At a recent writers’ weekend several presenting editors reinforced my belief that the best self-editing tool out there is Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I have found this publication useful both as a learning tool and as a reference book. The book assumes that the writer knows basic grammar, spelling, and vocabulary (although most word processors will do that for us). This volume is more about writing style and developing a mature and sophisticated presentation. The authors display some common errors of beginning and less experienced writers within works the authors themselves have edited and even in published works by known authors. At the end of each chapter comes the opportunity to practice the art of editing (answers are in the back). Such guided practice quickly sharpens the eye.
The topics Browne and King selected for this work are instructional in themselves, and underline what the authors consider important issues in writing. In the first chapter they discuss when to show and when to tell. Narrative is important and often compelling yet dialogue might be more intriguing and instructive in certain circumstances. Characterization and exposition appear in the second chapter. How much is really important to know about about a character and when is it best to relay the information? Not until Chapter Three do we begin to discuss POV, a facet many writers consider first and foremost when embarking upon a writing project. But narrative distance is often intrinsically embedded within decisions the writer makes about exposition and about dialogue as a narrative tool. Which should come first? And how much? This problem is addressed in Chapter Four, titled Proportion.
By now the reader will have seen a subtle movement from coarse to fine in the instruction of Browne and King. At first they present a global sense of writing concerns and after the proportions of stylistic technique are understood they then embark upon considerations of finer detail. Mechanics of dialogue are presented in Chapter Five, not all mechanics, only those habits that reveal the inexperienced writer at a single glance, such as redundant attributes and the age-old hackneyed attempt to find creative substitutes for the word ‘”said”.
Now breath deeply. In Chapter Six it’s time to edit by reading aloud, or having others read the work aloud to us. How does it sound? Are the words right, or is something not quite there?
Moving to finer detail once again in Chapter Seven the authors address interior dialogue, a sophisticated technique when done smoothly and consistently within the work, or disastrously amateurish if otherwise. In Chapter Eight they return to the subject of dialogue in Simple Beats, discussing he said she said and how many saids should there be? Then Chapter Nine, Breaking Up is Easy to Do. Who knew the importance of white space, those places where the author does and says nothing? Those places where words are not? There is a symmetry to all things, not least the written text. Describe the flower in your work, but it show beautifully in its presentation also, paragraph by paragraph.
The last chapters in this work are devoted to truly sophisticated detail, a glance at writing decisions that , quite literally, separate mature writers from their former selves. In Chapter Ten, Once is Usually Enough warning is served to avoid repetition, particularly if underestimating the reader. Seldom does a thought need to be drummed into that dear little head. Not by exposition, not by supplemental narrative, not to serve memory in a later chapter, not as redundant ideas in subsequent novels. Seldom. Sophistication in Chapter Eleven exposes as and –ing constructions, -ly adverbs, comma usage, the overuse of italics and exclamation points! and straining to use a metaphor or a particular vocabulary word simply because it intrigues the author.
My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter Twelve. Here the authors touch the very tip of the iceberg of Voice. The first example given, the maturing voice of Herman Melville, sets the stage magnificently. Name the novelist who does not aspire to a wondrous voice? Arguably, the voice makes the writer and the work. How to achieve it? Read, read, and read some more.
And most particularly, read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: how to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King.