Book rec: Self-editing for Fiction Writers

Book cover: Self-editing for Fiction Writers

Full title: Self-editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print
Author: Renni Browne & Dave King
Year: 2004 (2nd ed.)
Publisher: Harper
Length: 280 pages


Hundreds of books have been written on the art of writing. Here at last is a book by two professional editors to teach writers the techniques of the editing trade that turn promising manuscripts into published novels and short stories.

Who is this for?

Self-editing for Fiction Writers is particularly useful for writers who are just starting to educate themselves on the craft of writing. It is not, however, a book strictly for beginners. Though many of the concepts will be familiar to more advanced writers, the authors do such a splendid job of explaining and exploring them – using real(istic) examples* – that you can keep learning and re-learning from this book. I know I certainly do.

*I’ve read some books that use exaggerated and clearly made-up examples, making their point with a sledgehammer. Browne and King’s examples are subtler and not only serve to illustrate the concepts but also, I feel, deepens your understanding of them.

What will it help with?

“Editing”, of course, encompasses many things, not all of which this book covers. Generally, we talk about three different stages:

  • Developmental editing concerns the content and structure of your manuscript, i.e. what you’re saying.
  • Line-editing concerns language use and writing style, i.e. how you’re saying what you’re saying.
  • Copy-editing and proofreading concern spelling, punctuation, clarity and consistency, i.e. the more mechanical side of how you’re saying what you’re saying.

This book addresses line-editing: It looks at how you can edit whole sections, paragraphs and sentences. Note, however, that it mostly does not burrow down into the nitty-gritty word-level. So if what you’re really looking for is insight into something as subtle as why one might choose to write,

“The tundra, treeless and uninhabited, seems to go on and on forever”

rather than,

“The treeless and uninhabited tundra seems to go on and on forever”

… you might want to instead check out Getting the Words Right by Theodore A Rees Cheney (quote from p. 132).


Chapter 1: Show and Tell

Showing versus telling is the first topic explored in this book – appropriately so given that it’s one of the most commonly cited writing “rules”. What I like about this chapter is that the authors never present it as “showing=good, telling=bad”. You almost certainly don’t want a novel entirely made up of one or the other. They also explain the difference between showing and telling on both a large (scenes vs narrative summary) and small scale (within scenes).

You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.

Chapter 2: Characterization and Exposition

Here the authors look at ways of handling character description and exposition. They warn against defining characters the minute you introduce them and talk about ways of establishing a character “gradually and unobtrusively” and how this also applies to exposition.

If your characters actually act the way your summaries say they will, the summaries aren’t needed. If they don’t, the summaries are misleading.

Chapter 3: Point of View

The authors discuss the three basic point-of-view approaches. They look at the narrative intimacy of the first person as compared to the distance of omniscient (and when this distance might be a good thing). The third person is probably the most versatile of the three, they say, describing it as “a continuum, running from narrative intimacy to narrative distance.” They go on to discuss various ways of controlling narrative distance.

When you jump from head to head, as in the […] example, you’re trying to achieve narrative intimacy with all your characters at once, and readers will almost always find that more confusing than engaging.

Chapter 4: Proportion

The topic of proportion has to do with whether the attention paid to a certain aspect matches its importance to the story, because, if it doesn’t, you risk readers feeling cheated. Be careful, for example, when you’re writing about a pet interest or hobby to not overdo it on the detail.

Properly proportioned does not mean textureless. […] The trick is telling the difference between digressions that harmonize with the story (even in odd and mysterious ways) and those that hang on the story like limpets.

Chapter 5: Dialogue Mechanics

This chapter looks at the “mechanical” aspects of writing dialogue. That is, it’s less to do with the dialogue itself and more to do with how you present it. And here the advice is: unobtrusively. The authors warn against explaining your characters’ words and emotions with things like -ly adverbs and saidisms. It’s almost always better to show these things, if not through the dialogue itself then through so-called “beats”.

You want your readers to pay attention to your dialogue, not the means by which you get it to them.

Chapter 6: See How it Sounds

And here we cover the dialogue itself, looking at how it differs from real speech and how to make sound natural. Tips include: use contractions, use sentence fragments, avoid shoehorning exposition, weed out “fancy” words, use misdirection and, finally, read it aloud.

This doesn’t mean you should never use dialogue for exposition, of course. Dialogue can be an excellent means of putting facts across. Just make sure your characters have a reason for saying the lines you give them, and that the lines themselves are in character.

Chapter 7: Interior Monologue

In today’s world, so influenced by the visual media of movies and TV, interior monologue is not always used as well as it could be. In this chapter, the authors look at the benefits of interior monologue, where to use it and to what extent. They also discuss how the narrative distance you’ve chosen affects how you might want to handle your interior monologue.

Unless you are deliberately writing with narrative distance, there is no reason to cast your interior monologue in the first person. After all, if your interior monologue is in the first person and your narrative is in the third, it naturally creates a sense that the narrator and the thinker are not the same.

Chapter 8: Easy Beats

Here the authors expand on the topic of “beats”, which were first brought up in chapter 5. Beats can convey emotion, tie your scenes to a setting and allow you to vary the pace of your dialogue. Balance is important though: too few beats can cause your scenes to become disembodied and disorienting, while scenes that are constantly interrupted by beats are likely to irritate your readers.

Describing your action too precisely can be as condescending as describing your characters’ emotions. Far better to give your readers some hints and then allow them to fill in the blanks for themselves. This pays your readers the compliment of assuming they’re intelligent and imaginative, and in a dialogue scene, allows your dialogue to flow more naturally.

Chapter 9: Breaking Up is Easy to Do

This chapter talks about the benefits of white space, pointing out that long chunks of writing can be off-putting. Additionally, varying the lengths of your paragraphs (and, on a larger scale, your scenes and chapters) can help you control pace and tension.

Not that you’re going to want to maintain this sort of pace for very long. A novel that is literally a page-turner beginning to end is more likely to leave its readers feeling weary – and manipulated – than satisfied.

Chapter 10: Once is Usually Enough

For this chapter, we turn to the issue of repetition. Most writers, they say, know to look out for repeated words or phrases, especially when appearing close together. But it can be far harder to spot where an effect has been repeated. This can be across a sentence or paragraph (e.g. really hammering home the emotional state of a character), across scenes or chapters (e.g. two or more scenes that accomplish the same thing), or across a whole novel (e.g. situations or characters that are too similar), or even across several books.

It takes a bit of experience and insight to judge exactly what impact your writing will have on your readers. So when you have a character point or plot development that is critical to the story, you drive it home more than once to make sure your readers get it.

Chapter 11: Sophistication

This chapter runs through a number of stylistic tricks, which can give your writing an edge. For example, they suggest using as and -ing constructions (”Pulling off her gloves, she…”) sparingly and with caution, advise deleting -ly adverbs in favour of stronger verbs, and warn against overuse of italics and exclamation points.

The surest sign that you are achieving literary sophistication is when your writing begins to seem effortless. Not that it will be effortless, of course – crafting good prose is hard work.

Chapter 12: Voice

Finally, we turn to the topic of voice. The authors acknowledge that no teacher or editor can impart it, though they can offer a few words of advice on how to approach bringing it out in yourself.

Remember that even those writers with the most distinctive voices did not develop those voices overnight. […] In order to write with a mature voice, you have to mature first.

Done all the self-editing you can? Hire me as your beta reader or proofreader, and I will help you take your work to the next level.

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