by Erin Brown

Decermber 2013 

Self-editing is one of the hardest things for a writer to tackle because he or she is so close to the project and is-rightly so-attached to every word. That's why it's often a great idea to hire an editor; someone who can offer a fresh set of eyes, a new perspective, and can take out all of the unnecessary crap that you insist on keeping in there. Okay, okay, just a joke, but seriously, it's very tempting and common to overwrite a scene (or an entire novel), whether it's a case of an author that is too in love with their writing to see what they need to streamline; or one that does too much telling and showing; or an author that does not give the reader enough credit. I will give examples of these scenarios below so that you, the wordsmith, can better understand why some of the words you are "smithing" should be sacrificed for the greater good of effective storytelling.

The "Every Word I Write Is Gold! Gold, I Tell You!" Author:

You know you're a strong writer; your editor knows you're a strong writer. That doesn't mean that you have to preserve every single word that flows from brain to pen (or keyboard) just because the lines sound lyrical. I've read settings described for pages and pages, the words flowery, beautiful, and deep. That doesn't mean that including all of your wonderful words is good storytelling. A writer must have the discipline to edit out words that don't move the story forward in a successful way. Sometimes, you simply have to get rid of the words and sentences (and pages!) that are strong writing, but ultimately lead to poor storytelling. This is why it's helpful to get an editor who's not afraid to delete the hell out of your overwritten manuscript. They have no attachment to the words, which means it's much easier for an editor to get rid of writing that doesn't elevate the story. Simplify, and say sayonara to overwriting.

The "I'm Going to Tell You Something, and Then Immediately Show You Too" Author:

I see this quite often. Here is an example: "I was very angry and decided to tell her off. 'You are a total beotch! Who do you think you are to come in here and tell me you're pregnant with my husband's baby, you home wrecker?" (Yes, I'm feeling a little soap opera-y.) So what we have here is an author who tells the reader what's happening/about to happen, and then shows the exact same thing. Cut the telling and stick to the showing (this will also greatly reduce your word count). You don't need to tell the reader that your character is angry and is going to tell someone off; the dialogue by itself shows them as angry and telling someone off. Simplify.

The "I Don't Think the Reader Is Very Smart So I'm Going to Hit Them Over the Head with This Point Until They Put Their Hands Up in Surrender" Author:

One of the worst things an author can do is not give their readers enough credit. This leads to the over-explanation, blatant foreshadowing, and multiple POVs that show everything so that there's no mystery for the reader. Readers are savvy. You don't have to over-explain, or tell and then show the same thing to hammer a point home. Simply let the story unfold and your reader will "get it" without tons of explanation. Show emotions without then analyzing them, show conflict without explaining it right afterwards, and let the novel's theme be subtle. If the reader picks up on the theme, fabulous; if not, the story is still strong enough to stand on its own. Which brings me to--

The "I'm Making This Underlying Universal Theme WAY More Complex Than It Needs to Be" Author:

Many authors are so fixated on getting the universal theme (vs. the novel's theme) of the book across to the reader, that they neglect strong storytelling, characters, settings, etc., and get very frustrated when a reader misses the complex universal premise of the book; how the reader must be a fool not to get the obvious "theme" of the book. And it does become all about the universal theme to some authors. For example, does the reader get that this cowboy-meets-cowgirl love story set in Arizona in the 1800s actually mirrors the Cuban Missile Crisis and our search for redemption and understanding in a cruel, pre-Cold War? Um, no. And no one's going to get that universal theme or care about it when the storytelling isn't exciting. That doesn't mean you have to "dumb it down" for idiot readers. It means that if you want a reader to absorb a universal theme, you need to get out of your own head and hone the actual story. Because the reader will have to dig deep for the universal theme behind all of the excessive description and wordiness (which translates to the reader as, "Don't you think I'm a good writer? I definitely think I am").

All in all, simplify. Whether it's editing your wordiness, deleting tells before shows, focusing on storytelling as well as writing, or letting the theme appear naturally (and not fixating on the theme or hitting the reader over the head with it), it's often essential to sacrifice some of your writing to make a stronger novel. It's very hard to let go of the words that you've crafted so carefully, which is why an editor is often a good choice to help with those difficult decisions. So breathe deeply, get in that Zen mindset, and just let go---release the tension, the overwriting, the words themselves-and I promise that you'll see a stronger novel emerge.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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