How to Self-Edit That Lousy First Draft

Welcome to Part 9 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

The painful panel description was as follows: Panelists will discuss they’re favorite techniques four editing when they don’t have outside reader, or editor too help.

The panelists were: Mark Van Name (as moderator), Julayne Hughes, Margaret Riley, Beth Tanner, and James Stratton.

(I know, I just did Making Painful Edits, but I was in the editing stage when I hit this convention, so I hit more than one panel with the same theme.)

Different Approaches To The Writing Process

Before you can self-edit, you’ve got to have a draft to work with. There are several different methods people use — and just because one worked for you last time, doesn’t mean you’re stuck using the same method every time.

First drafts stink. That’s just the rule. Sure, there are exceptions, but you’re probably not it. But, it’s okay. It’s all part of the process. Ninety-nine percent of all writers are gonna have to edit their lousy first-drafts.

  • Pantsers – Draft it out and see what happens — easier for short stories, writing “by the seat of their pants.
  • Planners – Outline first, then write
  • Plantsers – Create a light outline, but sort out the details as they go, letting the story deviate organically
  • Immediately share chapters as they come out
  • Wait until it’s done before sharing
  • Wait until it’s revised to share

Things To Do To A Rough Draft

Now that you’ve got that rough draft, you’re gonna want to edit it. No, really.

  • Let it age, so you can look at it with fresh eyes. 2-3 months is usually good.
  • Or? Dive back in while the world is still fresh and vivid.
  • Run spellcheck and grammar check. Use Grammarly or EditMinion or the HemingwayApp
  • Change the font and/or print it out so you can look at it with fresh eyes. Or have your device read it aloud to you.
  • Read through and clean up the sentences
  • Outline the draft AFTER you write it, check for pacing and seeing what themes emerge that you can build on
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter
    • Don’t say something 6 times in 6 different ways. Keep the best version and cut the rest
    • Remove the filler words that exist to hedge: “just”, “so”, “well”, “a bit” “feel”
  • Kill your babies, your darlings.
    • We hear this a lot, but what does it really mean?
      These are the pearls of wisdom or great moving drama. It’s not gonna be everyone’s taste. Structurally, look for descriptors — most people have fairly good imaginations. You don’t have to spell out everything about the horse the rider hopped onto. Give them as little as you can at the beginning, move up the details as you move along.
  • Don’t write like a computer programmer or a stage director, you shouldn’t be dictating every move of your character.
  • Draw out your story arches — one for the plot, one for the POV characters. See where each peaks and ebbs and make sure they complement each other. See where you can cut or combine characters, or scenes, or chapters.
  • Don’t let your reader suffer for your research. Just because you spent five hours researching canning techniques, doesn’t mean you need to spend more than one sentence talking about your characters canning fruit.

Tools used for structural work

Maybe the part of the story you’re most worried about is the pacing or plot coherency. In that case, you’re probably going to want to use some tools to inspect your story’s structure.

  • Scrivener corkboard view. Or 3×5 cards on the table.
  • To organize the changes: watch where POV shifts. Color coded by POV or type of scene, etc.
  • Murder maps can be fun if your story has conspiracies.
  • Spreadsheets to track things:
    • When do we see each person
    • Travel distance
    • POV switches.
    • Character info
  • Create your own wikipedia (archivist.com will allow this)
  • Create a sort of D&D character sheet for each character

Editorial Pet Peeves

When editing your own manuscript, you should probably keep in mind the things that professional editors see as pet peeves. They’ve seen a lot more manuscripts than just yours, and I’m sure you don’t want your writing to come across as trite or overdone.

  • “letting go of a breath that he didn’t know he was holding”
  • “walking and walking” Or whatever word you’re reusing.
  • “Continued”
  • Words with the right meaning but wrong connotation
  • Fillers like: suddenly, just, that, of
  • Having every other sentence as a fragment
  • Not using conjunctions to seem more literary
  • Going out of your way to avoid using “said” as a dialogue tag
  • Bouncing POV, without a clear break
  • Bad grammar — for no reason
  • Reusing and overusing words

When to bring in the beta

At some point, though, you’re going to reach the limits of what you can fix on your own. You’re only one person, and you know the characters and the story too well to see what might be missing.

While it’s up to you, you really should bring in outside readers at some point. Some people share a few chapters to see if they’re on the right path. Others wait until the story is polished, then share. If you’re struggling with your story, you may want to reach out sooner.

Beta-readers are usually readers of your genre, but not necessarily writers themselves. They bring a different perspective to your story.

However, a critique partner/fellow writer is going to be more useful with story issues. Be selective who you’re sharing your manuscript with.

As always, you don’t have to agree with the edits, but even if you don’t like a proposed fix, you may want to look into clarifying the scene your beta tried to edit, to make sure it was properly set up.

And? As Margaret said, “you don’t come with the book. If I have to ask you questions, you’ve left something out.” The book needs to stand on its own without explanation.

Once beta-readers have taken you as far as you can go, there’s always one more option. If you’re querying for traditional publishing, you might be able to skip this, but if you’re self-publishing, you definitely want a professional editor, to make sure your book has that professional quality you want associated with your name.

You’ll want to make your manuscript as clean as possible before you hire an editor. You can’t afford not to. You don’t want them wasting time fixing things that Word could have told you, you want them to be able to see the bigger issues.

Make sure you’re hiring the right sort of editor — or get one who can do it all.

Types of Editors: Copy vs Clarity

Content editors are concerned with the plot and characters.

Proofreaders come in after edits and check for typos.

Copy-editors watch for repetitive/missing words, bad phrasing, bad logistics [missing arms, where’d the sword come from], etc.


There are a lot of stages of editing, and I know I’ve covered this topic before in different ways, but it’s always good to get fresh advice from more writers. Especially when they agree.

Any tips or tricks you’d like to add?

Let me know and thanks, as always, for reading.


Shameless Plug: If you’re already attending WorldCon – CoNZealand July 29-Aug 2 (July 28-Aug 1st here in the states), come check me out day one on What to Expect When You’re Ready to Query and Establishing a Social Media Presence.

Making Painful Edits

Welcome to Part 7 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

It’s hard to cut out scenes or characters that you love, but your story may be better off without them. How do you learn to recognize when something has to go, and how do you reconnect any threads that run through the parts you’re removing?

These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: E.C. Ambrose (as moderator), Kim Hargan, Julayne Hughes, Nick Martell, and the writer guest of honor, Wen Spencer.

Editing can be painful. But it doesn’t just hurt the novice, even experienced, award-winning authors can suffer the pain.

Ways of Handling Painful Edits

Nick Martell once cut 100,000 words. Then, he basically rewrote the manuscript. He hated it at the time, but made it better. He doesn’t regret it for a minute.

Julayne Hughes – In her first short story published in an online magazine, there was a beautiful, long description… gorgeous writing and it felt like “just a punch in the stomach” to her when she deleted it. But it sold.

As an editor, she has told authors to cut chapters. She will justify the cut and the authors typically agree with her.

Wen Spencer usually walks around, stomps and screams when she needs to make painful edits.

One example: while on contract, Wen wrote 50k about a slave on a ship. Then, realized the character needed free will. So, turned her into a freelance translator. Then, realized she needed to go over there. So 2 boats, with the character working for the other boat. THEN. Threw that away and started with going off somewhere else. So, rewriting the opening is part of her process.

E.C. Ambrose prefers painful edit notes via email, not live or via phone. (A thought I 100% concur with.)

How to figure out what needs to change in your story

While the big picture can be easy to plan, the details are often where everything goes off the rails.

  • If you’ve gotten a rejection letter with a clear complaint? Start there.
  • If you outline, (and you can outline after your drafts are done), do you want it to be good or bad for the character? Usually, you want to escalate the conflict. You can also try checking your chapter pacing against beat sheets (see: Jami Gold’s great selection)
  • Does the story track? It has to be logical that the character does what they do. Although, there is a difference between what’s happening and what the character knows.
  • Ask your beta readers — one reader might be off the track, but if multiple beta readers are saying the same thing — you’ve got a problem.

Tips for those painful edits

  1. Let it set.
  2. Outline what you ACTUALLY wrote, not what you intended to write and see how that affects the pacing and character development. See if plot lines or side characters are dropped. Etc.
  3. Change the font
  4. Read it out loud (or use an app: naturalReader.com or apple accessibility features)
  5. Check your time-table/travel — don’t hesitate to map it out and use spreadsheets
  6. When making a change, start at the beginning of the scene and work your way through
  7. When cutting a scene, reread the previous chapter and the remaining sequel to make sure it still flows.
    • Note: Just because you cut a scene or setting, doesn’t mean you have to eradicate all mentions of it. Wen once HAD a magic school but left references in as a “we wish we could, it was back in the day”, that way the ruins, etc were still cultural touchstones.
  8. Make sure all your characters are needed and three-dimensional. A lot of times, especially if multiple characters are fulfilling the same role, you can consolidate those characters into one. The more reoccurring characters, the harder it is on the reader. And one shot characters don’t need names.
  9. Sometimes, you’ve gotta take the full draft, use it as a reference, but re-write and reorganize the whole thing from scratch.

No matter if you’re the one deciding to completely revamp your novel, or the suggestion is coming from a beta-reader or editor, it’s hard to set aside the pages and chapters that you spent so long on.

I do tend to overwrite, and from experience, I know that I like the finished product a lot better when I’ve streamlined my story by cutting about a fifth.

A final thought. One of the most nebulous complaints we try to fix as authors is: ‘I just didn’t connect’. While you don’t actually need to have a likable main character, you do need a relatable character. That, plus a clear setting can go a long way toward helping immerse the reader.


Have you struggled with knowing how to fix your writing? How did you figure out what was needed? And how did you fix it? Did it work?

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back again next Thursday with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Choices To Make With Beta-Readers

After you’ve written your manuscript and gone over it at least once, it’s usually time to ship it out to some beta-readers, to get an outside perspective. If nothing else, they can spot the things that you know about your story that you didn’t actually put down on paper.

There are tons of different techniques, and I’ve got to say, this time around, I’m kinda winging it.

How Many Beta-Readers To Ask?

It has been quite some time since I sent a new, fresh book off to beta-readers.

My first time, I just asked my friends on facebook — before I’d jumped into the writing world. I had RPG game masters, english teachers, family, and readers reading it. I tried my best to mix backgrounds, gender, and age. I sent it out to seven readers and heard back from five. I had in-depth feedback from four and high-level feedback from three (there was some overlap).

Since then, I’ve had plenty of critique partners — writers, looking at my manuscript with a similar lens to mine, that I let loose in ones-and-twos on more polished drafts.

For this beta? I asked a middle-grade writer friend, a YA writer friend, and was pleasantly surprised when a friend working on base during quarantine asked for something to do while waiting out his shift, helping make sure I didn’t *just* have writer perspectives.

Three beta-readers. Not a lot, but a nice balance if they all come through — which mine have. Just in time for me to have a block of time between chapters on that never-ending YA revision of mine.

What To Ask For

The best way to get beta-feedback you can really use is — shock-of-shocks — to ask for it. You know I’ve got my 10 Questions I Ask My Beta-Readers, such as: what works, what doesn’t, and what parts they enjoyed.

No matter what you’re worried about: characters, dialogue, world-building, pacing — now is the time to ask. Have them focus on the parts of the story that you care about.

You can even tell them to skip the line edits, if you want! Make this a developmental round of edits, not a copy edit.

They might not address all your questions directly, but by asking, you plant the ideas in their head before they begin, and it can really help direct their feedback.

Should Your Betas See What The Others Are Saying?

There are mixed feelings on this, and clearly, the answer is to do what works for you.

If you’re still world-building or playing with techiques and things, where you want to almost brainstorm what the story could look like with your betas, a shared document with open feedback might be just the ticket.

For me? I make sure they all have their own private copy, so they don’t know what anyone else is thinking. This way, I know they’re all facing it fresh, with no one else’s pre-conceived notions influencing them.

The choice is yours.

How To Compile Beta Feedback

Some people read feedback from beta-readers as it comes in, addressing stuff immediately with the excitement and energy they get from the fresh critique.

I like to sit on it.

Well, I read the draft letter they usually send with the big picture stuff and let it percolate in my brain. But the read-through and all the inline stuff? That waits.

I like to wait until I have feedback from ALL of my beta-readers. And then, I–

Wait. Let’s be honest here. This is only my second completed manuscript. I need to stop talking about this like I have a process. I sorta did this with my 2 or 3 shorts I sent out, but noo really. I just have “what I did last time” and “my vague plan that I’m stalling on by writing this blogpost.”

So, my plan and what I vaguely remember from my first round of betas, longer ago than I would like, is that I’m going to go through the feedback, chapter-by-chapter.

I’m going to have all three beta drafts and my own fresh-copy open at once. Maybe on separate quadrants of the screen? As I see line edits, I’ll see what the other betas thought, and decide if I want to incorporate them.

On a notepad, or gmail draft, I’ll be jotting down the larger stuff (although, most of that, I’d imagine, is not in-line, but instead in the draft letters they all sent me, that I already read).

I know, all the advice says to skip the line edits until you know if you’re even keeping that chapter, but I find getting the line edits out of the way makes the big choices easier, because I’m not overwhelmed with all the ‘clutter’ of the small stuff.

Last time, I printed the whole thing out, going chapter by chapter, making notes, writing new scenes on the back of the pages of the last draft. I’m debating now, and if I should do that before or after I do the quick line-edits. I almost called them ‘easy’ line edits, but they can be quite challenging. They’re just often smaller changes in scope, not difficulty.

To me? I consider changing wording and adding descriptions, etc, as ‘editing’. While changing pacing, characterization, and other big picture stuff are ‘revising’.

So, after I use their feedback to edit my manuscript, it’ll be time to look at the big picture and decide where to go from there.


How do you like to work with your beta-readers?

Are there any things you’d suggest I do differently? Does something else work for you?

Let me know in the comments below and I’ll be back again, next week, with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Top 11 Ways NOT To Respond When Getting Feedback

There are writers who take feedback well, but there are plenty who don’t. Try not to make these mistakes.

1. Take it personally

When you look at the rest of this list? Most of these clearly come from the same place: the real reason a writer will lash out — is when we take critiques personally.

They say “this chapter needs some work” and we hear “you’re a bad writer.” We know intellectually they don’t usually mean that, but in our hearts-of-hearts, it feels like that.

This is why you should sit on feedback. Let it percolate in your brain. Don’t kneejerk react and lash out.

2. Argue with them

Don’t send them a detailed letter countering and justifying why every last suggestion they gave you was wrong, and why you were right in the first place.

Honestly? Don’t argue in their DMs, via Text, on the phone, or in person either. Don’t harass them. Let them be/

3. Tell them they gave you the wrong feedback!

If you don’t tell your critiquer what you’re looking for (pacing, characterization, world building, line edits, what-have-you), and all of their feedback in concentrated in areas you don’t care about right now? It can be frustrating.

The REAL fix is to tell them what you’re looking for when you give them the draft!

4. Skim-read the feedback

Make sure you’re responding to what they actually said!

Always reread to be sure you understood what they were saying and the context. Sometimes, you can read too fast or while fixated on something, and misconstrue the whole thing.

5. Question their grasp on the [English] language

Don’t ask them if [English] is their first language, if they’re dyslexic, or if they grew up speaking the ‘wrong’ dialect.

6. Ignore their feedback

I know I’ve said this before, even if you think a beta is going in the wrong direction, they often are pointing out things that need to be changed, or at least clarified or better justified in the text.

Now, this isn’t saying that you have to agree with them. Especially the critiquers who think they should be rewriting your piece the way they would have written it. This is why getting a single chapter critique before commiting to a full manuscript review can be crucial.

But, if someone has taken the time to read your work and critique it, and you’ve publicly thanked them? While leaving in all the typos and plot holes and things that they pointed out to you?

It can make them look bad, unprofessional, and if they’re paid editors? Lose business.

7. Don’t repay them

Sure, there are awesome people out there who are critiquing your work out of the goodness of their hearts, or a desire to give back, but that’s not usually the case.

Even if you don’t like the advice, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay them, or critique THEIR work in return, whatever you agreed to. You should be a writer of your word.

8. Slam their work

It hurts when someone tells you your writing needs work — especially when they say that your writing needs a LOT of work. But, that doesn’t mean you should trash their writing — be it while critiquing their drafts, bad mouthing them, or 1-starring their published works. don’t do it.

9. Expect the critiquer to know how to fix everything

On the flip side, some writers expect the critiquer to fix everything, and that their novel will be done as soon as they get the feedback. They don’t understand why they would need to edit after clicking ‘accept all the changes’…

Edits are often clunky. Even after I incorporate feedback, I always do a final ‘polishing’ pass over the chapter, just to verify the flow, check the line edits, and make sure that my voice is consistent.

Also, they don’t know your character, your world, and your story as well as you do. Remember their suggestions are merely that. Suggestions. You might want to fix everything they point out — but you don’t have to fix it the way they suggested. Make sure your story stays true to itself.

10. Assume the Edits Guarantee A Contract

Contracts and sales are 10% hard work and 90% timing and luck. No matter how good of a writer you are, nor how good your editor is, there is no way to guarantee a sale — whether you’re going traditional publishing or indie.

11. Don’t Thank Them

Reading someone else’s work, thinking of ways to improve it, and being brave enough to share your thoughts with someone is time consuming, and sometimes emotionally draining.

This person has done work for you. Always thank them. Make sure you’re a writer people want to work with again.


Have you ever had a writer respond poorly to your critiques?
Share your horror stories!
Or? Share stories of writers who did it *right*!

Facing Feedback… Backwards!

After you’ve sent out your writing out to beta readers, writing mentors, or professional editors, there comes a day. A day in which they send you *dun dun dunnnn* feedback.

And then? You actually have to screw your courage to the sticking place and read it.

Some only give a few lines of feedback or a few pages — an overall impression or general advice.

However, a decent percentage (especially if they’re like me) are going to give you line edits, phrasing suggestions, requests for more details, and notes. Notes about plot holes or improvements, suggestions about how to fix things or improve them. And all of this feedback is mixed together.

So when you open your document, especially if you’re using the ‘suggestions only’ option on Word or Google Docs, you’re faced with an enormous list of those little comment boxes on the right side of the document. Dozens on each page, until they don’t align with the manuscript and you can’t even see what you’re working with.

Most of the advice I’ve seen has told me to deal with the big stuff first. It makes no sense at all to tweak each line before you even know if the scene is going to be cut or not.

I do it backwards

But me? I can’t see the forest for the trees. I can’t decide a line needs to be cut unless I see it polished and shined.

Remember, you are reading the blog of a person who, during a document review at her day job, fixed a typo in a line that she was about to delete.

The first thing I do when I get feedback is clean up all of that ‘low-hanging fruit’. The typos and line edits barely take longer than reading through the comments themselves. While I’m contemplating the larger changes, I can quickly accept (or reject) the little stuff and clear it from the queue.

This way, next time I review the feedback, I can see the shape of the story and start to look at the big picture.

There is one type of comment I leave for the polishing round.

Those comments that say “nice description” or “good point.” The ones that compliment the story or the writing, the ones that yell at the characters because I’ve made the critiquer care that much.

It’s always good to keep track of what is working.


How do you clear your feedback?

Do you start with the big stuff or the details?

Morgan, sitting on a bench outside, typing.

Text: Morgan Hazelwood: Sharing writing tips and writerly musings

Title: Facing Feedback... Backwards!