WIR #33: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing For Fiction WritersBrowne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 1993 by The Editorial Department.


The opening paragraphs to Renni Browne and Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers are enlightening for both reader and writer. They provide valuable insight into the modern world of publishing:

Why self-editing?

Because self-editing is probably the only kind of editing your manuscript will ever get.

Not too many years ago, an author with obvious talent and style sold a novel or short-story collection to a publishing house and then revised it under the guidance of the editor who signed the book up. Gifted editors routinely spent enormous amounts of creative energy and blue-pencil lead to bring the manuscript to its fullest potential.

That was then. What about today? What actually happens to fiction manuscripts that come in to publishing houses?

If the plot is strong enough or topical enough or the characters engaging enough, the manuscript is signed up and put into print — "potential" be damned.

If the fiction technique seems amateurish, or the plot doesn't hold the reader from page one to the end, or the characters don't stay in the mind after you close the book, the manuscript is rejected — potential be damned.

Which is why well-established fiction writers who used to get thoughtful, supportive editing now feel ignored when their manuscripts are put into production as submitted. And why first-time authors are being printed rather than published — assuming they're fortunate enough to get a publishing contract in the first place.

This is the world of modern publishing. This is why Grisham's "the shots that fired the bullets" and Lisle's food-devouring eyeballs are allowed into print, much to the embarrassment of the authors (assuming, of course, that the authors know enough to be embarrassed by such glaring errors). Today's novelists know this, however, and therefore they should know better.

For me, this raises the question, "Who should I pity more? The author? Or the reader?" This is an easy question to answer: the reader. The authors, if they are getting printed — I agree with Browne and King that "published" cannot be the term applied if manuscripts are sent to the typesetter with nary an editorial glance — can only be seen as professionals. Therefore, they should know better. They should know what a split infinitive is, what a dangling participle is, whether or not a sentence has been ended with a preposition. They should know when to use who or whom (as well as when to use whoever or whomever), when to use that or which, the difference between affect and effect. They should know not to use like when as should be used, the difference between less and fewer, as well as the difference between the transitive verb lay and the intransitive verb lie. This isn't that difficult. A knowledge of grammar at the seventh-grade level is all that is necessary.

The purpose of this book is to teach the author how to edit:

What we're going to do is teach you the craft of editing. The mechanics of dialogue, point of view, interior monologue, the tricks to striking the most effective balance between narrative summary and immediate scenes; the techniques whose adoption brands your manuscript as the work of a professional instead of an amateur.

Our purpose is to train you to see your manuscript in the way an editor might see it — to do for yourself what a publishing-house editor once might have done. Exercises and examples will show you how to become an editor as well as a writer.

The article I linked to in my post, Who Writes the Book?, lays it out plain and clear: ultimately, any errors you find in a published book are the fault of the author.

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