How to Self-Edit

Thank you to the reader who asked me to discuss how I approach edits. To be honest, I’ve been stumped about how to answer this seemingly simple question! That might be because I don’t have an ironclad approach; it changes book to book. I’ll do my best to explain the range of approaches I’ve taken.

The “write to the end, then revise” approach

With past books, I’ve written my first draft looking forward only. By that I mean I write Chapter 1 on Monday, Chapter 2 on Tuesday, and so on—without revisiting previous chapters. Once I reached the end, I’d put the manuscript away for a few weeks, then print it out and read the whole thing with fresh eyes.

The ideal “put it in a drawer” approach is to work on something else in the meantime, to leave the story in the drawer for so long that you can read it with a more objective eye. Sound in theory, questionable in execution, IMO. Most publishing contracts are way too tight to allow for a WIP to sit untouched for the length of time I would personally need to gain true objectivity.

An example: I recently discovered a TV pilot adaptation I wrote TWO YEARS AGO for This Might Hurt. It had been so long since I touched the project that I’d totally forgotten I’d even written it! I read through the first few pages of the script and could honestly and easily assess what was working and what I’d change. For any given project, I think I’d probably need six months—three at the absolute minimum—away from a draft to see it with fresh eyes. A couple weeks or a month is not going to cut it for me. Most professional writers are publishing a new book every 1-2 years, so you can see why spending 3-6 months not working on said project is totally unworkable.

The “revise as you write” approach

With my newest book, The Hitchcock Hotel, I edited as I wrote. Reading and making edits to yesterday’s writing helped me ramp up into the day’s new writing. The first 5-10 minutes of writing are often the most painful for me. It’s a lot easier to spend those 5-10 minutes making existing work better than staring at the blank page. As a general rule, and I think most writers would agree, revising is easier than first drafting.

It’s near impossible to avoid any revising whatsoever as you write the first draft, in part because something you write today will contradict something from three chapters ago… and that happens all the time, every day. For me personally, I get fixated on these discrepancies and can’t concentrate until I’ve jotted the edit down somewhere or actually made the edit in Word.

Novel journal vs. Notes app

Alexander Chee said somewhere (and I can’t remember where, I’m sorry) that he keeps a journal for every book he writes. I found the concept brilliant and have kept digital journals (Word docs) of each of my books ever since. It’s a place for me to puzzle out plot points, jot down new ideas, figure out how I feel about something. Much of it reads like a conversation with myself, e.g. Bear in mind most of the flashbacks need to carry some sort of mystery or intrigue. Some notes are bullet-pointed lists; others are just one line: “X should be planted in X’s room.” The journal is chaotic, but it’s where I store longer-form, forward-looking thoughts.

The iPhone Notes app, on the other hand, is where I jot down more immediately relevant stuff, often times actual prose I want to change or add to the manuscript. My phone is the one thing I almost always have on hand, so it’s the easiest place to write down something I don’t want to forget. After I add said item to the relevant Word document, I delete the Note. No need for long-term storage, whereas my novel journals I will keep forever.

Polishes

There are plenty of tips and tricks writers use to see their work with fresh eyes. (There’s that phrase again.) Many people change the font size or the font itself. I only ever write in one font, Garamond, and shudder at the idea of reading 350 pages of Comic Sans—but props to those who do!

The two tips I use with every single draft of every single book are printing the manuscript and reading it aloud—sometimes concurrently, if I’m in a time crunch, but ideally not. My eye catches a lot of stuff on paper that it misses on a screen, so reading a printed draft is essential for me before sharing my work. Reading it aloud helps me hear when the prose isn’t flowing, if I’ve overused words, etc. I recommend having plenty of liquids and cough drops on hand; your throat hurts after six hours of reading aloud! Worth it every time.

This post was originally published on my Substack. You can read it here.