Self-Editing Techniques For Over-Writers
Updated: Jun 11
Getting That First Draft Down
Hoo boy! When I set about writing my first historical fiction novel, I did so with blissful naïveté. I wrote with such delightful abandon and ended up with a 156k word tome. I was thrilled to have finished writing a book—a huge accomplishment for any writer!
Some folks edit along the way—I didn't. But what is essential to any manuscript is to get it finished!
I received valuable input from my multitude of beta readers along the way, which helped flesh out my plot and characters.
Discovering I Was An Over-writer
I decided to dip a toe in the market and invest in a professional manuscript appraisal for some hard-hitting critique and to get a sense of the viability of my manuscript as a sellable commodity in today’s market.
I used Haylee Nash from The Nash Agency. This was the best investment I ever made in myself!
Haylee gave me wonderful praise and encouragement for the bits I’d got right; but also, some brilliant critique for what didn’t work or what needed re-writing (including the reasons why).
One of the most valuable factors she pointed out to me was that I’m an over-writer: over-exposition in internal dialogue/thought, extraneous or over-the-top emotion, excessive detail, and repetition. Haylee’s assurance that this is a common characteristic of many writers made me feel alright about this. In fact, it got me thinking and I realised I was not just an over-writer but a CHRONIC over-writer! It was a wonderful revelation!
Being an over-writer meant I had abundant material to work with – scenes to shorten or delete, repetition to remove, detail to fine tune into ‘showing rather than telling’, and dialogue to sharpen.
I addressed every single piece of critique in Haylee’s manuscript appraisal (ticking it off along the way). Imagine my dismay afterwards to realise that the re-write to fix plot and character holes and improve my ending had blown my manuscript out to 182k words! And here I was, supposed to be reducing my word count, not increasing it!
So, I also set myself a new word target of 140k—I had to kill 42k of my darlings! My motivation was driven by the fact that I wanted to send my manuscript to a professional editor and the longer the manuscript the higher the editing bill! I stared miserably at this number for a long while and had a moment of self-doubt that it was not going to be possible. Then I decided to do what I always do when facing a large task—break it down into lists.
My 5 Self-editing Techniques
1. Cull Redundant Words
First, I searched for redundant words that I could cull from my manuscript without altering the meaning of my sentences. I was staggered to discover how many were out there, and how many of them I used, but I was also secretly thrilled that I would be able to bring down my word count significantly without losing any characters or plots.
I found these resources invaluable:
Redundancies 101: 400+ Redundant Words to Avoid in Writing by Kathy Steinemann
Common Redundancies in the English Language by Richard Nordquist
50 Redundant Phrases to Avoid by Mark Nichol
43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately by Diana Urban
2. Use Strong Verbs
Next, I searched strong verbs to replace my adverb + verb combos – when culling a word count, every opportunity to use only one word instead of two matters! Plus, using strong verbs dramatically improved the punch of my sentences and dialogue too. Again, Kathy Steinemann came in tops in my books with: 6 Ways to Reduce “-ly” Adverb Abuse: A Word List for Writers.
I printed out these lists of words and phrases, and searched for each one in my manuscript. This prompted me to focus on one sentence at a time and tighten up long flowing waffle. It was arduous, frustrating and sometimes boring (if I’m being honest)—partly because I had such a huge volume of words to work through but also revising plain old grammar is not half as exciting as storytelling.
I discovered that self-care during the editing phase was more important to me than during the writing phase.
3. Change Passive Voice to Active Voice
Then, I focused on changing passive voice to active voice wherever active was better and stronger (active voice uses far fewer words in a sentence). I found I wrote a lot in passive voice to emulate the longer, more poetic and flowery language of yesteryear. I did not want to lose the sense of this but I had to find a balance to present my historic world in a language more suited to modern day readers. This did not mean I eliminated all passive voice but it made me take a deeper look at when it was absolutely necessary.
The systematic approach I took to editing was not nearly as fun as the creative writing side of things.
4. Show not tell
The great thing about having such detailed description was it was easier for me to visualise how to turn the description from plain old telling into showing and visualising, using my character’s emotions to guide the description. Learning how to show and not tell comes with practice (lots and lots of practice). I know I’m still far from skilled in this area but I found that focussing on one section at a time and honing it carefully was the way to manage it. Once I’d done lots of little sections, they all eventually contributed to the enrichment of my overall storytelling.
Plus, I could not have done it without my library of thesaurus collections by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, which have been invaluable to me learning my craft. Angela also guest blogged this fantastic article: Show, Don't Tell: It's Not Just About Emotion.
I also discovered this little gem: Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: (And Really Getting It) by Janice Hardy.
Here’s an example of my own before and after practice:
Before: Telling with chronic over-writing
They swept up the winding, tree-lined driveway, the carriage wheels crunching on the gravel, and Grace thought how pretty it would have been if it was not for the fact that the owner of this property was the Old Silver Fox. They pulled up to a fan-shaped set of pale-yellow sandstone stairs that lead up to the front entrance of the house. The lawns were immaculately kept and there were large hedges cut into the shapes of animals. Grace could recognise one of the hedges as a swan but there was another hedge that could have been the reclining form of a Highland cow with its wide curved horns or a crouching rabbit with ears that stuck out oddly.
On the top floor of the double story manor, there were three white rectangular windows balanced on either side by two recessed rectangular windows. On the ground floor, the pale brown oak front door was textured with a straight grain and it had an arch of clear glass above it. To the sides of the main door stood matching French doors that were arched with the same clear glass. The curve of two bay windows on either side of the French doors solidified the rigid uniformity of the pale-lemony yellow mansion. The cladded fascia under the lip of the roof, in which there was a small round window of the servant’s attic, was painted in a soft blue.
Not a bad looking property, Grace thought again, if it were not for hiding the sinister owner who was no doubt lurking around somewhere inside this colossal mansion.
After: Showing through character emotion
The hair on Grace’s arms rose as they swept up the winding, tree-lined driveway, the carriage wheels crunching on the gravel reminding her of some hunched creature champing on dried bones. The front of the mansion shone a sickly yellow. The colour of a bilious sailor before he vomits. Despite immaculate lawns and large topiarised hedge animals, Grace was unimpressed and she swallowed her panic thickly.
Grace’s courage juddered to a halt as she peered up at the looming three-storey mansion, rigid with the uniformity of its matching rectangular windows and French doors. A premonitory shiver pricked the back of her neck as a large shadow fluttered across one of the French doors on the lower floor.
I’m not proclaiming the ‘after’ bit is perfect but it feels and sounds a heck of a lot more wholesome to me than the waffly ‘before’ bit, so that’s a step in the right direction.
5. Read Aloud
After six weeks of intense editing following the professional critique and using the above resources and strategies, I eventually tipped below my 140k word goal. I had not believed it possible, but I had done it!
However, I was spent – exhausted and sick of reading my own words. But I knew I needed to do one final read through before sending my manuscript back to my beta readers.
So, I used my computer’s text-to-voice function – I chose a British-accented man to read me my story because my characters are British. Hearing the words, as opposed to reading them, put a whole new slant on my story and I won’t deny it was a little thrilling to hear it read out like an audiobook!
It was easier to pick up errors when hearing them spoken aloud. It also pointed out where I’d missed the natural rhythms of speech.
Some people prefer reading their work aloud, for the same purpose, because the computer dictation is a little monotone. Whatever works for you is a great system!
Beta Reader Feedback
Finally, came the true test of whether I had completely torn the guts out of my work and lost the essence of it (which is what it felt like I was doing some days as I watched my word count diminish) – I gave it back to my beta readers who had read the extended earlier version.
Their feedback was phenomenal! They were utterly blown away by the newer, sharper, tighter version and they all felt my manuscript was much better off for its revision and re-write. They said they had truly enjoyed it before but they loved it even more afterwards. They were also super honest about bits that I'd honed down a bit too much (as I had feared) and asked for certain aspects to be reinstated. Constructive feedback - music to this writer’s ears!
Here’s a blog I wrote about Finding and Using Beta Readers and how to get the best critique from them.
Use A System That Works For You
I find self-editing one of the most challenging tasks as a writer. I am useless at reading the manuscript as a whole and trying to tighten it that way; I’m far too emotionally invested in the characters and plot to make any decent changes.
I cannot say I enjoy the process but I know it is a necessary stage of my craft and that is the motivation that keeps me editing. The trick is to find a system you can work with.
When I take the emotion out of editing and use a tick-a-box system to tackle the sentences independently of the story line, then self-editing becomes possible.
Using Professionals to Hone Your Craft
I am a huge proponent of tapping into the professionals to master my craft, be it through attending writing courses, festivals or retreats, to investing in writing resources, manuscript appraisals or professional editors.
I learned more about myself and about my style of writing from my manuscript appraisal than I ever could have imagined! Having my strengths and weaknesses pointed out to me by an industry professional was uplifting and invigorating, and re-ignited my motivation to get stuck back into my manuscript and make it better than ever.
Some writers invest in writing courses; I like the honest critique of my own work for learning how to improve my skills.