A few years ago I made a quick video series on self-editing your book (it’s free). This was one of my first courses so while the basic idea is there, it doesn’t have a lot of very specific editing tricks and tactics – and I’ve made a lot of those recently.
This post on “how to write a book” links to a lot of my best writing and editing resources, and I’ve since made 3 writing courses that I bundled together if you need more help and want to go deeper: “bestseller blueprint.”
The main idea in these self-editing resources is that you need to write a book people want, and give it to them in an enjoyable, albeit standard, package. This doesn’t mean it isn’t creative, or that it’s formulaic. It’s just your responsibility to make sure you story or content is readable… and there are very specific ways to achieve this without making very common writing choices that mark your book as amateur.
Good writing versus bad writing
“Good” writing is what can be enjoyed; it’s dependent on reader satisfaction. I recently saw a guy complain on Reddit about how his friend told him his writing was so terrible nobody should have to endure it. I didn’t comment, because I could tell he was defensive. He was looking for validation: proof his writing wasn’t terrible.
I checked out the sample: it was “good” writing. Fancy words, flowy sentences, and creativity that was surprising and fresh – which made it tricky to follow. I wasn’t invested in the characters or the story. I was distracted by the author showing his hands and flashing them around like a performer. You can be a very good writer and write very bad books. You can also be a very “bad” writer and write very good books.
May real writers hate things like Twilight, because the writing was bad. But the writing didn’t matter. It was a good story, and millions of diehard fans agree. The first step of becoming a great writer is figuring out where your story is, and where you’re just showing off and trying to be entertaining on a sentence level.
Readers don’t need to be entertained or surprised. A good book has hundreds of pages of good enough writing and a handful of very powerful scenes that are well-written. If everything is well written, nothing stands out as great writing and the reader is too distracted to get into the story.
This is genre dependent to some degree, as some genres do appreciate that silly, random, ridiculous tongue in cheek humor, the playful author flirting directly with readers. But in most genres, it’s a red flag.
That’s not to say you don’t want to have some charm, especially in nonfiction writing, and some styles depend on a relatable narrative voice. But usually, this is like being at a party and hearing about a funny incident first hand by someone who thinks they are hilarious, and you smile politely and they say “it was funny, you had to have been there.”
Narration is always standing between your readers and the scene or plot events; it’s listening to a voice at a campfire instead of watching the movie. It will never be as gripping as the real thing.
This is why the biggest two rules of writing that I’m sure you’ve already heard, are:
1. show don’t tell
2. kill your darlings
I have a lot of clear guidelines on how to achieve these.
If you ask “what does this look like?” you’ll be more likely to show the scene happening, instead of waxing on about theoretical things readers can’t picture.
And if you can “see” the scene and write it, it may help you avoid getting lost in fancy flourishes or purple prose that don’t matter and are distracting; most of the time these embellishments distract and detour, they lessen or cheapen the actual dramatic impact of the scene.
If YOU love it because you feel very skilled and accomplished for having produced a fresh, vibrant sentence with interesting words…. you should probably cut that out and get back to your unimpressed characters who are waiting for you to stop giggling at your own cleverness.