I think the single most significant lesson for an aspiring writer to learn about self-editing is to acknowledge its paramount importance. The ability to self-edit is a key skill for any writer. One of the things that sets the successful authors I have worked with from the pack is their ability to return again and again to their manuscripts, honing and polishing and improving all the time. It’s hard work, and requires patience and determination, but it will pay dividends throughout your career. All good writers have this ability and, in turn, the parallel ability of being able to accept and adopt editing from others. It’s an essential lesson to learn.
1 Be brutal with yourself. Ruthlessly cut and hone. Very few books are too short, many are two long. Make sure that every word counts.
2 Reread your manuscript and ask yourself whether every paragraph of every chapter adds something. Does it develop characterization? Does it further the plot? Does it create tension or drama? If not, what is it doing?
3 Be very hard on yourself, others will be. Learn to be self-critical and learn to accept criticism from others. All the great writers are edited by their publishers. It is a myth to believe that books arrive fully formed and are published as first delivered. By learning to edit your own work, you’ll learn the value of outside input.
4 Keep things simple. Don’t overpopulate your book with dozens of characters. Simple stories, well-told, are more powerful than unnecessarily complex books, with too many ill-formed characters and plotlines.
5 Step back from your book and leave it for a few weeks, before returning with a fresh perspective.
Tim Bates is Head of Books and Senior Agent in the Books Division at literary agents Peters Fraser + Dunlop. He joined PFD after being an agent with Pollinger Limited for nearly 10 years. Before becoming an agent, he worked in various positions in publishing, including at Penguin Books, where he was Commissioning Editor for Penguin Classics.
Tim represents a wide range of authors and is particularly interested in pop culture, narrative and serious non-fiction, food-writing, nature and the outdoors, sport and commercial non-fiction and fiction of all forms.
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