Writing Advice of the Week: Make Sense of the Self-Edit

Reading Time: 9 minutes
A foxlike creature wears an indigo hat and cape in a dark, starry forest. It is snowing.
(Image by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly.)

This year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has officially come to a close, and what a wild month it was. I hope all of you who participated are proud of what you’ve accomplished. Whether you finished your book, made solid progress, or otherwise made a positive effort, here’s to hoping your December is as creative and productive as November was.

For those who are who may be feeling a bit deflated after NaNoWriMo, I feel you. After realizing I had bitten off far more than I could reasonably chew, I spent November not actually writing much of my novel, but I have taken a decent amount of voice notes to transcribe and shape later. We all have our methods for coping with a lack of quality writing time, and I’ve leaned into the short-on-time voice-recorder method myself, fitting in little bits between Mom duties and everything else that needs to get done in the day-to-day routine.

And if you had a month closer to mine than expected, perhaps together, at least, in spirit, we can take a step back and reassess exactly how we’re going to get the writing done.

Because an ambition to write or edit a book without clear and quantifiable goals and a path to achieve those goals — whatever that looks like for each of us — is just a wish. And wishes don’t write drafts. Getting back on track doesn’t need to come with a headache, though.

As if she were reading my mind through the web, Ann Gomez shared an article titled, Creative Breaths: Finding Your Writing Rhythm, and her article speaks to the process of balancing creativity against assessment, so we can push forward and plod on ahead. Ann separates divergent and convergent thinking, both of which are critical parts of the creativity process and open up writing as a form of innovation. And Ann stresses mindfulness of the body during creative work, feeling how the process feels at any given time, checking in with ourselves to ensure we’re not out of balance (and, thus, out of breath).

And we’re going to need that balance in a big way because the work isn’t done after the writing. After the writing comes the self-edit, and that’s a whole new set of goals.

If you’re the kind of writer who finished your book in November (look at you go!), you may have December earmarked for self-editing. Arja Salafranca wrote an article all about Self-Editing After NaNoWriMo, which is critical even if you plan to work with a professional editor. And the first piece of advice Arja offers? Take a break. Seriously. We all need objectivity when self-editing, and to get that objectivity, we need fresh eyes. Those only come after an appropriate break time away from our writing. But after that break, Arja lays out a logical way to tackle those self-edits when you come back to the writing desk.

Now, you may already be elbows deep in editing your manuscript. But if you’re reading this advice, chances are you got stuck somewhere. And if that stuckness is coming about because an early reader said your story was confusing, Lucy V Hay put together an article titled, Why Your Draft Doesn’t Make Sense (Plus What To Do About It). The first thing to do is to assess why and what the story lacks so you know how to address it. While Lucy’s article is written for the screenplay writers of the world, her advice is broadly applicable. Whether you’ve a genre or tone mismatch, missing backstory, setting or world-building problem, or a theme-heavy book that lacks story, Lucy provides some no-nonsense ways to identify the issues. Then, it’s up to you to make the right changes for your book.

And while Lucy advises us all not to worry about thematic elements too early at the risk of a lackluster story, John J Kelley for Writer Unboxed says Yes, Virginia, Story Themes Still Matter. And he’s right. Because if you want your readers to emotionally connect with your characters and their story, they need a reason to connect, and themes help them get there. And I’m in step with John’s line of thinking. Humans are hard-wired to look for meaning, and we’re hardwired for storytelling, so it makes the most sense that readers are hardwired to look for meaning within stories. Many of the authors I work with discover their themes through their writing processes, but many also start with some themes in mind — though they may discover others along the way.

If you’re now panicking a little, maybe asking yourself how exactly you can go about identifying and bolstering the thematic elements in your book, it may be best to start at the beginning. What drives your story? Savannah Gilbo shares How To Find The Major Dramatic Question Of Your Story. Savannah provides genre-specific examples of driving questions and examples from fiction novels, and the article is complete with insights on why and how your major dramatic question, or story driver, helps not only with writing but with self-editing.

And if this happens to be your final self-edit before shipping your draft off to your editor or early readers, Kris Maze reminds us that First Impressions Matter: in an article about Effective Front Pages. Kris’s article is a practical walk-through of the first pages of your book for publication. Details matter. And Kris also has a checklist of reader-focused considerations for those first few pages.

There was plenty more great advice this week, so if you want something extra, check out the dropdowns below. There’s something for everyone.

Happy writing!

More Productivity Advice for the Week

▼More Craft Advice for the Week

▼More Business Advice for the Week

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Fallon Clark is the book pal who helps you tell your story in your words and voice using editorial, coaching, writing, and project management expertise for revision assistance, one-on-one guidance, and ghostwriting for development. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonClark.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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