Three great books on self-editing

(A.K.A. more writing-book porn!)

Since I started serious writing practice and got down to the business of trying to turn my idea into a publishable work, self-editing has been an obsession of mine.  I started out with a good grounding (2 degrees in English), but soon learned that there is always room for improvement.  Always and forever.

When the publishing boom of the 80s and early 90s changed directions, agents and editors state one principle requirement: write a damn good book, and write it well.

Here are, in no particular order, three books that have helped me immensely.  Just ask my Author Salon critique group, I am the queen of nitery-pickery (I’m not sure why I choose to write it like that, but I suspect it might have to do with the character of Rockery Hud-Peck from The Fintstonesthat’s just how my brain rolls).

1. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel by James Scott Bell (The Write Great Fictions Series, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2008).

Bell divides his book between self-editing and revision, which he states are two separate processes.  They are 🙂

In his introduction, he references Browne and King’s Self-editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print, another of my selections (see below), as well as a slew of writing gurus ranging from Brenda Ueland to Natalie Goldberg and Ray Bradbury.

Bell begins each section by presenting his philosophy of the task, then proceeds through self-editing with various chapters on each aspect of the work (character, plot, POV, etc.), asking probing questions along the way to get the writer deeper into their novel, and offering exercises to assist with the understanding of the element at hand as well as its relevance in self-editing.

When he gets to revision, it’s more about process than elements and analysis, but Bell is equally insightful in his discussion.

Bell is a skilled author and editor.  He writes from his experience in self-editing.  This perspective is what sets my first pick apart from the others.

2. The artful edit: On the practice of editing yourself by Susan Bell (Norton, New York, 2007).

Susan Bell is a veteran editor and author, but her authority and perspective derive from the former role.

She breaks the self-editing task into Macro and Micro phases, again, providing examples, checklists, and exercises to deepen understanding. Then Bell offers what she calls her Master Class, provided in the form of experts in different creative fields (photographer, film, etc.) and what each can teach writers about how to make their story come alive.

Finally, she provides an overview of the evolution of editing, fascinating in itself.

Bell applies investigative zeal to her book, and it offers unique insight into the world or authors and editors, their relationships, where one begins and the other ends, and what the writer can do to become both.

3. Self-editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King (Second Edition, William Morrow, New York, 2004).

First published in 1994 by HarperCollins, Self-editing for Fiction Writers is seen by many as one of the definitive works on the subject.

As with the James Scott Bell’s book, Browne and King’s breaks the task of self editing into its elements (characterization, dialogue, voice, etc.) devoting a chapter to each with examples and exercises.

One thing that I appreciate is the first chapter: Show and Tell (emphasis mine).  The point is made, and I fully agree, that while the writer should endeavour to show, that there are some places in your novel where telling is not only appropriate, but necessary.  It is the skilled writer who knows the difference and knows what technique should go where.

I also enjoyed the collaborative tone of the book.  When the authority is identified by “we” and not “I,” something rhetorical and clever happens: readers begin to feel that they are a part of the illustrious editorial team that wrote this book.

It’s an inclusive way of writing that empowers reading-writers to believe in their ability to self-edit.  The doors of the country club have opened, my friends, and we have all been invited in for drinks 🙂

The Wordsmith Studio Goodreads group is currently reading this book and it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to get reacquainted with some old friends.

I recommend all three books highly (not to show favouritism or anything).

Do you have any books on self-editing that you would recommend?  Share their titles and maybe a few choice words of review in the comments so everyone can benefit from your experience 🙂

Writerly Goodness is calling it a night.

Will the third draft be the charm?


I finished the second draft in September 2009 and devoted some time to writing other things.  I entered a few contests, but was unsuccessful.  In December, I printed everything out and began to reread, make notes, and chart things out as before.  I invested in a bulletin board, pinned all my bits of paper to it this time and had a really good look at the structure.  The puzzle still wasn’t together in the right way.

More changes.

Without the prologue and the framing pieces, nearly 100 pages disappeared from the manuscript.  Third time through, I cut mercilessly, and though I also wrote considerably to add to the novel, the net reduction was over 300 pages.  I was now below the 1000 page mark, an accomplishment in itself.

Finished in October of 2010, I was feeling fairly good about this draft.  Once again, I turned my attention toward writing other things and once again submitted a few short stories. Unsuccessfully.

I decided that I would attend the 2011 CAA CanWrite! conference and booked a 20 page manuscript evaluation.  Though the conference wasn’t until May, I started reading and making notes all over again.  This time, I played with POV.

I had the first two chapters revised by the time the conference came around.

What I learned:

  • If the changes that occur as you revise are substantial, then you still have work to do.
  • The value of a bulletin board for structural rework is immense.
  • Always have backups of the work.
  • Prologues and framing pieces are about telling.  Consider carefully.

Books on editing that have been helpful: