Thursday, March 24, 2011

Books for Writers: "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers"

In the world of writing there are writers and editors, editors who write for others to edit and writers who edit others. In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, writers/editors Renni Browne and Dave King claim to seek the creation of a new species: writers who can edit themselves well enough that their hearts and hopes won't be dashed when their work goes before an agent or publisher. “In other words, you can edit yourselves into print,” they say in the introduction. (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, page 4)
God love 'em for trying, for, as United Press International bureau chief Donald Davis once said, “Anyone who edits their own copy has a fool for an editor.” Writers of any stripe tend to have a blind spot when it comes to their own work. Often they are too familiar with it or, perish forbid, too in love with it to provide the objective review productive revision needs. In an age where, as Renni Browne said in a May 2010 interview, fewer and fewer publishers provide in-house editing, this poses a problem.
“This is the reality of the publishing landscape today,” Browne told Bonnie Grove, part of the crew at Novel Matters,  a writers' blog and workshop site.  “Huge numbers of published writers, including ones that hit the bestseller list every year, hire their own editors. Many writers who are fortunate enough to have editors at their publishers who give them feedback still hire their own editors. Agents and publishers say they want 'pre-edited' manuscripts. And as I've often said, really good writers still need editing. Your book is your child, and who among us can be 100% objective about our own offspring? “ (
Browne is a founder of The Editorial Department, a professional book-editing company based in Arizona. Browne's son, Ross, runs the show. One note of caution, and perhaps a lesson to copy editors everywhere, the company's Web site is not, as offered on the back cover of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, That site is home to purveyors of testosterone pills and other next-to-the counter supplements. The actual site is; the firm also has a FaceBook page. Browne's  partner on Self-Editing is Dave King, a contributor to Writer's Digest and a professional editor who works out of Massachusetts.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is now in its fifth printing and second edition with Harper Collins, according to Browne's interview with Novel Matters. “Many years have passed since we launched Self-Editing for Fiction Writers into the world to take its place (Please, God!) next to classics for writers such as On Becoming a Novelist, On Writing Well, or The Elements of Style,” one of the duo writes in the introduction to the second edition of Self-Editing.
The question must be asked: Why would this pair, whose livelihood depends on writers paying them for professional editing services ($35 for an “Introductory Critique,” according to, give their tips and secrets away for $13.99 (the cost of the book) a pop? Can the would-be writer trust the advice found in the book when Browne and King admit to misleading them in the first edition?  “For instance, we spent a lot of time in the original edition telling you where your characters' emotions did not belong (in dialogue mechanics, for instance) and not enough time telling you where they did. As a result, we've seen a lot of overzealous writers strip their manuscripts down to an emotional minimalism that doesn't fit their story or natural style.” (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, page 2)
Browne and King profess the second edition of Self-Editing, published in 2004, is “stronger than ever.” (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, page 2) Only time, and perhaps a third edition, will tell if they have led another decade of writers into emasculating their copy by following the advice contained in edition two.
That said, the saving grace of Self-Editing, and the feature that makes me want to trust it with my mind and manuscript, is that it shows me how to spruce up my work, rather than telling me how to do it. Every chapter has some kind of  before-and-after feature where the authors show a piece of writing before their advice is applied, and how it looks afterward. Even better, the authors provide a handy checklist and sequence of exercises at the end of each chapter, nearly guaranteeing readers can fully grok the lesson offered. This may explain why so many authors stripped their stories of emotion after reading the first edition of Self-Editing; the book is so damn easy to follow and the application of the authors' process produces results.
In the chapter entitled “See How it Sounds,” Browne and King laud the virtues of reading dialogue aloud to find problems and solutions to make your character's speech sound more natural. “In addition to helping you overcome stiffness, reading a passage aloud can help you find the rhythm of your dialogue. Speaker attributions, when to insert a beat, when to let the dialogue push ahead – all of this becomes clear when you hear your dialogue being spoken.” (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, page 107).  For years I've told rookie journalists and students to read heir work aloud to find punctuation and wording mistakes; it never occurred to me that the practice would still prove helpful 15 years into my writing career. Yet, it does, and recently has.
My favorite chapter in the book was the one called “Sophistication.” Cleaning out the “-ings” and “as” phrases, as well as the reduction of verb-adverb combos, is something I've practiced for years but I've never really understood why it worked.  The chapter offered clear and telling examples that I likely will use in my short-story classes. “Sophistication” also reminded me that I've never written a sex scene and that it might be time to give it a try.
It is entirely possible Browne and King wrote Self-Editing for Fiction Writers as a scheme to get me and my peerage to write poorly so that the only published writers are the ones who paid for professional editing. If so, Self-Editing is such a well-presented, clearly illustrated and accessible road to hell that I can't help but take it.

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