Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

by Renni Browne and Dave King

Listed in the Los Angeles Times as one of six indispensable books for writers, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, has been a highly respected guide for writers of fiction (and narrative nonfiction) since its initial publication in 1993. Since then it has been one of the best-selling books ever written on the topic of writing craft, going through many printings and a revised second edition. Agents consider Self-Editing for Fiction Writers to be especially relevant in today’s publishing environment where in-house editing is rare.

Renni Browne brought decades of experience acquiring and editing some of publishing’s most respected authors and distilled much of what she learned into guidelines writers can use to strengthen their narrative voice and avoid amateurish habits that typically stop agents and acquisitions editors dead in their tracks. Dave King added guidance he’d learned from years of working at The Editorial Department and then took things a step further by shaping everything into a self-help book, complete with exercises and checklists and examples that show how the recommended techniques can be implemented to best effect—many straight from books that Browne and King edited .

The end result is a modern classic on writing craft that routinely earns 5 stars and has drawn high praise from literary agents, publishing editors, and thousands of writers worldwide.

Have a question for Renni about the book or any of its principles? Please click here.

What People Are Saying

“A superb tutorial for anyone wanting to learn from pros how to polish fiction writing with panache.”
— Library Journal

“An entire book on improving what you’ve written is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which comes from professional editors who know their stuff.”

— Los Angeles Times

“My students–including the published novelists–ought to read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers once a year, the Show and Tell chapter even more often.”

— Sol Stein, author of Stein on Writing

“Specific, pertinent, entertaining advice from two real pros. I recommend it highly.”

— Lawrence Block, bestselling mystery author and author of Telling Lies for Fun and Profit

“The only practical guide to the craft of writing that is both inspiring and essential.”

— Gary Fisketjon, Vice President and Senior Editor, Alfred A. Knopf

"I would have to say that this book should be a must for all aspiring authors. Even, dare I say, to many established authors who make many of the mistakes that this book talks about."

— Brian Hawkison, (5-star Review)

What’s Inside

Chapter 1: Show and Tell. How, why, and when to implement the most oft-repeated advice for writers.

Chapter 2: Characterization and Exposition. How much and when to fill your readers in.

Chapter 3: Point of View. How to choose and handle character perspective.

Chapter 4: Dialogue Mechanics. How to deliver dialogue professionally (speaker attribution, verbs for speech, etc.)

Chapter 5: See How It Sounds. How to make your dialogue sound natural.

Chapter 6: Interior Monologue. How to handle your characters’ thoughts.

Chapter 7: Easy Beats. How to make the most of movements during a dialogue scene.

Chapter 8: Breaking Up Is Easy To Do. How to use paragraphing and give and take to improve the flow of a scene.

Chapter 9: Once Is (Usually) Enough. Once Is Usually Enough. How to spot (and fix) unintentional repetition and redundancy of effect. (Also how and when to use repetition for deliberate effect.)

Chapter 10: Proportion. How to balance elements of your story to maximum effect and for best pacing.

Chapter 11: Sophistication. How to avoid habits that make writers look amateurish.

Chapter 12: Voice. How to bring out a distinctive narrative voice.

Excerpt from Chapter 12: Voice

An early seafaring novel by a celebrated nineteenth-century novelist begins:<

It was the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main-topsail aback about a league from the land and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean.

Years later the novelist wrote another first-person seafaring novel that begins:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

The opening of Omoo raises some intriguing questions—Why does the narrator need to escape from the bay? Whom are the narrator and his companions escaping from?—and gives a clear and vivid picture of the waiting ship. The opening of Moby-Dick is irresistible. What makes the difference?

The answer, of course, is voice. And judging from these two Herman Melville novels, even the greatest voices develop over time. Certainly when he wrote Omoo Melville had not yet found what John Garnder (in On Becoming a Novelist) has called “his booming, authoritative voice.” In the Moby-Dick opening, Gardner points out, the rhythms “lift and roll, pause, gather, roll again.” The authority is unmistakable. A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want—and something no editor or teacher can impart. There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. Voice is, however, something you can bring out in yourself.

You shouldn’t consciously work on your voice as you write, but there is a way to encourage it when you get to the self-editing stage. Start by rereading a short story, scene, or chapter as if you were reading it for the first time. Whenever you come to a sentence or phrase that gives you a little jab of pleasure, that makes you say, “Ah, yes,” that sings—highlight that passage in a color you like (we use yellow) or underline it.

Then go through and read aloud all the sentences you highlighted or underlined. Don’t analyze them for the moment, just try to absorb their rhythm or fullness or simplicity or freshness or whatever made them sing to you. What you’ve been reading aloud will represent, for now, your voice at its most effective. And making yourself conscious of it in this mechanical way will strengthen it as you continue your work. Now read through the same section again, and when you come to those passages that make you wince or that seem to fall flat, just draw a wavy line under them. Go back and read consecutively all the passages you didn’t like, and this time try to analyze what makes them different from the passages that sang to you. Is the writing flat? Strained? Awkward? Obvious? Pedestrian? Forced? Vague or abstract? If flatness seems to be the problem, take a look at the surrounding sentences and see if they don’t all have the same structure. Too many straight declarative sentences in a row, for instance, will flatten out anyone’s writing. If the problem is abstraction or vagueness, rewrite for specificity. “A man walked into the room and ordered a drink” hasn’t one fifth the bite of “A dwarf stepped up to the bar and ordered a Bloody Mary.”

If the passage seems obvious, check for explanations—whether in dialogue, interior monologue, even narration—and cut or rewrite accordingly. And if the writing seems strained or forced or awkward, try reading the passage aloud, listening carefully for any little changes you’re inclined to make while reading. More often than not, those changes will be in the direction of your natural voice.

If you do this exercise often enough, you will develop a sensitivity to your own voice that will gently encourage the development of the confidence and distinction you’re after. And this is as true of character voice as it is of narrative voice.



Barnes & Noble


  • "Renni Browne is tough but in a good way. She's also supportive, complimentary, encouraging, and funny as heck. When she tells you something is falling flat, she means it, and when she tells you she loves something, she means it. And when I say Renni has been a wonderful editor, mentor, support-system, cheerleader, coach, and now someone I call a friend, and I mean it."
    Chevy Stevens, best-selling Author of Still Missing, Never Knowing, Always Watching, That Night, and Those Girls
    Chevy Stevens books
  • "I've partnered with The Editorial Department on my last three novels because I know my books are far better as a result. We writers aren't the best judge of our own work, so it's incredibly helpful to receive their professional feedback and support."
    Laura Fitzgerald, bestselling author of Veil of Roses, Dreaming in English, and other titles
    Laura Fitzgerald
  • "John Marlow and I have worked on a development outline of my manuscript for three months. To have 20 hours, one-on-one with John on the phone has been absolutely invaluable to me; the best investment I've ever made. I trust him completely and feel that he has my best interests at heart. I can't say enough of how much I've learned from him. Thanks John. Thanks TED!"
    Ulla Hakanson, author of The Price of Silence
    Ulla Hakanson book
  • "I have nothing but wonderful things to say about my experiences with the professionals at the Editorial Department. They helped me write my second book, from initial concept to manuscript completion, in less than two months."
    Steven Knope, MD, author of Concierge Medicine
    Steven Knope, MD book
  • "To the folks at The Editorial Department, Renni Browne and Shannon Roberts, this book is light years ahead of where it was before I started working with you. I give you my utmost thanks."
    D. Robert Pease, author of the Noah Zarc series and other titles
    Robert Pease books
  • "I am completely blown away by the feedback from Renni Browne and Shannon Roberts - and feel more encouraged than ever that this is the type of novel writing I want to transition my career into. That kind of clear and concise feedback is absolutely invaluable, and I can see now why so many published authors continue to work with TED after succeeding."
    Mags Storey, author of Dead Girls Don’t and other titles
    Mags Storey book
  • "I’m grateful, too, to have had the help of publishing professionals associated with The Editorial Department, among them Doug Wagner, Amanda Bauch, Beth Jusino, and the ever-masterful Morgana Gallaway. I wish to thank my friend Kelly Leslie for designing a series of visually striking book covers."
    Holland Kane, author of Winter Reeds and other titles
    Holland Kane book
  • "I feel lucky. I feel humbled. But most of all, I feel grateful. I'm grateful to everyone at the Editorial Department, and especially grateful to Renni Browne. Without them, my dream would not have come true."
    Scott Pratt, author of An Innocent Client and other titles in the Joe Dillard series
    Scott Pratt books
  • "I have been very happy in my experience with the Editorial Department thus far. For a young writer such as myself, the commentary goes beyond the piece in question to serve as a sort of education in and of itself."
    Taylor Brown, author of In The Season of Blood & Gold
    Taylor Brown book
  • "Jane Ryder is an excellent handshake at the door. Got the immediate impression that she is the major domo with a very warm personality. Karinya Funsett-Topping has been prompt and thorough with trustworthy professional guidance. Doug Wagner I trust completely with the details. Peter Gelfan was very helpful as a focusing lens to guide me in reevaluating the manuscript. I was in the hands of very competent professionals who did not BS me on the work but sincerely gave guidance and encouragement, not just to string me along for another payment. I felt this team looked after me and my work, rather than just doing another business deal."
    Stephen Foehr, author of Water War and other titles
    Stephen Foehr book
  • "Several years ago Ross Browne critiqued my manuscript, Poison Pen (a mystery introducing handwriting expert, Claudia Rose), which was the first really helpful input I'd had. Ross' comments helped me understand and implement important changes that needed to be made throughout the book. Bottom line, last month Poison Pen received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. As a result, Penguin has purchased the first two books in the series from Capital Crime Press, the small publisher who took it on."
    Sheila Lowe, author of Poison Pen and other titles in the Forensic Handwriting Mystery series
  • "Beth Jusino has extensive knowledge of the marketplace and provides impactful insights into how to market a book. She also writes great copy. She took my back cover copy to another level. She can take on project and run with it."
    Rich Silvers, author of Have You Seen Her
    Rich Silvers book
  • "Although the whole team did a great job, Beth Jusino was a key member for the project as an editor and developer of the marketing strategy. Her comments on the manuscript were clear, concise, and candid. She kept me honest and helped me to reach out to the reader in a more accessible manner. Her ability to understand my vision is impressive, as if it were a personal project of her own.”
    G.C Gonzalez, author of Thoughts of A Common American 
  • "Jane Ryder and the staff at The Editorial Department are first-rate. In my dealings with them I’ve found them to be prompt, professional, and extremely good at what they do. The work is innovative and creative. The company is well run too. Every time I called, someone actually answered the phone and either provided assistance or put me through to someone who could."
    C.B. Anderson, author of River Talk
    C.B. Anderson book
  • "In the time since I've been working with TED I've grown so much as a writer. It's like taking a writing class where you're the only student. I also learned how to take criticism as well, a very important skill for a writer to have."
    Bishop O’Connell, author of The Stolen
    Bishop O'Connell books
  • "I am more than impressed with the professionalism and encouragement I've received from each member of your staff, from first contact on. I cannot imagine working with anyone else from now on."
    Auburn McCanta, author of All The Dancing Birds
    Auburn McCanta book
  • "I think most of Peter Gelfan's input was spot on and will greatly assist me in improving the manuscript. It will, I now realize, be more of a deconstruct/reconstruct effort than a polish, but based on Peter's insights I think I have a good handle on how to proceed. Money well spent. "
    R.E. (Bob) McDermott, author of Deadly Straits and other titles
    R.E. McDermott books
  • "Andy Hilleman's critique touched on something that really opened the door and allowed me to take the book to the next level."
    Norman Ollestad, New York Times bestselling author of Crazy For The Storm and other titles
    Norman Ollestad books
  • "Engaging and easy to implement suggestions and changes. I'm very pleased with the results."
    Benjamin Kane Ethridge, author of Black & Orange
    Benjamin Kane Ethridge books
  • "It was such a pleasure working with Chris Fisher. Not only is he completely professional, but he has the kindness and patience of a saint. As a first time author, his guidance and knowledge were invaluable in publishing Angel. His thoroughness and attention to detail were evident in the final product. I was so pleased."
    Mary Kingsley, author of Angel and All The Pieces
    Mary Kingsley books
  • "Just because you've written a great book doesn't mean you have the skills to sell it. Even if you have a great publisher, putting a book in the hands of the right readers is a unique and time-consuming process. It requires knowledge, experience and insight that most writers don't have. Beth Jusino knows what an author needs to do in order to reach an audience.
    She understands the inner workings of a changing, shifting industry, the importance of using different mediums to promote a book, and the need to develop comprehensive plans and specific strategies to succeed as an author. Following Beth's advice, my Stonewiser fantasy series garnered thousands of new readers. That's the kind of concrete, effective, result-oriented support than an author needs to succeed these days. It's also the reason why I highly recommend Beth's services."
    Dora Machado, author of the Stonewiser series and other titles
    Stonewiser Series