Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 8, 2023

How to Self-Edit: Tricks to Find the Fun in Editing

by A. Dani

The photo shows a writer shaking hands with someone who's arm is coming through a laptop screen.

When the page is no longer blank, what then? What’s next?

Many of us are writing stories this November, whether powered up during the writer-encouraging event of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or as part of our usual writing schedule. Pages on pages on pages are going from blank to cluttered with wonderful words and phrases that we love—and perhaps even some we’ll hate. And that’s okay, because it’s said that ‘the first draft is for you,’ the writer.

A little ways into my writing career I realized the second part of that adage, “the second draft is for them” didn’t work for me. Let me explain. While writing, I’d still start worrying about that second draft, the Editing, that loomed ahead. What if I couldn’t whip that rough draft into shape for a professional editor to take a look, let alone a beta reader? I had to—and still have to—consciously remind myself that it’s not time, that the edits come later, and that Perfection is on an all-expenses-paid vacation for the month anyway. The extra worries, the extra stress, wasn’t necessary because I couldn’t edit blank pages, right? Why worry about words I hadn’t written yet?

After the First Draft is Written

Thing is, as soon as I got to The End, I’d immediately go “time to edit for them!” and swap over to a mode I didn’t like very much. That’s because of the pressure I put on myself when Perfection pounced back on my words like it’d been starved for a month instead of being fed grapes by a pool.

The self-editing phase, at least the very first one? I realized I had to tackle things for me again, not others, not yet. I had to find ways to make even this part of the journey more relaxing, and dare I say it? Fun. 

And that’s what I’m going to share with you today: how to self-edit with ease. How to look ahead to what comes after The End not with dread, as so many of us do when it comes to draft two, but instead with an easy breath, and even, perhaps, excitement! Dread no more. This December, you’re going to be ready. 

1: Sleeping on the Job

The first thing I do after writing a story is tuck it away for a few days. I need fresh eyes to see the words clearly…and if I’ve been scribbling like mad for days on end, I probably need a good night’s sleep on top of that. 

A few days later, I read the whole thing. Do I edit at that point? I try not to. I take notes, maybe fix some typos along the way, but mostly, I just want to see and really drive into my brain what story came out after I poured my creativity into it for so long.

And then I get another good night’s sleep. Yeah, I like those.  But also, with the words all together and fresh in my mind, sometimes that good night’s sleep will work out problems I had with the story. A toasty shower will work out a lot more of them. If my pain levels are low enough, a walk outside in a park where the birds are chirping (as long as I have my Merlin app closed and am not trying to figure out what’s singing lol) will just about solve every remaining plot hole without fail.

Time to Edit

When I’m back to my desk, the big fixes I need to put in usually arrive in my head whole.

Then it’s time to:

  • Jot down heavy notes for bigger edits.
  • File reminders for plot holes, or dive in and fill them.

The draft starts to take shape as a more complete story, and this pass of editing is done.

I don’t just do this for the second draft, either; letting our brains wander is useful for so much self-editing. Next time you get a stuck spot while editing? Put the writing down for a bit. Do 1-3 of the following: Nap. Shower. Walk. And finally, fix the thing!

2: Bad Words and Naughty Notes

I have a bad word list.

  • Things I overuse in my writing, that I prefer to cut out entirely when I edit.
  • Expressions a character would never say and what they would say instead.
  • Swear words that don’t exist for certain worlds. 

Sometimes I time myself to see how fast I can chop “just, only, very” out of my manuscript without using Find+Replace. Occasionally I make a BINGO board and throw words on it to see how soon I can win. Sometimes I keep a running tally and reward myself accordingly for how many bad ones I can eliminate. And every time I do my self-editing, I see if I’ve created a new bad word that needs to be added to the list!

Benefits of a Bad Word List

You’ll probably cultivate a list too, the longer you write. That list can be the single most important thing in your self-editing toolbox. You know your habits and which phrases and words you lean on more than others. Having the list means you can simply do a run-down and get them all cut or replaced in a jiff. It’ll also help you identify them in the future, so self-edits go faster next time, when you’re not hunting down words that have been procreating without permission.

The Naughty List

I write romance, so I not only have a ‘bad word’ list, but I also have a naughty list.  It reminds me to check all the body parts in the scene and make sure the love interest isn’t just a torso with legs or gaining an extra arm when they’re not that kind of alien. 

I use the naughty list to:

  • Make my hot scenes hotter.
  • Be sure I’m hitting the relationship steps needed to ramp up intimacy in measurable ways.
  • Make sure that I’ve actually replaced any mentions of “woohoo” – my Sims-playing nerd shorthand for “insert intimate scene here” – with actual scenes. 

If I forgot to write a sex scene, I’ve definitely got some work to do, and my naughty list is my thrusting off point to getting those scenes started.

To create one of those, you’ll want to first find your overused words, movements, and descriptions. After that, you’ll need to “research”—definitely the fun part! —and make yourself a naughty list of possible word and sensory detail replacements, ideas for future scenes, and all the things you want to look out for the next time you run through a self-edit.

Oh, and my dear writerly friends: Remember to set a timer, so you don’t get buried in that tantalizing “research!”

3: Pizza and Beer

I tend to use this one both before AND after my first draft. Before the draft, I want to know about the character who’s talking so much in my head. So, I take them out “for pizza and beer.” (Or boba tea, coffee, or earl grey, depending on the character!)

I sit down and start writing out a conversation with that character as if I’m taking down a casual interview or having a first date. There’s time, before the first draft, to ask questions about likes and dislikes, hopes, fears, maybe to share some memories. All of it could be useful while writing—more than just a regular character sheet—because it’s working with the character’s own voice.

The Second Date

At the end of the draft, I like to return to that pizzeria, or coffee shop, or…you get the picture. I revisit what we talked about before, as well as the story itself:

  • I ask about what they went through.
  • If they’d change anything.
  • If they discovered something was different than they thought the last time we spoke. 

Finally, we talk about how things have changed for them, because the journey—if I wrote it the way I should have—will have small impacts building all along the way and a bigger impact overall. If they don’t know what that is, either we get another beer/tea/order of dessert and figure it out together, or there’s some revisiting to be done to get those elements into the draft.

Another interview might be needed to get me the rest of the way there. Or maybe we’ll have discovered that the character I thought the story was about…isn’t the main character after all. If I want to keep them that way, it’s going to require a pizza party with some other characters so we can hash it out!

However the conversation goes, plenty comes up so I can work through the manuscript and self-edit corrections to the character, their dialogue, backstory, emotions, points of view, and even behaviors.

I look forward to hearing about the kinds of outings you’ll take your characters on, and what discoveries you make!

4: Playing With Markers

Another self-editing trick I like is color-coding various parts of my manuscript.  I’ll make a color key (which is different every time because I just grab colors and go lol) as I read through to highlight:

  • Main plotlines.
  • Secondary plotlines.
  • Romantic threads.
  • Villain threads.
  • Timeline notes.
  • Different POVs.
  • Mystery threads.
  • Exposition.
  • Sensory descriptions. 

I'll follow those colors through the manuscript to see if:

  • I’m missing something entirely from a chapter.
  • I drop a thread.
  • There’s an “info-dump” with too much explanation in one spot.
  • I need to split up some points of view and give a different character page time. 

Sometimes I highlight my words in whatever program I’m using. Other times, I need to get craftier, and I print the novel out, then draw all over the manuscript. When I’m done with this round of self-edits, I have a stack of paper that looks like I set a second grader loose with a giant-sized pack of highlighters.

It feels GREAT. 

Having it printed makes the novel more real. Giving myself space to take notes by hand activates different creative brain parts that love to draw and play and brainstorm. Plus, I got away from the computer screen and played with markers, which is awesome as it is. 

I get to read through the manuscript, analyze it from a big picture perspective, and have a clearer picture of what I wrote. And I have a comprehensive visual representation of the flow of the book. Having the colors there so vividly means I know exactly where things need to be changed.

Not all novels need a change of pace for self-editing. But if you’re just not getting into the flow of it, or the work isn’t pulling together, coloring all over your words is a game I highly recommend.

Final Thoughts

Those are just some of the many ways you can take a self-edit pass and turn it into something that isn’t stressful any longer. Dare your muse to try them out this year. Before you know it, you’ll have improved your words and leveled up your writing one playful step at a time.

And more than that:

  • Put the editing worries on pause, even past the end of November, okay? 
  • Get all the fresh words down that you can right now, roll around in them like catnip.
  • Zoom into December this year with some of these gizmos in your pockets. 

Come back and review these methods, invent your own, mix them up. Any way you choose to self-edit your words, remember: 

  • Show up without Fear.
  • Tell Perfection to take several seats.
  • Teach your inner editor how to PLAY. 

Which self-editing techniques are you going to try this year?  Do you have others to share with the wonderful folks in this community? Share them in the comments and let’s get down to some great self-editing brainstorms!

* * * * * *

About A. Dani

A. Dani is a published author of paranormal, science fiction, and steampunk romance. Her heroes are broken, her worlds are crumbling, but the love her characters find even in chaos stands on an unshakable foundation.

She adores being a goal coach for creatives and helping writers cut through their overwhelm. Through her work as a fiction editor her favorite thing is helping authors bring their worlds to life--and to others.

Dani lives in South Carolina with her Husband, Kidlet, a cat who thinks she's human, a cat who thinks he's in perpetual stranger-danger, and a kitten who turns every piece of furniture into a dangerous, lurking mimic. Visit her work at Luridity.com and https://www.worldanvil.com/w/luridity or come chat with DaniAdventures on Discord and Twitch! 

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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15 comments on “How to Self-Edit: Tricks to Find the Fun in Editing”

  1. Hi Dani!

    I don't know if my internal editor will ever become playful, neurotic as it is, but I can try.

    Beer, or soda and pizza with my characters seems like a great idea. I think the interview would dig up more information.

    Wonderful post. Thanks!

    1. Thank you so much, Ellen!

      The trick is to trick your inner editor with the right bait. Maybe tracking down the "bad words" isn't what will do it...maybe it's ADVERBS. Or how many times a character raises an eyebrow! 😀

      I always find out juicy secrets during character interviews. The characters feel alive when I get to sit down and chat with them about their lives, and working their secrets and (highly opinionated) opinions in to subsequent drafts of a manuscript will help bring them to life for everyone else.

  2. Excellent list, Dani. To your Bad Words list (or perhaps adjacent to it, as a Bad Habit list) I will add my tendency to write long sentences, which, no matter how correctly constructed and diagrammable they are, contain too much information in one barely digestible lump and are likely to cause the reader to backtrack through the thicket of words to discover what the heck I bad started to say, thus losing the narrative and wrecking---only temporarily, I hope---the fictional dream.

    1. Thanks, Anna! I know just what you mean; some of my zero drafts are full of those long labyrinthine sentences. My record was around 250 words without a single punctuation mark. Huzzah for writing fast! 😀

      The bad word list for me usually involves chopping things, but I'd hate for whole sentences to get lost. Maybe we need a 5th trick: taking those sentences on a hike? When I go on mapped hiking trails, there are often benches along the way so I can rest my feet and catch my breath. When we tackle the overlong sentences, that's our chance to put in some pauses too. Breaking one sentence into more than one will also give us a chance to mark our word-trails out so we know which way to go. No more backtracking through the thickets; our edits there will show readers a clear path!

      You've got this! 🙂

  3. Thank you! This was great timing. I am using NaNo to edit my first draft. There's so much out there about the writing, but only a fraction of it relates to editing. Feels like a jump in and figure out what works for you process. No one does it the same!

    1. That's great! I'm so glad the timing works out; you'll be able to use some of these right away! I think it depends on the author and the manuscript as well. Don't think I've taken a zero draft through self-editing the same way twice, which is why I like to have a healthy set of strategies to work with. Good luck on your revisions!

  4. I can't wait to finish my first draft so I can try some of your ideas. I like the beer and pizza one. I've not done that with my characters before. And I like the idea of the colored markers for different things. Thank you!

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