How I beta edit my own writing

In case this helps anyone. I often heavily beta my own work.

Going through this process really improves your writing by leaps and bounds. Even if you also have other editors/critique for you, there’s a benefit to building this skill and practicing it on your work. It continues to be what gets me past that first draft and I use it on every story I write. Honestly, no other writing exercise has had such a dramatic impact on improving my writing skills more than this process does. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is incredible.

This is long, but here is literally what I do to my own work:

I sit down with my draft (sometimes I wait a few days or a week to get a little distance). Then I get into a Reader mode headspace.

Most writers are also readers. So in a way, you know what works and what doesn’t from your lengthy experiences reading. So pretend someone just handed you this draft or that you found it somewhere. And read it as if you’ve never read it before. Treat it as if you have no idea what the writer was thinking or meant by any of it. All you know is the words in front of you. This way you can tell if it came across the same way you wanted it to on the page itself, not just because you know as a writer what it’s supposed to mean. Building a road is different than driving it and writing a story is different than reading it. The different viewpoint from looking at your story like a reader does will expose a lot of things that were not obvious when you were writing it down originally. Notice what is working on the page, what doesn’t work, what is confusing, what comes across the wrong way, what is repetitive, where it jumps, inconsistencies between sections, pacing issues, walls of text, dry descriptions, parts that don’t drive the story forward, flat characters, generic dialog, etc etc.

Mark it all up (or write in a new document) with what you notice, what you wish had been there, what you hated, what confused you, etc. List the brutally honest impressions that reading this scene made on you (as an impartial reader, who is judging it the same way you’d judge any other thing that you read by someone else).

Be specific. “This line made him sound bored but it’s supposed to be exciting – where is his enthusiasm? Would he really be sitting down right now?” is a lot more useful later on than saying “change this dialog, it’s boring” would be. The more info you can give yourself about What and Why, even suggestions for what might have been better from a reader’s perspective, etc. All of that gives you more to work with later on.

Also take note of what you DO like. Which parts were interesting. Which descriptions worked. Which characters you found the most intriguing/relatable/three-dimensional or even just who you liked the best. Was there a line you loved, and why? Did something move you or evoke something? Was there something you wanted more of? Your writer self will want to know exactly how it wasn’t ALL complete crap. And you might be surprised that some things turned out well enough that it’s something you’d normally admire if this bit or that line had been someone else’s work. And that is excellent feedback for how your work currently measures up to everything else in the world you aspire to.

Then when you feel like you’ve marked down everything you’ve noticed or liked and/or disliked. That’s when you take a break again.

Then you switch hats. Get back into the writer headspace. The creative part of you that makes plots and tries things and dreams up stories. Only this time, you bring scissors. You’re going to snip out bits that didn’t quite work yet. Like pruning a rose bush, you snip out dead lines, repetitive words, extraneous descriptions, lagging sections. And you replace them with better versions. Maybe the fact there’s a table in the corner can be removed as a stand-alone sentence and instead snuck into the action e.g. “he set his briefcase onto the table in the corner and poured himself a scotch.” It’s more compact and doesn’t drag away from the action anymore.

The goal of this phase isn’t really to lose anything that’s important. It’s cleaning off the mud, sanding off the rough edges, scrape away the initial packaging the story came with. Clearing away all of the word clutter so that the story, characters and prose can really hum with life and shine clearly to a reader.

This process is a lot like sculpting a statue or working on an archaeological dig: you have to clear away some what is in front of you in order to uncover the story that’s still buried in there somewhere. There’s a reason you put all of it in there in the first place, sure. But is there a better way you could say it? Should it be explicitly stated or implied via something in the scene?

Was it actually important, or was it just there initially to help you picture the world you were building so now it can be removed from this scene and be placed into some reference notes somewhere instead? Backstory details and worldbuilding details are especially guilty of sneaking into first drafts, but later finding better homes in other chapters entirely. Or maybe it worked at first, but after everything else does it STILL work for this scene? Or has what the story needs changed since that first version of this story was put on paper? Put everything that stays to work on the page. If it’s not doing anything for the story, then it needs be replaced or deleted.

If you wrote something that you personally love but is now orphaned out of the current version of the story, then save it in a separate document. Sometimes you can put that lovely bit of dialogue, that great opening line, that irrelevant plot element, deleted side character, etc into something else you write. I have a document filled with bits orphaned out of other stories. Some of them even work as a prompt months later to generate a complete story of their very own.

Another thing to look for is how often things are written less concisely the first time around. Each editing phase you can check if that word is truly serving a purpose in that sentence or is it clear without it? It might not need to be there after all. Same with whether that sentence still works in that paragraph or was the point it made already covered somewhere else? Edits like this can streamline the prose, improve pacing, focus the attention on the more important bits of information and make it easier for the reader to follow what’s going on.

You may also want to move stuff around. Does the description work better before or after he walks through the door? What does that change? Does it make the scene flow better or actually make it stutter and lag? Maybe you only really need to describe the coat when he picks it up again while he leaves, near the end of the scene.

I once had a story I wrote seven versions of the first draft. And then I went through and picked out a sentence here, a paragraph there, a description, a transition, etc. And copypasted them into a new draft that worked far better (with a little more editing) than any of the original attempts ever did.

Sometimes it gets messy and you have to be a bit brutal and fearless to really get the story right. So make a new copy of your document just for editing it if you’re afraid to lose something. That way if you deleted something early on and later want that line/scene back, you still have it buried in your original draft. I tend to just use the lower half of the document for the older version(s), keeping the newest version at the top. (Excessive use of the enter key to push the older text downward). That way I can reference between drafts easily by scrolling down to check as needed. And when I’m ready, it’s easy to delete the old versions I’ve replaced if I want to clean up the document after I’m completely finished.

Once you’re satisfied in Writer Phase and feel like you don’t see anything else to change. Put it down, take a break. Then come back and give it the ‘if I just found this somewhere and was reading it for the first time and had no expectations, what would I think of this bit of writing if it were by someone else entirely’ Reader phase treatment again.

And start marking it up all over again. You’ll find new things. You’ll be able to see which changes worked, and which didn’t go far enough. And if the previous edit took something into the wrong direction, then deductively it tells you what to try next with that part.

And then another Writing Phase. Then another Reading Phase. It takes a lot of edits to boil down to the essentials in that block of text you have in front of you. Sometimes you may rewrite a section from scratch, delete characters or plot points, put the original middle into the beginning now, etc. As long as it makes the story clearer, evokes things, is more interesting and more enjoyable to read, then it’s all progress. There’s just a lot of shuffling the words around to get everything in the right place.

Fair warning, there will be at least one frustrating editing round where you feel like you’re doing more harm than good and maybe it’s just ruined crap not worth saving.

But there is also a point you reach after that: where it starts to sparkle, to come alive, jump off the page. To me, I feel a little awe and magic when that happens. That’s the exciting part.

And if you keep going even further, up until you really can’t find anything that can’t be improved, every word seems to be doing something and serving a purpose on the page, etc. That’s when you get to see some of your best work as a writer. That’s when Reader-version you goes: “wow, I can’t believe Writer me made this. It’s almost as good as some of the stuff I’ve read by other people, how did that even happen?” Which can actually be intimidating but that’s another whole subject.