking.

4. Scan your story for filtering: This is actually one of the most valuable lessons I learned while being edited. Filtering is when you don’t allow your reader to experience things through another character; instead, your writing brings the readers’ attention to the character rather than the event. So, for example: “Caleb heard the girl speaking to another man” instead of “the girl spoke to another man”; “Debbie saw Scott coming toward her” instead of “Scott came toward her.” If we’re reading the story from Caleb’s or Debbie’s perspective, we already know they’re hearing or seeing what’s happening in front of them. What we want is to be able to enter a scene directly. One way to do this is to forgo using the words “recall” or “remember”—that is, “Duke remembers…” Instead, you can launch into the scene using the past tense.

Have a look at this example:

Sherry felt her heart pounding in her chest. She saw John disappear around the corner of the building, the back of his blazer lifting as he sped. She wondered if this was his first time down here, or whether he’d been coming here the whole time since they’d married. She knew he’d been acting strange with her mother; saw that he’d been angry with her when she’d interrupted him on the phone. She decided not to follow him.

Now read this version, where the filtering is removed:

Sherry’s heart pounded. Ahead of her, John disappeared around the corner of the building, the back of his blazer lifting as he sped. Was this his first time down here, or had he been coming here the whole time since they’d married? He’d been acting strange around her mother, and had scowled at her when she’d interrupted him on the phone. She turned from the alleyway and stepped off the sidewalk to her car.

See the difference? The second is more immediate, and draws your attention to what’s been happening rather than to Shelley herself.

At first, this may be somewhat difficult to ferret out in your writing, so you can read more about it here.

self-editing by Steph VanderMeulen5. Examine the order of your story: For me, this is the hardest part of self-editing. I’m at this stage with a draft now, and frankly, it’s stressing me out. When it comes to my own writing, I can hardly see the forest for the trees. The big picture escapes me. Story arcs elude me. So when it comes time to make sure the story is told in the most effective order (that is, not necessarily chronologically or the way I wrote it), I really struggle.

There are several ways to order your story—for example, chronologically, or following a character (if you have two characters, maybe you follow one up to just before meeting the other, then switch to the other and start from the beginning up to when they meet), or with point of view (the reader discovers what happens to a character when the character does, even if the events happened before).

The only exercise I find effective for ordering a story is to physically cut it up into scenes, spread the pieces on the floor, and then start piecing them together. I sometimes have to start from the end. Or the middle. I just start taping pieces together that seem to naturally flow. Because you’re taping them, you can always untape and retape. This is playing, experimenting. You don’t have to get it right the first time.

Ask yourself two questions: 1) What order will avoid confusion for the reader and, even, satisfy them? 2) What sequence is logical and avoids awkward transitions?

You may find that when you’re ordering your story, things don’t fit well no matter how hard you try. This may mean you still have bits to write or that some scenes aren’t really serving the story and have to go.

Finish! You’ve come this far already

Aside from the basics, like spell checking, self-editing helps you get intimate with your story and its elements. Questions will arise that will require you to make both major and minor decisions, or get to know your characters better, or polish your dialogue, or tighten your text by making sure the story is focused rather than meandering.

This process will challenge you. Likely, you’ll question the quality of your writing and your story. You’ll find it difficult to make decisions because you’ll be anxious about getting things right. You’ll feel shitty about having to cut stuff out and too impatient to have to write new material.

In times like these, remind yourself of your goal, which is to have, in the end, a solid, well-written story. Keep going. Your story is worth the effort, and you are worth the effort. The most important of all is that you finish.

Lastly, although this is about self-editing, you don’t have to do it alone. I don’t! It’s very difficult to know when you’re done, to trust your intuition and decide it’s good enough. So engage your writing group, or published friends you trust. Or get a short story critique: as an editor, I can guide you as you work to make your story the best it can be.