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Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

Cover of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Text with editing markup.

Non-Fiction, How-To

Second edition published in 2004 by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

A step-by-step guide on how to self-edit your manuscript to get it ready for submission to an editor, agent or publisher

This is a clear and accessible how-to manual on self-editing at the story level (with a few forays into copy editing). Browne and King offer tricks to finding the things that are easy to overlook in your own writing and exercises to practise your skills.

Why You Should Read It

While every author should work with an editor at some point in their revision process for that all-important second set of eyes, self-editing is an important part of the revision stage. It is also one of the hardest parts of writing. Every writer, no matter how accomplished or knowledgeable, misses things when reviewing their own work. We all gloss over errors because we know what we meant, so we don't read our own work as carefully as we do the work of others. We also get attached to portions of a manuscript, which can make it harder to cut scenes, moments or characters that simply don't fit into the narrative being told. An editor helps with this, but doing some of this work on your own makes you a better writer, helps to retain your authorial voice and intent, and saves time and money on the edit.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers can help with this difficult step. Renni Browne and Dave King are both experienced editors with decades of experience between them. They provide a series of clear and comprehensive tips for refining your writing, mostly covering big-picture concerns such as characterization, dialogue, repetition and voice. While light on writing mechanics, these big-picture pieces are arguably the most important parts of a manuscript. An editor can clean up the prose and mechanics of a text, but without solid content and structure, no amount of copy editing can save it.

Browne and King's writing is clear, with plenty of real-world examples. Each chapter ends with exercises to complete with example answers in the back. Browne and King never present their answers as the only option. They believe that what matters is whether the writing is engaging to the intended audience, not an adherence to a set of rules.

While overall a great resource, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers suffers from the issue that all books of its kind face: it must remain general. While Browne and King's advice is sound, it must almost always be followed with "in most cases." In any creative work, there are always exceptions to the rules, and there will be authors who should disregard the advice of Browne and King and follow a different path.

A consequence of the need to be general is that the advice is geared toward popular trade fiction. The advice doesn't really cover situations where an author might want to deliberately break the "rules." This is especially true when they discuss older literary classics such as The Great Gatsby. While they do state in these cases that the style of writing was appropriate for when it was written, the examples that "modernize" these texts feel like they are advocating for a sameness in manuscripts. The result feels a little dismissive of literary traditions that fall outside of a modern Western one.

These small quibbles aside, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is an excellent resource to get authors to a second/third/fourth draft before approaching an editor to help with the specifics of their manuscript. However, just like when working with an editor, the advice given here should be carefully considered to determine if the suggestions work for the story you are telling.


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