Much harder than avoiding to put your foot in your mouth during a precarious conversation, the ability to impartially look at ones work and honestly critique it is hard to come by. As the writer, we the author often know the world and characters to the extent that we forget to clue others in. We can even be guilty of writing the “Cliff’s Notes” version of a story, because the rest is so deeply ingrained in our heads that we can read between the sparse lines we write. “What do you mean you didn’t get that the protagonist’s brother was really his father, I vaguely hinted at it on page three in the fourth paragraph.” To properly self-edit we need to read as a stranger and try to forget everything we learned from that detailed outline we spent months creating before embarking on this journey of storyline.
Another aspect of editing is the ability to be brutally honest. Some fellow Writer’s Group members take the act of being honest to others to an art form level and can even deliver compliments with a poisoned tip spear. When self-editing one must assail to similar honesty with themselves. If the sentence is weak or the idea muddled then you have to admit it. Just because rewriting that one sentence will change the entire structure of the paragraph and break the tension you were attempting to affect, in no way excuses you from fixing the sentence. That one line may be the thing that confuses the reader, takes the reader out of the story, interrupts pacing, or makes them put the story down. Seriously, if you have enough weak points, then the story as a whole will fall on its face. The bad sentences can also add up to enough to make the reader walk away from the work.
Grammar is important, but can actually fall to the background if the story is told well enough the reader forgets about it. Now I’m not saying to ignore the rules of grammar because your ability is obviously so wonderful that no one would mind. Not everyone can be as lucky as Timothy Dexter. What I am saying, is to pay heed to rhythm and pacing and story and character and mood. Remember your fundamentals. Follow your tropes if you’re in genre. Be true to your characters and don’t have them do or say things that they wouldn’t. Make sure the scene is believable for your story–research the things you don’t already know and apply that knowledge to the story. Then once you are confident all of these things are working, make sure your story is not grammatically indigestible. Besides, following some grammatical rules can often help you write stronger sentences.
Once you are through writing a piece, it is also very important that you decide upon your theme if you haven’t already. During the re-read, keep your eye on how the theme affects the story and how you tell it. Perhaps you weren’t aware of the theme when you first embarked on this storyline. In that instance, you may find many references or sentences that betray that theme. If so, then fix them. Often on larger works, writers discover that the first 20,000 words they write merely help them solidify their idea of the theme and thus they are forced to throw many of those words away in rewrite. Never be afraid to throw away your words. Remember, no matter how beautiful the prose, if it weakens or betrays the story as a greater whole then it must be culled.
And finally, remember that no great work was ever written in the first draft. The stories and books that stand the test of time are the one which the authors chose to work hard on during the rewrite process. So read your work honestly and don’t be lazy when you see the problem in your fiction, fix it.
“The first draft of anything is shit” —Ernest Hemingway