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

By Ekta R. Garg

September 25, 2013

I checked out Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King as the fourth book for The Write Edge Year-long Writing Workshop.  I had a simple aim for including this book at this point of the Workshop: to hone my skills in looking for the weaker spots in my writing so I can make it stronger.  Because Renni Browne and Dave King are both professional editors, they really know their stuff and offer some good points to consider.

The book was published in the early 1990s, but much of it still applies to today’s writing.  Browne and King have spent decades—literally—editing manuscripts both for publishing companies and independently.  Browne founded The Editorial Department, a company designed to help writers by putting them in touch with professional editors.  Putting all their experience together, Browne and King co-wrote this book.

I love Browne and King’s intro:

(Disclaimer: some of the quotes below are exact; others are my own paraphrasing/condensing of the actual quote.  Any mistakes are mine.)

“We aren’t going to tell you how to plot your novel or develop your characters.  What we’re going to do is teach you the craft of editing…the techniques whose adoption brands your manuscript as the work of a professional instead of an amateur.  Because the best way to learn editing is…to learn it from another editor.”

True to their word Browne and King don’t go into detail about the craft of writing, but they offer enough tidbits of writing guidance to remind writers that editing doesn’t have to be scary.  Every chapter offers readers practical advice and examples from the manuscripts Browne, King, and their colleagues have edited along with examples from published books.  Most of the advice sounds familiar, and often I found myself thinking, “I already knew that, but now it really makes the kind of sense that’s going to stick in my brain.”

For example, in “Chapter 2: Characterization and Exposition” Browne and King give writers this “Rule of Thumb” to remind them to avoid over-explaining their stories: “Give your readers only as much information as they need at a given time.”

This information can come in various forms.  Exposition, of course, and dialogue.  In “Chapter 6: Interior Monologue,” the authors offer another tool writers can use to give readers information:  “One of the great gifts of literature is that it allows for the expression of unexpressed thoughts; in other words, interior monologue.”

The book follows a logical thought process of self-editing.  By instructing writers how to self-edit, Browne and King are really teaching writers how to write.  They continue later in the book with the idea of using stylistic tricks to make a novel sound mature in “Chapter 11: Sophistication” and assert the concept of using strong verbs: “When you use two words (a weak verb and an adverb) to do the work of one (a strong verb) you dilute your writing and rob it of its potential power.”

Later in the chapter the authors give writers advice on how to handle love scenes (and, by extension, profanity): “For sex scenes, less really is more.  A line space may be a far more erotic space for two characters to make love than a bed.”

At the end of the book Browne and King offer writers reassurance about the self-editing process: “The greatest advantage of self-editing is that it demands that you revise again and again until what you’ve written rings true.  Until you can believe it.  Self-editing invites you to listen to your own work.”

In doing research for this book review, I also discovered that the book has an updated website: at http://www.selfeditingforfictionwriters.com/.  This brings the essence of the book from the last decade of the twentieth century to our current time.  I think writers would find this book essential to their repertoire of tools, and I would highly recommend it as such.

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