Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
By Renni Browne & Dave King
(Collins Publishers, 288 pp.)
Scope: Editing and craft development
Overview: If I had to recommend one book to writers, this might be it. I’ve underlined and dog-eared almost every page. This isn’t a book about punctuation or line-editing (although there are scattered tips about these things too.) Its focus is broader: characterization, POV, dialogue, proportion, repetition. It gives one of the clearest discussions of “Show v. Tell” I’ve ever read. The book’s lessons go beyond prescriptive editing advice to touch on craft, style, and sophistication.
The authors, both experienced editors, highlight their advice with examples and break up the narrative with lighthearted cartoons. At the end of each chapter they use checklists and exercises to reinforce the key points.
- “Resist the urge to explain.”
Don’t tell or explain your character’s emotions (Jeanie was angry) show their emotions (Jeanie stomped out of the room.)
- “Allow your viewpoint character’s emotions to color your descriptions.”
What your character notices (and thus what details you describe of the setting) can clue the reader about character feeling, history, education, and culture. For example, a happy, optimistic person might notice the rose, while the depressed pessimist might see only the thorns.
- “When your dialogue is well written, describing your characters’ emotions to your readers is just as patronizing as a playwright running onto the stage and explaining things to the audience.”
Avoid attaching –ly adverbs to your speaker attributes (He said joyfully.) Also avoid attributes like she growled, he giggled, they demanded. Your dialogue should speak for itself.
- “Whether it’s two sentences that convey the same information, two paragraphs that establish the same personality trait, or two characters who fill the same role in the plot, repetition can rob your writing of its power.”
Look for repetition on both the micro (words, paragraphs) and the macro level (characters, scenes.) It weakens the overall effect. Avoiding needless repetition also allows those moments of intentional repetition to stand out.
- “Whatever it is that makes your mechanics sophisticated, awareness of them when revising will help your work look like that of professional rather than an amateur.”
The authors recommend avoiding beginning sentences with as and –ing words, choosing powerful verbs in place of weak verb + adverb constructions, guarding against clichés, and overusing exclamation points and italics.
- “When your style starts to overshadow your story, it’s defeating the purpose.”
Your first goal is to engage the reader with a great story. Your style should serve the story not the other way around.