My top ten tips for self-editing

The completed manuscript, all 406 pages of it.

The blog has been ignored all week while I’ve been rewriting The Memory of Midnight, an intensive process that I hadn’t quite counted on when I came to the end of my draft the weekend before last.

I sat down on the Monday afterwards to re-read it and … oh, dear.  I had forgotten what I tell all my creative writing students, which is that writing is really rewriting.  There was no way I could send the draft off as it was, and I had to do some ruthless self-editing, wielding my red pen like a crazed machete until I stood appalled in the debris.

I was left with exactly a week to do a major rewrite.  The Memory of Midnight is my 62nd book, and you’d think I would know by now that it is all part of the process, but I don’t usually cut things quite that fine.  Still, it is done, and I was able to skid up to my deadline with 24 hours to spare.  That thud you can hear is my head hitting the desk in relief.

Anyway, as a change from York streets, I thought this might be a good time to offer a few tips on self-editing for those planning to submit manuscripts in the future.


1.  Leave yourself plenty of time.  Do not knock out a rough draft, proceed to go on holiday and then commit yourself to catering for major family celebrations a month before your deadline, for instance.

2.  However pleased you might be with yourself for writing 106,000 words in three weeks, do not relax and think that a week will be enough for a quick read through.  It won’t be.  Or not if you want any sleep.

3.  Having completed said read through, do not throw yourself onto the floor and drum heels on carpet in frenzy of self-flagellation, however tempting it might be.    A little hyperventilation is acceptable, and even understandable.

4. Do, however, switch off the internet.  Life is surprisingly restful when you let go of the need to update a blog, be witty and concise on Twitter, or think of something to say on Facebook.

5. If a week is all you have, you will have to get on with it.  Cut all social contacts (although going out for coffee is permitted on a couple of days to keep you sane).  Do not ring your friends who have remorselessly busy jobs of their own and moan and whine about how you can’t write/how little time you have/you’re giving up writing for good etc. etc.  They have heard it all before and don’t have time to indulge you.

6.  This is not the time to diet or give up drink.

7.  Organise your writing space so that books and notes from your research are easily to hand.  Do not leave them spread around you so that you have to scrabble frantically through in search of that elusive detail you know you saw “somewhere”.

My study, after I’d typed THE END last night.

8.  Do not toss pages of your old draft over your shoulder into a huge pile on the floor behind you when you think  you’ve finished with it.   It makes it very difficult to find that scene you cut from the beginning but want to reuse later on.  In fact, you may never find it again.

9.  Keep your desk calm and tidy.  This will help you to focus and avoid distractions.

10.  Do as I say, not as I do.

4 Responses

  1. *snort* That picture speaks volumes. Especially the empty wine glass 🙂

    Congratulations for reaching the end. I can’t believe you did 106,000 words in three weeks!

  2. Thanks, Tora – I can’t quite believe it either. It’s not a process I recommend, that’s for sure.

    As for that wine glass, I did try eating healthily and drinking sparkling water at night, but it really didn’t suit me at all, so I gave it up and got on much better – see point 6!

  3. ROFL! I especially like the number 6! You must be realistic about these things.

  4. Absolutely, Julia. It’s so important we writers keep our feet on the ground.

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