Friday, July 16, 2010

Browne and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

The author of a craft book I reviewed recently had this to say about writing: “Writing is way overrated. The truly creative writer gets the most mileage out of editing and revising” (98). Great. The question is exactly how to go about it? Sure, reading, letting it sit, rereading. Maybe finding some good readers to comment on it. Of course, making the plot strong and the characters complex and memorable. Of course, getting the grammar and the spelling right. But it would be useful to get some guidelines so that you can do your own editing after you’ve finished writing. The ideal would be to develop techniques that made you approach your writing with as much distance as if you were someone else. A very incisive, probing, and articulate someone else.

Plenty of that is to be found in Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print (2 Ed., Collins, 2004; 279 pp.). It presents bundles of good advice, tied around a handful of basic ideas that are explained, exemplified, and easy to read. Some of the more familiar material (showing and telling, characterization, point of view) is discussed in a way that lets you glean useful ideas. You will end up making a checklist of things you can’t afford to miss on your next revision.

One of the book’s main goals is to emphasize that fiction should provide readers experiences in such a way that the story is not bungled by the mistakes of a novice. A tacky phrase, an evident cliché, a cheap way to characterize—and your readers will escape from the story and start to wonder about that device you used poorly. (In Gardnerian terms, such mistakes will cut short fiction’s profluent dream.) Rather than etching rules on stone, Browne and King present the centrifugal consequences of certain stylistic choices.

For instance, what’s wrong with presenting a character’s defining traits the minute he walks on stage? Well, the authors say, doing so prevents the gradual acquaintance that gives readers a more complete sense of the character’s complexities (26). The chapters on dialogue (there are three of them) show particularly well how good dialogue can be wrecked by poor mechanics, such as using a legion of synonyms for said. The chapter on language (“Sophistication”) doesn’t have as many specific recommendations as other books. However, each recommendation is accompanied by demonstrations of the effects of following and not following the suggestion. It’s up to you, they’ll say, but take a look at this.

I liked that the book is very conscious of the moment of the development of fiction we’re in. We’re not writing Victorian fiction now, in which settings were “described in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail” (8). We can skip details often, as readers tend to have a more cinematic frame of mind and have even developed plot expectations inspired by movies. This doesn’t mean that a novel should be a screenplay hidden under a coiffure. In fact, novels have advantages that movies can’t grasp, such as allowing “for the expression of unexpressed thoughts: interior monologue” (117). But a movie culture has certainly changed the literary landscape. Browne and King are well aware of this: descriptions tend to be more pared down than they were just “a few decades ago, when generous, detailed descriptions were the norm. It’s the influence of movies and television again—readers are used to jump-cuts from scene to scene rather than long transitional shots. Fiction writers, in turn, are much freer to use ellipses, to leave more of the mundane, bridging action up to their readers’ imaginations” (68).

There are writing exercises at the end of every chapter. Par for the course with writing books nowadays. But something about the exercises is not: they have answers at the end. Since many of the exercises involve putting editing techniques into practice, it’s nice to see how much your editing resembles that done by Browne and King. They’re not infallible. Still, it’s good to have a product with which you can compare your own results. You often find interesting ways in which they propped and tweaked the text. It’s interesting that several of the excerpts presented as exercises come from published novels.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a good book and a quick read. Some of the examples that are woven into the text work better than others, but they make each recommendation more concrete and malleable. There will certainly be a thing or two you’ll pick up from the authors in order to make your fiction stronger. I’ll turn to two other books on self-editing next, closing with the one I liked best.


  1. I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to help me get the distance I need from my manuscript. It identifies the weak areas for me, like overused and repeated words, slow pacing, etc. It's a great help.

  2. Thanks for the tip, Janine. I looked it up, and it's kind of pricey: $47 a year, versus, say, Visual Thesaurus ($20 a year) and Merriam-Webster Unabridged ($30 a year). Still, it looks helpful.

    Here's a free tool that is somewhat helpful too, even if more limited in scope (it helps with word territory and passive voice):