Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

This week, I had a budding author ask me about the latest release by a bestselling novelist. She has read previous offerings from this author, and she had never noticed the problems she found in his current work. She has been studying the elements of storytelling, she has been getting advice from fellow critique partners and authors, and she was curious as to why this bestselling author could break the rules.

I’ve thought about the issues she mentioned: an excessive use of “ly” words (adverbs) in dialogue attributes, a switch in tense within scenes and/or chapters, a lack of description to enable the reader to envision the scenes, as well as a predictable plot.

I know what some would expect me to say: “His books sell in the millions. He can do whatever he wants.” Or what about this one: “The author is experienced, and he knows when to break the rules”?

While I suspect that, to a certain extent, the above comments might be true, I’d like to point out that this multi-million dollar author has a reader who sees a decline in his writing style. Might there be other readers who may not notice the “ly” words, but who could stumble over the change in tense or fail to get a good grasp of a scene? I’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt. The current books seems to be a book outside this author’s usual genre. Maybe the outcome of the plot wasn’t as important as the events that led up to it.

The questions asked of my friend and budding author brought a few thoughts to mind:

An author must never get to a point in his career where he believes that there is nothing new to learn. He might have gotten away with head-hopping a few decades ago. Today, a manuscript written from more than one point of view per scene screams amateur. Other stylistic changes throughout the decades are seen in the same way.

A bestselling author should not lean on his past record. He should always strive for creativity and innovation. Failure to do so will eventually catch up with him.

An author must not break the rules just because he can. There must be a reason to break the rules, and they should be broken sparingly so that a reader never questions the author’s knowledge versus his voice or style.

New authors who are reading experienced authors and have the ability to spot the problems in a published book are seeing their knowledge blossom right before their eyes. Once a writer begins to critique, she’ll never look at a published book the same. For exactly that reason, experienced authors should work hard so that newer authors can learn by good examples and not by poorly written ones.

Something else that came to mind as I studied on this issue is that quite possibly the greatest gift an editor can give to an experienced author is to treat him no differently than he would be treated if the book were his first creation. Likewise, an experienced author should take special care to self-edit and look for those instances where he breaks the rules simply because he knows he can get away with it.

Happy editing.


  1. I agree. Once you become a critique partner and have learned quite a bit about writing, it's easier than ever to spot mistakes in even the most seasoned authors. It's like a doctor watching a TV show about doctors. They pick it apart. But I try not to let any knowledge I've gained deter me from the sheer enjoyment of reading.
    Good post, Fay!

  2. It is well known that once an author becomes big, his/her editor has less influence. It all boils down to money. If a bestselling author threatens to leave the house for greener pastures, editors hands are tied. A second opinion is always needed, but not always welcome.

  3. I think experienced writers can often become lazy with their work as workers in the "real world" can grow lazy at their jobs, too. It's so much easier to use those "ly" adverbs and hop heads than to put some thought into what you're writing.

  4. I hope a lot of experienced writers read this. It is frustrating with as hard as we work to learn and then see those "errors" in a published work. As a Christian writer, I want to always remember to do the best I can with the abilities I have and not take short cuts. Do all things for the Lord!

  5. Paul: Great insight. I still believe that a wise author would trust his or her editor and even before the manuscript is sent to an editor, that the author would take care to envision the art he holds and to make sure it is a masterpiece and not a dull imitation of what he has already produced. In the long run, the money might still flow, but an inferior product gets just as much negative promo as an awesome read gets positive reviews.