9: Self-Editing Overview

Show Notes

If you can get good at self-editing, you will save money by making it easier and thus less expensive for your editor to do their job. 

Today, I’m going to give an overview of a process any author can use to save time. You can save yourself from making twenty passes through your manuscript.



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When you type the end, it’s just the beginning. If you can get good at self-editing, you will save money on producing your book, not by getting rid of the editor but by making it much easier and less time consuming and thus less expensive for your editor to do their job.

Today, I’m going to give an overview of a process any author can use to save time. You can save yourself from making twenty passes through your manuscript which, in my opinion, is like dying a zillion times in horrible ways, like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. This and more on this episode of Writing Pursuits.

Welcome to the Writing Pursuits podcast, where authors like you discuss writing craft, author, life, and book marketing strategies. I'm your host, Kathrese McKee. I own Word Marker Edits, and write and produce the weekly newsletter, Word Marker Tips for Authors. In addition, I am a speculative fiction author.

Writing Pursuits is for authors who drink too much coffee, endure judgmental looks from their furry writing companions, and struggle for words. If you are a writer seeking encouragement, information, and inspiration, this podcast is for you. Let's get to it.

Hey, Writing Pursuits Authors. Welcome back to the podcast. To those of you who are new, I want to extend a special welcome. My name is Kathrese McKee, and I'm glad you're here. Please leave a comment, a star rating, and follow the show to help others find Writing Pursuits.

When I receive an inquiry from a new author looking for a line edit, I often reject their project.

Does that surprise you? I could take advantage of authors and charge them extortionate amounts, or I can help them help themselves and form long term relationships. I prefer the latter option.

On my project intake form, I require every author to submit a full and complete manuscript because I KNOW authors, especially new authors, often polish their first three chapters for agents or contests or what have you , but the rest of their manuscript reflects the true state of affairs.

If their manuscript could be substantially improved by a critique partner or by simple self-editing, I know a ... um ... line edit is going to be unreasonably expensive, far more than they can afford to make their book profitable.

I don’t want to take advantage of new authors because they don’t know what they don’t know. But I am quite happy to point newbies to resources they can use to get their full manuscript up to speed before they send it back to me.

On the other hand, if an author wants to purchase a story diagnostic, this would be the time to do it. Experienced or not, an author can benefit from a story diagnostic, especially for a complicated plot. An expert diagnostic is an investment in their writing career that will pay off time and again.

The main point here is that the time for a line edit is not when you first type THE END.

I am going to give an overview of a process any author can use to save time. You can save yourself from making twenty passes through your manuscript which, in my opinion, is like dying a zillion times in horrible ways, like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day.

Self-editing has a large subset of topics, so I will include “self-editing'' in each related episode title to make them easy to find in the future. Naturally, we will not be discussing self-editing all the time.

Here are the steps, and you can tailor them to fit your needs. If you can, take a few days off before opening your project again. And remember to back it up before you make any changes.

Waiting is an optional step, but at least sleep on it one night. Let your brain rest. Go work on something else. Take care of errands. Play with the kids or go for a hike.

Writing is sort of like making bread; the dough needs rest between kneading sessions. In this case, it is your brain that needs rest.

In my opinion, the manuscript is too familiar--too recent--for you to see its errors and shortcomings, the boring parts and missing information, but with a little time, the errors will be more obvious. The key benefit to this step is to gain the distance of time.

This works in real life too. Don’t you have a friend who notices what everyone in your family hasn’t? “You’ve lost weight,” they say. Your spouse didn’t notice when you lost twenty pounds over the last four months, but your friend or acquaintance who hasn’t seen you for a while notices right away. It’s the same principle.

A cooling off period opens your eyes. You see your manuscript more as a reader would, and that’ is an invaluable opportunity for noticing what needs to change. Okay, I will get off my soapbox.

Step One after the waiting period (or the optional waiting period) is to gather the tools for the job: a scene map, a timeline, and a To Do list.

Yeah, you’re going to create those things. So, I use an Excel spreadsheet for listing my scenes, but you can use a notebook too. For each scene, make a note of what happens in each scene. For you pantsers, this is your outline.

Oh, I know! Whenever my Language Arts teachers made me turn in an outline as part of an assignment, I always created the outline after I wrote the essay. Right? Isn’t that what everyone does in school?

Think of this outline as your scene map. Note the word count of each scene. Scrivener makes this super easy, but make sure you get the word count.

I always advise authors to keep their scene lengths consistent. Mostly.

It’s okay to have a short scene now and again, but avoid having crazy differences in length like a 7,000 word scene among a bunch of 2,500 word scenes. Subconsciously, the scene will feel as though it is dragging on forever, even if it is well written.

You can color code the scenes if you like, by POV or scene type: action scene, love scene, transition scene.

I recommend making notes about the three Cs: conflict, choice, and consequence. This makes it easy to spot deadwood in your plot. If a scene doesn’t have a job to do, then it isn’t ready for prime time.

I want to say a few things about the three Cs before I move on.

Concentrate on Conflict, Choice, and Consequence. For every conflict, there is a choice. And for every choice, there is a consequence, whether benign or not. However, if there are never any big consequences for choices made, you don’t have a good story.

If conflict is mediocre or missing, figure out why. The stakes for the main character or the main characters are probably not high enough.

Are the major choices you set for your characters hard choices for them to make? If not, that is a problem. The characters need to hit at least one major crossroad in your story where they must decide. Speaking of decisions, I love the origin of the word decide. It means “to cut off.” Cide means to cut or to strike down or to kill.

So a decision means to cut off all options. Like a knife cutting the limb from a tree, there is no going back. Consequences follow choices.

In Star Wars when Luke decided to leave his dead uncle’s farm and catch a ride off of Tatooine, there was no going back to the way things were. Each decision he made led to further, irrevocable consequences. He was caught in the gravitational pull toward his destiny.

If there are not reasonable consequences for the choices your characters make, think hard about what should happen. Remember, though, even seemingly benign choices can lead to consequences that are out of proportion and dire. The decision to walk to work instead of taking the bus. Or what about the decision to hit the snooze button? The decision to skip lunch. The decision to open the front door. Yikes.

But somewhere in your plot, put your character on the horns of a dilemma when they must choose between two bad options. That’s what I like about Luke’s initial situation. He made the decision to purchase R2D2, a seemingly innocuous choice at the time. Then he finds the message from Princess Leia.

Against his uncle’s wishes to purge the droid’s memory, he takes R2D2 to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. When Luke gets back home, he has a choice to make: stay and rebuild and face the Empire when they return to finish him off or go to the stars and take his chances that he can become a pilot. Neither of those options is all that wonderful. Each decision has bigger consequences than the last.

Later, of course, Luke is faced with the ultimate choice of trusting the technology of his spacecraft or trusting the power of the Force. Neither option is safe; neither option is guaranteed to be successful.

Conflict, choices, and consequences will change the course of the plot. That’s why I put them first. We will revisit this topic in future episodes for sure.

How can we still be on the first step after you reach The End? Oh, well, I took a detour. In addition to the scene map, you need to create a timeline.

The timeline doesn’t have to be elegant. Some days in the timeline will be longer than others because more things happen in your story on those days. On your timeline, write down when the big events happen and who is doing what and where they are. If a main character is missing in the scene, what are they up to?

In this way, you may discover that your villain has been inactive for long periods of time. What? Are they really a villain if they aren't earning the title?

Or you may find that one of your characters is in two places at once. Well, oops.

Also, if secondary character Bobby has three lines and one scene, then maybe you need to cut Bobby from the team unless he is a sacrificial red shirt.

The scene map and timeline are very useful and well worth the time you spend creating them.

Notice what is NOT happening here. You are not changing your manuscript. This is an active read through. You are laying the groundwork for what comes next. This pass is NOT about spelling, grammar, and punctuation. No. This is about the three C’s: Conflict, Choice, and Consequence. It is about the foundations of writing fiction: characterization, plot, pacing, conflict, diagogue, motivations, setting and worldbuilding, voice, and style, among other things..

As you create the scene map and the timeline, make a To Do list of problems you find. Don’t fix the problems yet. Write them down.

For your To Do list, you can use index cards, sticky notes, or list them on a sheet of paper or keep them in a separate worksheet.

Describe the problems you find on the To Do list and where the problems exist. I like to use page numbers or note the chapter and scene. Big or small, the problems go on this list.

When you reach the end of your manuscript, you’ll have three tools: a scene map, a timeline, and your To Do list.

PHEW! All the work is going to pay off, I promise.

And now a word from our sponsor …


This episode of Writing Pursuits is brought to you by Word Marker Edits, trusted by fiction authors since 2014 to take their writing to a new level of excellence. Featuring story analysis and diagnostics, Kathrese McKee, a Three Story Method certified editor, can help you “prepare your story for the journey ahead.” For more information, go to WordMarkerEdits.com.

And now, back to Writing Pursuits.


So far, we have created a scene map, a timeline, and a To Do list. Now it’s time to do the work, and it’s going to be fun.

In Step Two, take your To Do list and rank it in order from the biggest problem to the tiniest annoyance. And that’s Step Two.

Step Three is to do the work in priority order. This is a non-linear approach.

My husband and I just finished renovating our old house before we put it on the market. We had to do some sheetrock repair which generates obscene clouds of dust. No matter what we did, the dust got everywhere. Then we had to paint much of the interior, which generates its own kind of mess. You better believe I didn’t vacuum or dust or stage the house for showing until the big, messy tasks were done. Why would I do that? I would just have to keep cleaning and cleaning.

In the same way, you don’t want to go to the beginning of the book and start cleaning and polishing the prose until the big problems with your manuscript are fixed.

Does your battle scene in Chapter Thirty suck? Fix it.

Is there a yawning plot hole? Fix that too.

Do your love interests never really get over their differences? Getting that figured out is a lot more important at this stage than polishing your first chapter.

Some problems may affect multiple points inside the plot. The scene map and the timeline will help you find the affected places. As you fix the big problems, you will create lots of dust and debris throughout the book. There will be artifacts that litter the pages.

Bottom line? Attack the big problems first and save the polishing for last. Do you see how this will save lots of time and effort?

Step Four is the polishing pass, and I suggest you do this pass yourself before you pay an editor to do a line edit. You will get more value for less money this way.

If you are interested in a story diagnostic, this is a good time to hit pause and let your editor do a read through and tag the problems before you revise. Then you do the polishing pass.

In the polishing pass, pay attention to:

Setting each scene,

Getting the POV right,


Dialogue and beats,


Chapter endings, and

All the rest of the crafty things.

Step Five is when you read through your manuscript like a reader. Read your book like a reader would, either by printing it out or by loading it on your ebook reader. Keep a notebook beside you and write out any remaining problems you find. Then fix those problems before you send it to your editor.

Now, you’ve done your best. You’ve reached your limits, and it’s time to get feedback.

Step Six is to get feedback.

If you’re an experienced writer and you are satisfied with the read through, then pass the manuscript on to your favorite beta readers or your agent. You know they will be brutally honest. Once you get their feedback, make another pass before you send it to your editor.

If you are new and lack a support network, this is probably the time to enlist professional help.

Whatever you do, don’t get stuck in a loop; eventually, you need to get that feedback so you can finish the work and ship your product.

When you reach The End, it is SO tempting to plunge in at the beginning and immediately start to rewrite your manuscript. In the words of King Lear, “That way lies madness.”

Put the big problems first because you may need to change the beginning of your book to accommodate your solutions. Don’t start at the beginning and discover halfway through that you need to go back to the beginning. Again. And again.

After you type THE END, take these steps to handle self-editing like an expert:

First, gather the tools to do the job, the scene map, the timeline, and the To Do list.

Second, prioritize your To Do list from the biggest issues to the smallest.

Third, work in a non-linear fashion, tackling the hardest parts first.

Fourth, when you are done with the messy part, polish the manuscript.

Fifth, read it through like a reader and make the last few tweaks.

Sixth, invite feedback from trusted, knowledgeable sources.

Finally, make a distinction between perfect and well done. Complete the book and ship it.

I adapted the process I outlined today from a chapter in the excellent book by Rachel Aaron, entitled, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. That title will be in the show notes.

Thank you for joining me today. If you have questions about writing or need a story diagnostic, please go to WordMarkerEdits.com. That’s all I have for today. Until next time ...

Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a comment and follow the podcast. If you're new around here, I hope you will join the Writing Pursuits Author Community for more content and to receive Word Marker Tips for Authors. That link and all the links mentioned in today's episode are in the show notes at writingpursuits.com. Please join us on Wednesdays for new episodes and keep writing, my friends. Keep writing.

Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a comment and follow the podcast. You are invited to join the Writing Pursuits Author Community for more content and to receive Word Marker Tips for Authors. That link and all the links mentioned in today's episode are in the show notes at WritingPursuits.com.

Please join us on Wednesdays for new episodes, and keep writing, my friends. Keep writing!

2 thoughts on “9: Self-Editing Overview”

  1. Thanks, Kathrese. I use a to-do list and have a scene list in excel, but it is sort of hit or miss in usefulness. Probably because I didn’t always explicitly/seriously think about the Conflict->Choice->Consequence sequencing. I was internally thinking of them as “decision points” which may or may not have an obvious conflict leading up to it, but making the decision would drive the plot direction somewhere (hopefully useful 🙂 ).

    1. Conflict, choice, and consequence has always been there, but it helps to be intentional about it, especially in the planning stages of a book. Naturally, it helps to look at it again when the first draft is done.

      Thanks for listening!

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