The skittering lilt: Beginning to self-edit


I was invited recently to speak along with some other writers to a beginning creative writing class taught by an old workshop friend.

This class was filled with writers who’d completed their first project this last November during NaNoWriMo, as part of their semester work.

The MO of this class is encouragement and mutual cheering as it’s for beginning writers. Many had repeated the class a couple times, as the teacher is popular, warm, and encouraging. They do some critiquing in class, but the focus is writing rather than editing. A couple of them had piled up two or three NaNo projects, and were unsure how to go about prepping them for the next step.

I had a feeling I’d written about this before (and sure enough, I found it here, exactly a year ago) but thought I might as well write up this particular experience as well.

One writer who has taken the class three times, admitted having last December, flushed with triumph, taken her first completed novel, paid for a fine cover and self-published, sure that readers would love the story as much as its author. This writer had been excited by the fact that publishing is easier than ever before!

Well, a year later, the not-so-thrilled writer said that she’s taken the novel down again after four sales (she thinks she knows at least three of the buyers), a couple hundred freebie giveaways that apparently dropped into a void, and one (negative) review.  She felt she needed to rewrite it before releasing it again. But how to start?

The others talked about approaching the next step, learning to edit, but short of taking a different class, how does a beginner begin? We discussed writing books–I recommended Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, my go-to for people first dipping a toe into self-editing, or even experienced writers who might want a refresher.

After some debate about the utility of beta readers (one person had found betas, who had all disagreed on pretty much every point, and were all beginners, too) another, one of those with several projects, had had no luck finding a beta outside the class who didn’t stall out in the first chapter. This she discovered after months and months of waiting, and being put off with “I’ll get to you soon!” and then finally, the truth came out.

“This is great practice for the interminable wait for agents and editors!” said another of the writers, obviously trying to put a positive spin, but which seemed to depress everybody.

Then we got around to What Do You Do.

My friend the teacher suggested that the writers who had publishing experience offer the first thing they looked for when self editing—which most answered with “Get a trusty beta,” “Get another pro to critique,” “Get fresh eyes, preferably not a buddy,” which not unsurprisingly the class pretty much found a Catch-22, then we went around the circle, each writer offering triage suggestions on their own first drafts before sending them out to betas, agents, or whoever.

The first one cracked up the entire room by saying, “The first thing I do before I even begin reading is delete the word literally from the entire manuscript, and already it will be a vast improvement.”

That caused an outbreak of clapping.

To that I would add, when one is constantly finding the word ‘literally’ in one’s work—especially when it’s being used figuratively!—that that is probably a signal that you instinctively know your verbs are weak, and in need of constant bolstering. So for every sentence that contains the word “Literally,” delete the word and then do the work to find the right verb to strengthen the sentence.

The next couple of people’s suggestions were a bit more idiosyncratic: “Throw out the first three chapters of any first draft,” —great advice sometimes, but by no means universal, especially for writers who actually begin the story too late, and end up shoe-horning a ton of flashback into the front in order to orient the bewildered reader—and, “Make sure your ending closes the story suggested by the beginning.”

Um, okay? I don’t remember now what the writer said that meant, but I do recollect the writer talking rather a long time in explication.

The next few were more succinct: “Watch for mixed images (“The lilt in her voice skittered”—a visual reader is going to stop cold and try to figure out how a lilt can skitter), watch for clichés—especially using two for emphasis (“She thought about the rattling skeletons in her closet and the ancient bones of her past that stirred” two clichés for the price of one, and both saying the same thing, which has a numbing effect) —go through and read aloud your sentences. “If the rhythm starts repeating, you’ve probably got way too many semi-colons.”

To which the next writer added, “And make sure you use semi-solons correctly, if you have to use them at all.” That writer thought that endless paragraphs packed with semi-colons, em-dashes, and colons are first draft problems, the sign of a writer writing very fast in order to get that story down.

The writer following had some interesting thoughts about what it might mean if you are reading your own work and find your mind wandering. If you find a scene boring, you can be sure readers will, too.

This writer pointed out that boring scenes might be one of three things: maid-and-butler talk (characters telling each other stuff they already know, to inform the reader), long narrative summaries that actually need to be scenes, and scenes that feel like you already read it. That might mean you wrote a scene that repeats the same emotional beats as a previous scene.

Someone else said that mind wandering can also result from bloat, or ‘repetitive redundancies.’ “The desk was handed down like a legacy” was the example given–the writer pointing out that a legacy is handed down, we don’t need to be told twice. Describing the piece of furniture as a legacy desk, or a handed-down desk, tightens the prose a bit, and every bit of tightening increasing the pacing a notch.

(Someone else pointed out that all those are boring, and they want a description of what it looks like, not to be told it’s old. At this point, I wrote in my notebook, Herding cats.)


Cutting out overused phrases and words (“though” is a prime offender, as are “then,” “immediately,” and “A moment later”) tightens sentences and therefore tightens pacing.

The last writer pointed out that in conversation, we humans, when we’ve made a good point with which everyone seems to agree, tend to then repeat that point because hey, they agreed and that feels great! Learning how not to do that in manuscripts—belabor a point—can also tighten pacing.

Repetition can be an instinctive signal again, like overuse of the word “literally,” that one isn’t sure the point is well made.

Looking hard at the words one uses to make that point, and being succinct—with appropriate emotional reaction from the characters—can sharpen a scene. That emotional component is vital! If the narrative drive is neutral, the reader tends to start skimming.

How about you? What’s first on your mind when you dive in to rewrite that first draft?



The skittering lilt: Beginning to self-edit — 28 Comments

  1. I think I would make certain the story is complete and that it’s the story I want to tell before I started changing or deleting anything.

    • Her assumption was that the story was complete, and what’s the next step–but you’re right, of course. Making sure the first draft really is the first draft is a solid first step.

  2. Edit and re-write the previous pages as one goes along.

    Read aloud the pages as one goes along, because this reveals repetition, structural and organizational flaws faster than anything else will.

    Continual revision, re-write and edit all through the process to The End. Rinse, repeat until the deadline can be pushed no longer.

    For me personally and particularly — that vexing ‘very’ — it must be destroyed!

    • Especially ‘very’ as adjective, [cue robot voice] exterminate with extreme prejudice!

      Reading one’s words aloud is a good one, though not foolproof, especially for visual readers who see the images, and hear the sounds the story is supposed to evoke, but don’t hear the words themselves.

  3. Step 1: stick in the drawer and work on something else until it’s cold and the gem-like beauty of “it’s done!” has faded.

    Step 2: try looking at the big picture. Does this plot fit together? Are these characters consistent or at least convincing inconsistent? Is everything foreshadowed enough?

    Step 3: try looking at the middle picture. Does this scene contribute enough to the story to justify its length? Could it be collapsed with another? Does it end on a high point or peter out?

    Step 4. try looking at the small picture. Do these sentences say what I want them to say? (the problem with starting by omitting “literally” is that by the time you are done with #2 and #3 you may have omitted all of them — and introduced more.)

    • This is a very good process, especially the part about letting it sit for a while (hard to do when you’re feeling flushed with accomplishment, but it makes such a difference). What I like about what you describe is that it starts with the big-picture questions and then works its way down.

      • I learned a lot from the one time I was able to let a manuscript sit for several months.. I had the editor’s letter by that time, and as I read it, I found myself nodding along. All those suggestions for tightening, trimming, excising entire scenes, made so much sense. I would up trimming almost 100 pages, and wondering how I could’ve written so much weak, repetitious drivel.

        • My theory is that we do a lot of place setting (“with his left hand, he then reached for the tennis racket, as a moment later his right hand immediately scratched his left ear where he was hearing the whine of a mosquito” becomes “he grabbed his racket as he twitched a mosquito from his ear”) as well as placeholder stuff (“and then, after a tense discussion, they all decided it was time to go to war” becomes an actual scene, complete with tangled emotional arcs climaxing) in first drafts. It takes time away, for most of us, to identify and cut or expand all that stuff.

            • With me, it was usually the ‘missing deadlines’ thing–I was never able to let something sit for long. But a changeover at publisher–old editor leaving, new editor coming up to speed–gave me time I never normally had.

              • Fortunately, most NaNoWriMo writers do not have worry about deadlines yet. Though they may in the future.

        • the fun one is a guy who got told to shorten his novel. So he laid on with a good will and went from — 300 pages to 330.

          Sighing, he still sent it back. Editor accepted, saying he had done a marvelous job shortening it.

  4. The thing that strikes me about the conversation you describe is that so many of the points being raised are very particular and small. It’s true that cutting out “literally” will probably improve the MS, but it’s a very small improvement compared with paying attention to overall shape and direction and tone, etc. I guess those sorts of things are easier to share because they’re concrete.

    Thinking about it more, though, I guess I [try to] catch most of that level of stuff as I’m working on the first draft… I can feel myself drifting off on a tangent, and painful as it is to cut a huge chunk of text, I do it, once I realize what’s going on. And like Foxessa, I reread what I’ve just written and edit a little before I get started on new stuff.

    I guess one thing I try to do when I’m reading through a completed draft is make sure that the characters sound consistently like themselves, that there isn’t stuff in there just for narrative convenience without it making sense within the story for the characters involved. In other words, Jessica shouldn’t suddenly get mad at her mother over something, just because I need to have her leave the house angrily–it has to make sense in terms of Jessica’s personality and her relationship with her mom, etc. If it seems random, or out of character, I have to change something.

    On the word level, I try to make sure I don’t use “high value” dialog tags like “murmured” too much.

    • Yeah–the teacher was clearly trying to get us past the “get a beta!” as that subject had been thoroughly hashed out. But when she asked for specifics, people thinking on the fly did think small.

      Re the small stuff, Doing a ‘wordle’ really helps me identify words I’m overusing. Which is so easy to do because I am so visually oriented, it’s so easy for my eyes to slide right past them. When the big print identifies adverbs and certain prepositions and empty calories words like ‘though’ I know I’m in for the grind of hunt-and-delete.

  5. When I have time (deadlines kill good editing), I do a 3 stage edit, starting with the deep structure: is the foundation of the story going to hold up the weight I’m putting on it? Then a “construction phase” edit, checking out whether everything’s in the right place, whether there are gaps, rough transitions (or no transitions, from writing fast), characters acting out of character or suddenly going flat. Do characters supposed to have agency demonstrate it, or does one of them suddenly go all gooey-dependent-helpless for no justifiable reason. (Concussion–OK. Disappointment–not OK.) At this state it’s scene by scene: status at start of scene (physical, emotional), status at end of scene (better not be just the same.) Then a look at overall balance of scenes, character prominence (protagonist had better have more words/scenes/actions, whether too much time is spent on description (of anything), etc. Finally what I call the “realtor’s staging” or “curb appeal” level, when -ly adverbs fall off the sentence-trees, doubled adjectives vanish, and the sneakier forms of passive voice compress into active voice. (I have nothing against passive voice proper, when needed, but faux-infinitives and progressives sneak when not needed. I read it aloud, eliminating the accidental (but not intentional) repetitions of words, making sure the emPHAsis falls where I want it to instead of where it does. And again. And again.

    • This is a great list. And yes about the passive. There are times when it is actually strong, needed. But those progressives can be sneaky, lumbering up a sentence when a simple past tense is so much sharper.

  6. The students at my school are encouraged to “peer edit,” but unfortunately they are not taught to do this very effectively. I agree wholeheartedly with the advice mentioned above to put the work away and come back to it with fresher eyes. This works for me with the writing tasks I have because I can manage my time. For others on deadlines–like students!–they often procrastinate so they don’t have time for meaningful revision.

    • I never had a “peer edit” that was in any way helpful until I stopped being told to do it by teachers and started actively seeking out people whose opinions I valued. I do still remember one memorable “peer editing” session where a classmate whose paper I had gone over said to me at the end of class, “Unlike everyone else in the room, you actually put work into that” or something to that effect. Which was sort of a nice compliment, but at the same time very depressing.

      • Yeah–my kids have said the same thing. My son recently talked of a peer edit by a classmate who corrected his (very good) grammar with all kinds of errors.