Self-Editing: Before You Wordprocess

to do list.jpgEveryone loves a list.  Okay, maybe not everyone.  But given the number of lists I see on Pinterest, the interwebs, and other social media outlets, I figured I would toss one together about self-editing.

For many of you, the prospect of hiring an editor is daunting.  Fear of feedback and fear of costs both play a role in this.  It can be expensive.  Some indie authors don’t have the money to do it for those first couple books.  At least until you get discovered and take over the world!   World ruling aside, you still can apply decent editing techniques to your writing on a budget.

This is the basic process I would recommend to self-edit your work before you start editing on your word processor.  Obviously, this is a daily blog post I create so some steps might be missing (i.e. I didn’t spend days writing this post).  Also, if you are going to self-edit, I would highly recommend buying some books on editing and self-editing.  I will offer an assortment of references to consider at the end of the list.

forgetful gentleman.jpgStep 1: Write book.

Step 2: Forget the book exists for a month or so. This is essential.  The reason people buck against editors is because we see your work with fresh eyes and mistakes are more apparent.  To be your own editor, you must acquire fresh eyes too.

Here’s an example to drive this point.  Every now and then, I will jump back a month or so and look at a blog I posted.  In just a few seconds, I will often find numerous issues.  When I published those posts, I read them aloud, and studied them for mistakes – it was perfect to me.  With fresh eyes I see the mistakes.  Check out one of your own older blogs and see if this rings true for you.

During this painful waiting period, I encourage you to crack open some books on writing and editing.  You can sharpen your tools while you wait to apply them.

hourglass.pngStep 3: If you have alpha readers, send them the manuscript during this wait time.  Ask them not to talk to you about the book during your waiting period, or you will remove them from your Christmas (or whatever holiday you prescribe to) card list.  If they follow through, send them a gift basket as well as the card.

A note about alpha readers.  Alpha readers should be trusted and competent folk who are willing to give you more detailed feedback than a beta reader likely would.  I would generate a basic template that allows them to give feedback for each chapter.  I like to have one to three of these people, no more.  I’ll explain why in Step 14.

Step 4: After wait time has elapsed, print pages.  If not double spaced, make it so (said in Captain Picard’s voice).

Corot_Monk_Reading_Book_1.jpgStep 5: Set aside blocks of time to read the book in seclusion.  If you can do it all at once, even better.

Step 6: During this first pass note obvious issues, but don’t dwell on them.  This isn’t the time to go into the computer and start editing.  You wrote the book in chunks, see for the first time how the entire thing flows together.  You don’t have to use copy-editing hieroglyphics.  Just circle, one-line, and jot notes down in the margin.  The goal is to move as quickly as you can through the work, the notations are secondary.

Step 7: Do take the time to put a plus, minus, or equal sign (or however you want to indicate it) on the last page of the chapter.  This is a notation regarding pacing.  It’s a quick way for you to reference chapters that drag, are too rushed, or were just perfect.  This may likely be the only time you notice those pacing issues as you are reading the work in its entirety in a sitting or two.

Step 8: Start over.  This time treat each chapter as an independent entity.

rewritingStep 9: Read each chapter aloud, or have someone do it for you.  Listen to the words.  If you stumble when you read it aloud, people will stumble when they read.  Again, circle or underline those areas and write a note above them.  You could write things like, awkward, reword, needs punctuation, or break sentence apart.

Step 10:  Look at description, setting, transitions, dialogue, and other aspects during this 2nd pass.  Jot down basic notes, “Add description,” “Where are they?” “What does this look like?” “What the heck was I thinking with this?”.  Hopefully, because your eyes are fresher, the basic blunders are going to really smack you in the face.  You might have noted some of these issues while you were in Step 6, this is a good time to expand.

Step 11: As you are tackling one chapter at a time, consider character arcs.  Write down characters as they appear and write a sentence or two about what they do in the chapter.  I do this on an extra piece of paper and clip it to the end of each chapter.

For character arcs, I take the notations I made and compile them.  This is easy to do if you did it on a separate page like I indicated above.  It makes analyzing this information easier when an entire character arc has been summarized on a single page.

This allows me to look at the course the character took through the duration of the work.  I consider how (and if) the character changed.  I take special care to note if certain characters were simply floating along in the story.  Also, because you tracked this by chapter, you will know exactly where to go to revise.

character arc.png

Step 12: In the same way I handled character arcs, I address plot.  I consider the value of the plot devices (conflicts) as they pop up in.  Were they resolved?  Were they prevalent?  Did they matter to the characters?  Again, compiled on a single paper it’s easier to see where issues are.  Another bonus, if you did it for each chapter, you know where to go to when you start revision.

Step 13: After you finish, your manuscript is going to look like an insane Frankenstein monster.  It will be likely covered in marks and have pages of additional information attached to it via a paperclip.  You can’t blame your editor, blame yourself!  But hey, the more destruction the better.  It’s the road to polished success.

kids with paper.jpg

All of my notes came in!

Step 14: In addition to your own self-editing notes, you should also have detailed feedback from alpha readers at this point.  The reason I like to only have a 1-3 is because you already have a lot of self-generated information to sort through.

Final Step: Gather large quantities of stimulants, sit down at the computer, and apply the compendium of notes.

That’s the basic pre-computer editing process.  Like I said, it’s far from complete, but it’s a good start.  Every editor develops unique and creative ways to note information quickly.  You will likely do the same as you edit your own work and become faster and more efficient.

Some of you may be saying, “QE, what about adverbs, show versus tell, punctuation problems, verb tense disagreements, and all of that other stuff?”  Hopefully some of that jumped out at you during the more thorough handwritten revision (2nd pass) and you noted them.

But honestly, I generate a blog post every day covering each one of those little ideas.  If I made a list of all of those things, it would be pages long.  Outside of formal instruction, this is where reading some greens will help you notice and isolate those issues.

book in hand.pngHere’s a shortlist of books to help with the editing process (all links send you to GoodReads).

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – This is honestly one of the best books I’ve read on self-editing.
The Elements of Style – Arguably one of the greatest books on the craft ever written, and shortest.
Writing Tools – Full of great general writing information and revision techniques.
The Chicago Manual of Style – Massive in size, but it’s considered by many the editor’s bible.  You can kill a full sized raccoon with this thing.
Manuscript Makeover – An amazing book on revision.  Each chapter offers a checklist to help you out with revision.  Those alone make this book worth buying.

tools.jpgI hope you found some useful tools here.  I hope this also gives you an idea of the amount of work some editors do before they even go into markup mode and touch your manuscript.  You can see the process is lengthy (and this is even before you start typing).  But if you are going to self-edit, you need to really take your time and be thorough, there is no way around it.  What’s the rush after all?  You likely spent months writing, why not devote a fair amount of time to polishing?

Did I miss a step?  Do you have a method that should be on the list?  Let me know, I’m always open to new ways of doing things.  Like I said earlier, the list is incomplete.  But this is a good start.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

35 responses

    • Thanks for stopping in and reading today. I’m glad you found some use in it.

      Like you said, self-editing is absolutely an option for people. I just encourage folks to really take the time and commit it self-study, maybe even seek out some formal training. It’s still not ideal to be the only person to edit your work, but if you are going to, make sure you are as efficient and knowledgeable as you can possible be.

      Best of luck to you and thanks again for stopping by.


  1. Haha! I agreed with the cat at the end of this article! Xp I was like, you have to write another book just to fix my book! ^_^ Great advice as usual! I was intrigued by your list and found it quite helpful.

    I learned way more than I should on a Friday after work and that is a good thing! You should def see that as a compliment considering I was a kid who stood up senior year in advanced biology and told my teacher I don’t believe in homework, so don’t expect it to be completed often.

    I was terrible at doing homework. He was super understanding and appreciated the honesty though. So yeah, the fact I’m willing to do the homework you’ve prescribed is saying something.

    I love your blog. I learn so much every day!

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 2 people

    • I appreciate your kind words as always. I do my best to try to demystify some of the dark arts – I’m glad it’s helping you and others out.

      My hope is that by revealing the work done behind the scenes people are more apt to trust a competent editor. At the very least, they can take the tools and apply them to their own work.

      Thanks for swinging in today.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Good list. I usually try to make it at least two, sometimes three months off. And I’m always surprised when I come back to it. It’s a mix of, oh, this is a good line, and oh crap.. I wrote that??

    I also laughed out loud that step one is literally write book. Ha!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for giving the list a read! I put step one in there because I get emails (which I love and appreciate) asking about post production editing information, and when I ask about the book, it’s not written yet. I worry some folks get bogged down in the details and that stops them from pounding out the first draft. Create first, worry about everything else later.

      I applaud you on being able to step away from the project that long. It seems to be a huge challenge for so many writers – you rock.

      Thanks again for swinging in and leaving some thoughts. Good luck with your writing!


    • You aren’t alone it seems. It’s interesting because this step is the hardest and easiest at the same time. When we need to write we can’t, and when we shouldn’t write we want to. The writing life is an odd one.

      Always rushing ahead without considering the long game is a very Knight of Wands way of doing things (something I learned from your awesome blog page).

      Thanks for dropping in and leaving some thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I say this same thing to my Students. In steps 9, 10, 11, and 12, don’t read it one time. You’ll never be as detailed as you want. Read each chapter severities and address each issue you mentioned above. I talk about drafts. My discovery draft is a no holds barred key pounding battle. My first draft is only for character and plot, but I do about four actual drafts. My second in for description only, but that’s usually two quick drafts. My third applies alpha and or beta reader feedback…it’s designed to be the last content draft. Caught is on a fifth draft. But it’s really more like the 10th. It’s just that I do several fast passes to ensure I give each issue the attention it deserves. If you try to do it all at once, I just don’t like your odds. Plus, that method helps me feel a sense of progress. I have to feel like I’m moving or my motivation just plummets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your method Matt. I know I can always tell a big difference in your writing depending on what stage I jump into the process with my editing.

      I don’t discourage someone who is going to be their own editor from doing exactly what you are saying. Even if you are going to pay an editor it is a really smart thing to do – you could end up saving a LOT of money.

      As a professional editor, depending on how well the client has self-edited, you can get 4-10 pages done an hour (with 250 words being the standard page). There is a big difference between four pages an hour and ten. In the way of cost saving, by applying proper self-editing techniques you can half the amount of time a pro-editor has to spend on your manuscript if you are paying hourly.

      If you are paying by the word the difference could be as drastic as .75/cents a word (you’ve rocked socks and done a solid self-edit prior to submission) to 2/cents a word (more serious revision is having to be done on our end).

      There is significant savings to consider by taking the time, like you do, to really go over the content more than a few times. Whether you are the final eyes or an editor is – your method is a brilliant way of tackling your manuscript.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I try not to think to hard about this when I’m actually writing though…. I just tell the story and trust the review process. I mention that because I don’t want people to get so focused on the mechanics of the editing, the technicalities of story/plot/character arcs that they forget the forgot that ultimately it is all about the story. It can be perfectly written, but if there is not “there” there then nobody will care.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just like writing you’ll get better at editing over time (especially is you devote some time to self study). Good luck when you start tackling those edits on your books! You’re already thinking the right way.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found something useful! Mapping those character arcs is really helpful when you are doing the general (content) editing. By tracking it chapter to chapter it helps you pull the character out of the wordy whirlpool and look at them individually.

      Best of luck to you! Happy writing and editing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That list summed up the process in a long winded way. 😉 What you listed took me a year to do with lots of breaks and other projects in between. Not to mention research on what and how to edit. There was a bunch of trial and error and a whole lot of patience required. It wasn’t bad, I loved every minute.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Editing a quickly drafted novel tends to be a long winded process, which you can attest to given the year it took you to edit your own work.

      It made me smile to hear you loved every minute of the process. I wish more people would accept the revision process as an enjoyable thing. After all, you are taking this miraculous thing you created and making it even better.

      Thanks for stopping by to read and sharing you experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Bookmarked. I’m currently on day 27 of not touching my first draft. I promised my four alpha readers a solid month of peace and quiet before I start badgering them about their progress on my draft. The road to revision seems a little daunting, but then again, so was writing 170,000 words. I’m definitely looking forward to starting though. Thanks for the guidance!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is some word count! I know many people may say your word count is out of the ballpark, but after looking at your upcoming work, The Warden of Everfeld: Memento, I can see why those numbers are so high. It’s a very ambitious project!

      If you can learn to love the revision process, it will certainly make life easier for you as you tackle that challenge. I will periodically stop by your page to track updates. Best of luck to you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! Yes, I think my world-building project will (hopefully) occupy much of my time for the foreseeable future.

        I gave my draft a rushed revision as I was preparing the first manuscript, and that was tedious mostly because I was anxious to put a pin in it. I know now that I need to have much more patience in revising my novel, so I’m just trying to focus on other projects to keep the mental wheels turning before I dive back in.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Template for Tracking Character Arcs « Quintessential Editor

  8. Although I’m not writing a book I have an editor who checks what we publish. The one thing missing from your list my editor go’s on about is to cut the waffle. Why make it longer than it needs to be? Some blog post I read do meander putting me off from reading to the end. Sometimes I think it is about writing to set number of words instead of the quality of content.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with your editor on this one. I did a post a while back about methods I used while blogging and word count was one of the points I touched on. Me personally, I try not to deviate beyond a thousand words. Given posts here are daily, the reduced word count helps everyone involved (me and the reader). I try not to stress the “rules” to much here in blog land though. I’ve got enough rules to contend with in my real job!

      Thanks for the additional insight and for reading today. Best of luck to you in your projects.


  9. Pingback: Self-Editing: Fighting Emotion with Logic « Quintessential Editor

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