Review: "Self-Editing For Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne & Dave King
Beginner writers to intermediate writers
With so many (wonderful) books out there that teach us how to craft mesmerizing plots, compelling characters, and touchable settings, a book that focuses on the craft of editing that gorgeous work into something even better is a treasure.
That’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Renni Browne and Dave King are both independent editors. Their book is all about teaching you, a writer, how to see your work with an editor’s eyes.
Want to get your novel ready to self-publish or send to an agent? Read this book!
Every Single Chapter Begins with an Example
Before explaining anything, Chapter 1 of the book — “Show and Tell” — begins with one question and a block of text. The question is simple: “What’s wrong with this paragraph?”
The text begins like this: “The conversation was barely begun before I discovered that our host was more than simply a stranger to most of his guests. He was an enigma, a mystery. And this was a crowd that doted on mysteries” (5). So, what is wrong with the quote? Many writers will easily figure out that it’s a huge block of pure telling.
In fact, it’s Browne & King’s own bland version of The Great Gatsby, where the same passage reads like this: “I like to come,’ Lucille said. ‘I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address—within a week I got a package from Croirier’s with a new evening gown in it’” (6).
There’s a remarkable difference between these two versions of the same text, and Renni Browne and Dave King spend the rest of Chapter 1 breaking down the differences, why they matter, and how to make sure your writing shows, not tells — mostly. The authors do assert that not every single piece of information can be a scene. Sometimes, “narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing” (9).
Every chapter in this book follows the same helpful pattern so that writers can see the transformation of good editing firsthand and understand it completely. The examples don’t just appear at the beginning of the chapter, either; they’re sprinkled all throughout.
Think Browne & King’s showing versus telling lesson is a no-brainer? Fear not! They also include lesser-discussed issues in chapters with titles like, “Proportion,” “See How it Sounds,” and “Once Is Usually Enough.”
At the End of Each Chapter, You’ll Find Short Exercises to Nail Down the New Info
Lots of craft books pose helpful questions at the end of their chapters. Browne & King also provide you with a helpful checklist of questions, but they go a step further and give you passages to edit with the tools you’ve learned in that chapter. Just as in school math textbooks, you’ll find answers to the exercises in the back of the book!
The Writers’ Rigidity in a Previous Edition Could Cause Confusion
In their introduction, Browne and King tell readers that in the first edition (this review is for the second edition), they said too much about where not to put emotion — without giving guidance on where and how to weave it into a novel instead. “As a result,” they write, “we’ve seen a lot of overzealous writers strip their manuscripts down to emotional minimalism that doesn’t fit their story or natural style” (2). Now, they go on to say, they allow for more balance.
While Browne and King fixed the problem, they almost seem to pin the blame on the “overzealous writers,” when they’re the ones who probably scared writers out of using emotion altogether.
Don’t think you have to follow any teaching or formula rigidly — in this or any craft book. Take to heart all the information that’s helpful to you and leave the rest.
If you want a book filled with concrete examples for how to make your dialogue, narrative summary, scenes, beats, and more edited to perfection, this is the book for you!
Browne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. William Morrow-HarperCollins, 2004
About Laura Ojeda Melchor
Laura Ojeda Melchor holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and spends her days chasing after her adventurous toddler. A freelance writer and fiction novelist, she lives in Alaska with her family. She enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, exploring Alaska, and going for walks in her delightfully foresty neighborhood.
For her fiction, she’s represented by a fantastic agent at Upstart Crow Literary. She’s also a contributing writer for Book Riot. You can find her at her online home, lauraojedamelchor.com.