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Do I Have to Kill My Darlings? 5 Self-editing Steps You MUST Take Before an Editor or Agent

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Congratulations, writer! 

You’ve done it. As you type “The End” and move your mouse up to the little “Save” button in the corner, you feel like running down the street screaming “I’M AN AUTHOR! I’M GOING TO BE FAMOUS! I’M SENDING MY MANUSCRIPT TO (PUBLISHERS/AGENTS/EDITORS/SMASHWORDS) TOMORROW! YEAAAAAAHHHHH I’M AN AUUUUUUUUUUUTTTTTHOOOOORRRRR!”

This jubilant response is not wrong—it’s just premature.

Once you finish the first draft, it’s like you’ve browned the taco meat but haven’t added the seasoning. For your book to be seasoned, it’s going to require that you take some measures—some emotionally painful—to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward. Before sending it out into the world in any professional or official capacity, take your manuscript through the following steps of self-editing.

1. Put some distance between you and your manuscript.

No one—and I mean no one (I’m talking to you, Anne Rice)—can see something they wrote objectively. When your manuscript is freshly written, you’re going to see it even LESS objectively than you might later. The first step to effectively self-edit is distance. Give it at least a few days, if not weeks or months, before reviewing your manuscript so you can see the issues as clearly as possible.

2. Read backwards, sideways, and out of order.

Reading your work out of the natural order allows you to see your writing with new eyes, to question the sequence in a way you might not otherwise. It also takes your focus off of the structure so you can pay closer attention to the effectiveness and correctness of each individual line and word.

3. Invite your smart and thoughtful friends to help.

Host a reading party with cheese, crackers, and no more than one glass of wine per participant! Pass the chapters of the manuscript around in a circle, allowing several people to edit each section. Even when you put distance between you and your manuscript, other people will see it like you never could.

4. Kill your darlings.

Chances are you “overwrote” the first draft. Every writer does. There’s no such thing as good writing—only good rewriting. To rewrite well, you need to remove sentimental attachment to different words, phrases, or passages, and truly analyze their effectiveness. Don’t add, cut. When you have your reading party, you may wish to have your friends suggest cuts wherever they feel necessary/the pace gets bogged down.

5. Read aloud.

Finally, after you’ve read your manuscript backwards, sideways, and out of order; hosted your reading party; and made all the necessary edits that have resulted in a new, cleaner and fresher draft, it’s time to do the final check. From beginning to end, by yourself, read the manuscript aloud. Notice any passages where you stumble, and polish them. When you force yourself to read each word aloud, you will notice misspellings and typos that your eyes glossed over before.

Writers: What tricks have you used in editing your own work? We’d love to hear from you!

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  1. I follow those steps exactly. Have followed them for each of the five novels I’ve written. The fifth (a romance) is now contracted with Lyrical Press, Inc.

    If I would add anything to your five steps above it would be to read everything you can get your hands on in the genre you’re aiming for. A good time to do that would be while putting some distance between you and the manuscript.

    Thanks for the great post. The process works. You just have to be patient and willing to learn and grow.

    • Hi Jessi! Thank you so much for your sage advice! We totally agree–the more you can read in your genre, the better your book will be. Just be careful to not adopt another author’s voice in your writing. (The more authors you read, the less likely that this will happen.)

      Thanks so much for the follow!

  2. Thanks for a great post. My critique partner and I are getting ready to work through a first draft. We will definitely utilize these tips. In particular, I like the idea of skipping around at random to gain new perspective.

    • Thanks, Kathrese! Good luck using these tips–I hope they work out well! If you get the chance, let us know how the process goes, and if you discover anything new!

  3. It’s hard to say which of these tips are the most useful, but as an editor, I have to go with one and three.

    The merit of number one will be obvious to anyone who has written anything seriously.

    Number three is useful because having honest friends point out big problems will allow you to present an editor with a better manuscript, that they in turn can make *even* better.

    And the goal is to have the best manuscript possible.

  4. Thanks for the comment Lauren! We agree. Honest friends (emphasis on honest) are going to look out for you. Even if it means hurting your feelings a little bit.

  5. Great Post! As I’m on my 4th (or 5th draft…..who can tell nowadays) and final draft before publication I feel validated to know that I’m at a stage where I am MURDERING MY DARLINGS!! YAAAY! I’ve also recruited an unofficial reading group in the form of a few friends that I intend to utilize, but though I’ve thought about reading out-of-sequence, haven’t yet tried it. Going to do that and start reading aloud a whole lot more. Thx WiseInkers!

    • Thank you Levaughn!! Congrats on murdering your “darlings.” You should be starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel :) Reading out loud is a definite eye-opener. Good luck and keep us posted!