Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review of Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

I’ve long been a fan of bestselling legal suspense author’s James Scott Bell’s frequent articles in the Writer’s Digest magazine. He has a friendly and pithy way of simplifying the craft and presenting usable and realistic solutions. I’ve clipped dozens of his articles and filed them for rereading. When someone gave me Revision and Self-Editing as a Christmas gift, I anticipated more of the same: hands-on instruction on a subject that befuddles all writers at one time or another. And that’s what I got—I just expected it to be new information, rather than a word-for-word reprint of all those great articles I read (and, although I haven’t read his companion book Plot and Structure, I’ve heard that much of Revision and Self-Editing is also a repeat its information). I don’t hold the reiteration of info against Bell (I’ve done it myself in diversifying media), but the lack of new information diminished the book’s usefulness for me.

Plus, very little in this book focuses on editing. The first three quarters discuss the basics of a good story, before finally delving into Bell’s in-depth editing checklist. It’s true enough that solidifying the basics of story is at the heart of any editing project, but readers can find this information in dozens of other books on the craft. In a book titled Revision and Self-Editing, I was hoping to find tips and tricks focused on the revision process in particular.

That said, the checklist at the end is a great tool. It offers exactly the kind of specificity and experience writers need to bring to the table when the red ink starts flowing. Bell covers twelve facets of story and the nuances we need to double-check while revising—everything from correctly structuring our beginnings, middles, and ends to polishing our characters and dialogue. In summary, I would recommend this book if you’re unfamiliar with his Writer’s Digest articles and haven’t read Plot and Structure. Otherwise, you can probably find all this information elsewhere, without shelling out an extra $17.
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  1. I don't know about you, but I am aching for a decent editing book. Noah Lukemann's The First Five Pages was decent, but most of them are straight writing book in disguise. The fact that you're telling me the first 75% concentrates on the basis of a good story rings an alarm in my mind.

  2. I agree with your assessment. I loved his check-list too, but so much of the book had been covered in his Plot and Structure. Many of the points in these books are also repeated in The Art of War for Writers, but there are enough differences and enough new material that I'm not sorry I own all three.

  3. @Ben: The truth of the matter is that good editing is nothing more than good writing from a different angle. So, inevitably, editing books have to focus on the principles of writing. One of my favorite editing books is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King, but, again, you'll find a lot of *writing* info here as well.

    @Linda: I probably won't be purchasing his other writing books, but that doesn't mean the info in them isn't good. Bell's a fabulous writing teacher.

  4. I refer back to his book as I'm editing. I like his check list too. For technical advice I check my "Chicago Manual of Style". I've paid for two critiques on a WIP and the editors' suggestions are transferable to my current novel as I work on editing it.

    For example, I use the "find' function on my new WIP to look for the same mistakes I made on the last. Another mistake is I have two story lines running at the same time, but on one I wasn't running it chronologically. I then went to my current WIP and found I'd done the same thing!
    Working on self-editing is teaching me about me and my habits as a writer.

  5. Self-editing is one of those vital skills for any successful author. I would rank it as the single most important element in improving our understanding and handling of the craft.