Self-Editing; How to Know What Needs Rewriting


Get the most out of yourself before you send it out to friends/family/editors/publishers by self-editing as much as you can.

Writing is rewriting.

When you’re writing, you’re all over the place in creativity and flow. When you’re rewriting, you are tidying up, restoring the order so your writing stays on track.

Polishing: Smoothing the reading. For example: changing words or phrases

Rewriting: reworking elements of the story to make it more immediate and dramatic. For example: adding or cutting characters. Adding or cutting scenes.

Self-editing starts with cutting

You start with cutting.  You’re focusing the lens to create a sharper image. You’re discovering where the gaps are and what’s needed to fill them. This is brutal. Think stabbing a person to death – brutal. Cutting forces you to decide what truly belongs and what doesn’t. Often times, this is done by feeling. The better you master the craft of writing, the better you can reason why something does or doesn’t belong.Go over every word, every line, every paragraph, every scene, every chapter and consider how the story would be without it. Take it out, put it aside. Did you story get weaker or stronger? Does it need more cutting? Cut until you end up with a piece that works for you. Now the material you relate to the most, will stand out from the rest. “Check out this article about “self-editing, knowing what to cut“.

Rewriting: drafts

Write a new draft for a chapter, or a scene or even just one paragraph as often as needed. Don’t be concerned with how many drafts you already wrote or still need to write to get it right. Do not rewrite the full story the same amount of drafts every time. Some parts may be written in 40 drafts. Some may only need ten. It doesn’t matter. Keeping score is useless. It takes however much it takes.

How can you tell if it needs rewriting?

Leave the piece in a cupboard somewhere for several weeks or however long it takes to forget the specifics and details. Keep working on the story during this period, just not that particular part of it. Never stop working on the book completely. You risk losing your edge and getting blocked if you do.

It needs rewriting but I’m not sure which part is the problem.

Go back to the basics: desire/need, obstacle, action. Check these elements before anything else.

1st Who wants what? If nobody desperately wants anything, there’s your problem.

Ignore everything you know about the story and focus only on what’s actually on the page. If it’s not on the pages, it doesn’t exist. Find the desires and mark where it first pops up. Then ask yourself. Does it appear as soon as possible? Is it strong enough? Could it be stronger? Is the character properly motivated by it, to be determined? Does the character feel like he has to satisfy the need and can’t live without it? Why is this need so important to him? What are his specific personal reasons?

2nd What’s the obstacle?

Find it and mark it. Does it appear as early as possible? Is it equally as strong as the desire? Is it as determined the block the character as he is to overcome it? Does the character suffer if he’d chose to ignore the obstacle?

3rd What’s the character doing to overcome the obstacle?

Find it and mark it. Is it an all-out attack or defence? Could is happen earlier? Is it all he could do? Does he have alternative options, that aren’t explored on the page?

4th Is emotion, the active ingredient, missing?

What the character worries about, what he fears and what he hopes for. These primary emotions should appear on every page, often several times per page. They should be expressed through action as well as inner thoughts. Remember, the character should always feel something. If he doesn’t feel anything, then the reader doesn’t feel anything. Are you showing the emotions and experiences or telling them?

5th Does the tension rise as the story progresses?

Every scene is a mini story. It presents a scene problem and a scene resolution that are tied into the overall plot. But at the end of every scene, the protagonist should be worse off than he was at the start. The plot thickens. Things get more complicated, until the final resolution occurs: victory or defeat.

When to stop rewriting

Stop writing new drafts when the most recent draft isn’t truly any better or stronger than the one before it. Write the story the best you can at the time, within reason. Continue working on other stories. You can always come back after a few years and rewrite it again when you’ve gained significant amount of skill.

Tips on rewriting

  1. Don’t attempt to rewrite when you’re tired
  2. Don’t attempt to rewrite when you’re in a bad mood
  3. Put your work away for a lengthy stretch of time before rewriting to give yourself a fresh eye.
  4. Never submit a first draft: writing is rewriting. Not even celebrated authors are perfect on their first go.
  5. Read your writing out loud.

Carroll, D. L. (1995) A manual of writer’s tricks.
Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings.