Self-Editing at the Story Level

It’s Brooks Week here at A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, with Larry Brooks of Storyfix. Larry is a critically-acclaimed bestselling author of four psychological thrillers and writing instructor, with his recent release Story Engineering: Understanding The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. His following on Storyfix is impressive—those guys gave him the one completely landslide vote in the Top 10 Blogs for Writers.

He’s a fearless proponent of story structure as the path to professional writing. (He should know.)

And today he’s going to tell us why.


“Editing” is a loaded word. One that scares the bejezus out of many writers, and with good reason.

It’s like a visit to the dentist. The intention is pure, the goal is a better smile, and—unless you’re Jack Nicholson in Little Shop of Horrors—the process too often sucks.

In both the analogy and the reality, the best way to avoid this pain is through the proper care and maintenance of your God-given chops. Which includes daily habits and practices, a resistance to temptation and the occasional check-up to make sure there are no gaping holes that need immediate professional attention. Evaluating and coaching your own story toward optimal dramatic health is very much like someone trying to do their own dentistry.

But there is a way it can be done.

It is the very essence of the old cliché, “an ounce of dental floss is worth a pound of gold fillings.” It’s all about knowing enough to not fall into narrative traps.


Storytelling is based on creative narrative decisions, and you make them in the heat of the moment as you write because you believe them to be appropriate, compelling and in alignment with those professional-level expectations.

Which is precisely why you probably aren’t the best person to do an edit in this regard at the story level. You wouldn’t have done it that way if you didn’t think it’d work.

Or not. Maybe there’s a little voice whispering that something doesn’t make sense.

Story Editors

A story editor is the person who tells you that you need more tension here, better character arc there and that your inciting incident is about as provocative and interesting as the next Rush Limbaugh embarrassment. That it fits—or that it doesn’t fit—into the expected parameters of professional story structure and dramatic theory.

And in an irony that is worth paying attention to, the writers most capable of story-editing their own work are often those that need it the least. Just like a dentist knows enough to make flossing part of their nightly ritual.

It’s a question of professionalism versus amateur hour. Of knowing versus guessing. Of submitting to the craft versus not understanding that there are standards that demand your submission.

But how do they know?

Storytelling Craft

The criteria for an effective story are as valid during the writing as they are during the evaluation. Unlike a mental health counselor listening to another shrink spill their guts about what is making them crazy, writing a story does not suffer from literary blindness at the creative level.

And herein resides the key to it all: if you know how a story should work—structurally, dramatically, mechanically, professionally—then odds are you will make your creative choices as you plan and/or write it in a manner that is in alignment with those principles.

It’s when you don’t really own these basic principles, but think you do—perhaps because you’ve been reading stories for years, perhaps because you’ve taken a course or read a book—that frustration and rejection ensue. Even when you know you can write like Mark Twain and your ideas are as hot as those of a guy named Spielberg.

Storytelling craft is the separator between those who succeed professionally and those who don’t understand why nobody recognizes their genius.

If you know enough about the rules and principles of effective storytelling in the first place, chances are a) you’ll write a story that abides by them, b) you’ll be aware of any straying from the path in real-time, and c) if you’ve missed a step a quick re-read will focus on the obvious mistakes as easily for you as for an editor-for-hire.

At the professional level, editors are astoundingly valuable.

But don’t kid yourself, this game is different than someone banging out their first novel and hoping for affirmation by sending a few grand to a story coach. No, the professional author looks to their story editor for input at the micro-story level. Because their story is most likely already in alignment with the known and expected parameters of professional-level storytelling. Just like a proven professional turning up at an audition.

It’s all about the subtleties and nuances of character arc, the optimization of dramatic tension, the culling out of reader empathy and thematic resonance. The editor is there to smooth and ignite and shift, not reconstruct from the blueprint of what they were expecting to read.

The Choice

And right there is where the aspiring writer needs to make a choice.

Do I pay someone to evaluate my story to see if everything is in the right place, and effectively so? Or do I know enough about storytelling craft to determine this—the veracity of the structure of my story—on my own?

This question becomes the acid test for the writer looking to turn pro. Like flying an airplane, doing surgery or earning your tour card on the pro golf tour, there’s no faking it at the professional level. If you try to fake it you’ll die, the patient will go into a coma or they’ll boo you off the course.

If you think you can make this stuff up as you go, that you can fake it or that it’s just a matter of intuition. . .you can’t, and it’s not.

Worse yet. . .if you think there are no basic expectations and parameters for story structure—that you can skip all this mumbo jumbo about a hook and a first plot point and a mid-point context shift and the discreet missions of the four parts of your story and what the guy at the writing conference called character arc—or worse, you have no real solid notion about what any of that means. . .

. . .you can’t do that, either.

Not if you desire to turn professional and sell your stories, in whatever venue, to readers.

Publishing Success

The road toward success always has two lanes:

The first is the learning of the craft, an apprenticeship that can sometimes last for decades. There are tools out there, the most powerful of which is to internalize the basics and then begin to recognize them in the work of others, both books and movies.

The second is much faster. It’s where everybody in the game is writing their stories using the same set of standards and expectations. Which means it’s winner-take-all, may the best story land the deal.

Learn the craft. Your story doesn’t stand a chance until you do.

You’ll be surprised what you’ll notice once you know what to look for. And how it validates what you’re doing, just as it perhaps invalidates what you’d been doing before you knew.

Want a deal? Here’s one: send your receipt for my new book, Story Engineering: Understanding The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing—which has spent much of the time since its publication as the #1 bestseller in the fiction writing category—to me (at, and I’ll send you my ebook, 101 Slightly Predictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters, as a gift. Just say “Victoria sent me,” and it’s a done deal.

Larry Brooks is the creator of, and the bestselling author of five critically-praised novels, including a USA Today bestseller. His newest book, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, was just published by Writers Digest Books.

9 thoughts on “Self-Editing at the Story Level

  1. K.M. Weiland says:

    Excellent stuff, Larry, as always. So many writers get to the point of agreeing that they need to learn their craft, but after that, they draw a blank on just what, exactly “craft” is. That’s where information, such as this post (and your recent book) come in so handy. It’s a road map for authors setting out on a journey to the unknown blue yonder.

  2. Jessica says:

    I’m still in the early writing stage….and whether I know anything about anything is still debatable….it’s all debatable, really.

  3. jennifer says:

    Great post! I once hired an “editor” to read and edit my work. And it turned out she didn’t have a freaking clue how a story should be written (dumb me for not doing enough research on her). But now I know so much about story structure and core competencies that I feel like I can easily evaluate my own writing/novel and know right away if I’m missing anything. That, of course, is thanks to Larry.

    1. Victoria says:

      Jennifer, on behalf of all real editors out here, I humbly apologize. There are a lot of amateurs masquerading as ‘editors’ right now—it’s a real Wild West era, complete with snakeoil salespeople—and I always encourage writers to do their due diligence before they pay anyone for anything.

      Just last night I gave a talk to my local Writers Club and was approached by a writer afterward who said, “How do you know which editors are good?” It turned out he’d been to the San Francisco Writers Conference, where an ‘editor’ had pressured him intensely, saying, “You only have a few days, so act fast!”

      I said, “Do the research. Look for editors who are putting their knowledge out there in public to prove their chops. Ask for client references. Never, ever, ever waste your time on someone who pressures you.”

      There is no excuse for uneducated amateurs pretending to be professionals without the skills to back it up, but, yeah, it’s going on a LOT.

  4. I am completely addicted to your blog, and your guest posts. 🙂

    As someone who is writing their first novel, I will definitely be making the investment in having an editor go over it. I don’t see the point in spending years writing a project and then half-assing the editing process. I’m not sure why other writers do this–is it ego, is it because of their fantasies of sitting with Oprah, is it impatience? Probably all three. Direction for me is important, and I know that an objective perspective from a professional will make all the difference; it will teach me what to look for in my future manuscripts when the editing process begins.

  5. More of the best advice around.

    WIP going out in a couple of weeks for a pro’s look at it. I hope she’s brutal.

  6. (By the way Victoria, love the ‘insert name here recently posted __’ thingy. How are you doing that?)

    1. Victoria says:

      That’s Comment Luv. I don’t know anything about installing it, but it took my sys admin about five minutes, so it can’t be too hard!

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