The Indie Author’s Bookshelf: 20 Best Titles for Self-Editing

Book shelf

By Corina Koch MacLeod & Carla Douglas
@CKmacleodwriter  @CarlaJDouglas

This post appeared first at, December 24, 2014.

Below is a list of 20 self-editing books that we believe every indie author should have on his or her bookshelf. These books will arm you with valuable writing tips and insights so that you can tackle your writing with new resolve.

We’ve divided the books into levels of editing, so you’ll know which book to refer to when you need to. Keep in mind that a book may not fit neatly into an editing category. Some books will address more than one level of editing. The key is to be systematic when you self-edit, and often, addressing one level of editing at a time can make the editing process more manageable.

To remind you, how you’ll revise and polish your book will depend on how you tend to work as a writer, and where your strengths and weakness lie.

Self-Editing Workflow

If you’re not sure where to begin your revisions, start with big-picture items. When assessing a manuscript, editors begin with big-picture items and slowly work through all the stages of editing, ending with word-level details. If you’ve nailed your plot (big picture), for example, begin with the next area that you know needs work. If you’re not sure what needs work, run your manuscript past a couple of betareaders.

Criteria for Self-Editing

It wasn’t easy narrowing our choice to 20 titles for self-editing. Many excellent books have been written on various aspects of the subject. We’ve chosen books that are

  • short(er) and to the point
  • helpful (some of them are personal favourites)
  • easy to understand, without too much editorial jargon
  • less than $15, with one exception (Jim Taylor’s Quick Fixes)

As a result, books commonly used by editors didn’t show up on this list. Why? Writers are not editors. Many books directed to editors are also written by editors, and they’re heavy on theory and discussion. Writers want accessible books that provide clear explanations, examples and instructions. (Editors like these books too—but we like to read everything and think about it, first.) So you’ll see some writers’ craft books on this list—our choices address revision and self-editing directly.

Finally, we’ve also picked a couple of titles specifically for nonfiction authors (they’re marked with an asterisk). When it comes to writing and self-editing guides, nonfiction often gets short shrift. The two we’ve selected complement each other well, and provide sound advice for focusing and delivering your message to the reader.

Beyond Paper Picks

Big Picture

  • Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern
  • *On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
  • Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells,  by James Scott Bell
  • Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks
  • This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley
  • The Ebook Style Guide: Creating Ebooks That Work for Readers, by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Paragraph Level

  • How Not to Write  Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman
  • The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman
  • *Quick Fixes for Business Writing: An Easy Eight-Step Editing Process to Find and Correct Common Readability Problems, by Jim Taylor
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King

Sentence Level

  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White
  • Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner
  • You’ve Got Style: Copyediting for Self-Publishing Authors, by Carla Douglas and Corina Koch MacLeod

Word Level

  • The best punctuation book, period. by June Casagrande
  • Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies, by Suzanne Gilad
  • Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares: How to Avoid Unplanned and Unwanted Writing Errors, by Jenny Baranick

5 Books that Will Inspire You to Write

You may not always feel like writing. These books will light a fire under you:

  • The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
  • Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper, by SARK
  • The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Self-Editing is a Process

Don’t try to do it all at once, and don’t try to do it only once.

Each of the books we’ve recommended offers a different voice and a different approach. Some are straight “how-to” and some are more “what” and “why.” What works for one writer might not be right for another. So take time to explore a few of these titles to find an approach you can work with.

If you haven’t already, over time you’ll develop your own self-editing style. This may mean working to a detailed plan or, as it does for some writers, simply reading, re-reading and re-keying your draft multiple times.

And, as we’ve said before, how you self-edit depends on how you wrote your first draft. It will also depend on your manuscript and what it requires—your second, third and fourth books will present different issues than your first. All the more reason to have our 20 titles at the ready, lined up on your shelf.

Image by Brett Jordan

Post-Nano Tips for Revising Your Writing

Valentine's Day Book

by Carla Douglas and C.K. MacLeod
@CarlaJDouglas @CKmacleodwriter

This post appeared first at on November 19, 2014.

If you participated in National Novel Writing Month, and you took our advice, below, to rest your manuscript, it’ll soon be time to revise your first draft. How you revise your writing will depend on

  1. your prewriting and planning style
  2. the kind of book you’re writing

But first, an explanation of what we mean by revise.

What is Revising?

The prefix “re” means again. To revise is to re-vision—to look at your writing again, hopefully from the perspective of a reader. To bring something new to your writing, you need to give it time to breathe. Revision involves waiting.

In How to Make a Living as a Writer, James Scott Bell recommends airing your writing for three weeks. That means sticking your NaNo draft in a drawer on November 30, and vowing not to look at it again until the winter solstice. If you take Stephen King’s advice, you’ll be pulling out that first draft on Valentine’s Day.

After the recommended period of rest, you’re ready to work on your first draft.

What’s Involved in Revising

Depending on what you’re able accomplish in a first draft, revising might entail

  • restructuring your story or book
  • removing “noise”—sections, paragraphs and sentences that slow the story’s pace
  • relocating paragraphs and chapters
  • rewriting sections or sentences for clarity and flow
  • replacing weak words with stronger words

Is Revising the Same as Editing?

Yes and no. The items you address in a revision are similar to the range of issues an editor might focus on in an edit. But to borrow from the definition in Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast: “Revising is the best you can do with your own writing with some or no feedback. Editing is the best that someone else can do with your writing.”

In the editing process, an editor will suggest changes you might accept and implement to improve any number of features of your book. Making those changes—going into the manuscript and deleting, rewriting or moving text—is revising. Only you (or perhaps a ghostwriter) can revise your work.

So revising is the same as self-editing, but it’s different from editing in the traditional sense.

Three Kinds of Writers

Writers approach the writing process in a variety of ways. Often, writers are characterized by their prewriting or planning style (see below). A writer’s planning style can influence the kinds of tasks that will need to be addressed later, during revision.


Plotters engage in a great deal of detailed, and often extensively documented, prewriting. Prewriting can take the form of a traditional outline, plot points, story beats or detailed chapter summaries. Plotters generally know how a story ends before they write. It’s not uncommon for plotters to have every scene worked out in advance.

Because plotters do much of their work beforehand, it’s likely that their plot is watertight. So when it comes time to revise the first draft, plotters may spend less time tweaking plot or structure and more time working on elements of story (character, dialogue, etc.) or rewriting sections or sentences for clarity and flow.

Overdoing it at the prewriting stage can show up in the finished first draft. A too-carefully structured plot risks confusing the reader. Remember, you’ve spent a long time with this book idea, plot and characters. The intricacies and sub-plots you’ve introduced might serve the plot, but they might not serve the novel.

Tips for plotters: Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline if the story carries you in a new direction. If you’re surprised by what happens next, there’s a good chance your readers will be surprised, too. Look for signs that you’re telling and explaining ideas that readers might like to infer themselves. Good writing feels vigorous and lively. Rigidly adhering to your plan—no matter how clever and well-intentioned it was—can make your writing feel contrived, or worse, wooden and dead.

If you’re writing in a genre with specific rules (mystery, for example), studying craft books on the genre will be time well spent. And nothing beats reading extensively in a genre to understand better how it works.


Pansters have a tendency to write episodically or non-chronologically. They’re least likely to use an outline or to formally capture a book’s structure before writing, either because they can hold that structure in their heads as they write (as Michael Ondaatje reportedly does) or because they’re open to allowing a book’s structure to emerge through the writing process.

After the first draft, pantsers may find themselves engaging in several rewrites in order to finetune a plot line or the book’s structure. They may need to remove the noise in places where the story deviates or drags. (Indeed, they may need to remove more than noise. In a recent panel discussion about the writing process, author Nancy Lee confirmed that, unhappy with her manuscript, she had thrown out an entire draft of her new novel, The Age, and rewritten it from a different point of view. And while she didn’t indicate whether or not she used an outline for the draft she discarded, she did display her willingness to throw it all away at the revision stage.)

So “pantsing,” or writing without an outline, almost certainly guarantees more work for the writer post-first-draft. This kind of writing is exploratory, and likely describes the process of many literary fiction writers.

Tips for pantsers: Pantsers can benefit from writing software that allows them to write episodically and then reorganize their writing later. The Binder feature in Scrivener is designed for this purpose. You can also tweak Microsoft Word so that it’s possible to move around sections and chapters more easily.

Because pantsers may find themselves writing several drafts before publication, they’ll need a method for keeping track of revisions. Using colour-coded labels in Scrivener, or Scrivener’s Snapshot feature can help pantsers keep track of several drafts in one place.

Keep in mind: If one of your writing goals is to write fast, then pantsing probably isn’t the best path to take. Many writers who achieve their NaNoWriMo goals engage in extensive prewriting before Halloween arrives. The skeleton’s there—they just have to flesh it out, probably with the details they’ve already documented. Plotters hit the ground running; pantsers may not actually hit the ground at all.


Plotsers, or tweeners, document a book’s structure in advance, but not in as detailed a way as plotters. Where plotters write detailed chapter summaries, plotsers might be inclined to sketch a mind map or flowchart, or dash off a one-page point-form plot or book outline.

There’s also the plotser who will dash off a very quick first draft and then sketch an outline. As editors, this method makes sense to us—we’ve often said that it’s easier to work with an existing text (edit) than it is to create a text (write).

At the revision stage, plotsers may find themselves revising big-picture items, while at the same time addressing the finer details of word choice. You might have to do a little of everything, and working from a checklist will help. The elements you have the most fun writing and are the easiest are probably those that you’ll need the least help with later. In other words, if you keep getting stuck on dialogue or if it’s that part of writing you dread, then paying careful attention to it in revisions is a good idea.

Tips for tweeners: Tools like Scapple or MindMeister can help to design mind maps with moveable parts. Try this: create a separate mind map for three or four story elements you are not especially confident about. Mind maps are helpful in the planning phase, but they can also be instrumental in helping you work out a problem in your manuscript visually. Trouble with pacing, dialogue or description, for instance, often becomes clear with a visual representation.

Tips for all Writers

Regardless of your prewriting and planning style, there are several things that writers of all stripes can address during the revision stage. We’d recommend proceeding in the following order:

  • focus on big-picture items, such as plot structure, point of view, and pacing, first
  • focus on characterization and dialogue next
  • read for plausibility and consistency
  • use automated revision tools to point out ways to clarify and smooth your writing

You’ll find other tips for applying feedback here.

Finally, experience will help you develop both the instincts for knowing when your story holds together—with fully developed characters and believable dialogue—and the confidence to trust your instincts. Until then, beta readers can be an enormous help in diagnosing any trouble spots, and we recommend bringing them on site sooner rather than later in the revising phase of your writing.


What we’ve outlined (pun intended) are all ways to take a book from concept to publication. Choose any method you like, but be aware of your preferences and the places you might hit a snag. Ideally, in the end, a reader or reviewer shouldn’t be able to identify which path you’ve taken—only that you’ve reached your destination in a way that satisfies.

Image by Viola

How Do You Know When Your Novel Is Finished?


by Carla Douglas

Image by m kasahara (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Is this the curse of digital publishing – that you can tweak your book to death?

What are the signals that tell you your book is done? Perhaps you are a faithful and detailed outliner, and according to your map, you’ve reached your destination. All the plot points are covered. The story arcs beautifully, the sub-plots are wrapped up nicely and you’ve guided the narrative to a smooth, satisfying dénouement. Congratulations. Hit publish.

Slowly the reviews appear – some are glowing, some are critical, maybe overly so. You bask in the positive, take the hyper-critical with a grain of salt, and perhaps even come to agree with some of the criticism, which you will keep in mind when you write your next book.

Or maybe you are more like this: You also hit publish and wait for reviews. But then you fret over the negative comments, doubting anew your decisions about everything from the names you’ve chosen to how the story ends to character and motivation. You take reviewers’ opinions to heart, and before you know it, you’re going back into your file and making changes. You begin with barely perceptible adjustments, changing punctuation, rearranging sentences. Adding a paragraph here, deleting one there. You may even alter the plot. You upload the book again, and then again.

Why? Maybe you had doubts from the beginning; maybe a review has pointed out an obvious weakness that you simply must address. Maybe. But the real reason you keep going back in there and tweaking that novel is because you can.

What’s wrong with this?

By all means, go in and correct obvious errors like typos and formatting glitches. Your readers will thank you. But if you are unduly influenced by reviewers’ words and you can’t resist the urge to adjust and tweak, stop and ask yourself this: Whose book am I writing?

I asked novelist Melanie Dugan how she knows when a piece of writing is finished. Here is her thoughtful response:

I agree that it can be tempting to keep tweaking a book or story too much. It’s like drawing; anyone who has studied drawing knows there’s a moment, if you work and work and work on a piece, when you can push it too far, and a drawing that was perhaps imperfect, but had life and movement in it, loses that sense of life and movement and dies, pure and simple. Something goes out of it, some kind of energy, and it becomes static and less interesting. Same thing with a story or novel. I believe nothing is perfect, and you have to make peace with that and sometimes settle for imperfection. Part of learning the craft of writing is learning when to stop.

And knowing when to stop goes hand in hand with confidence – the confidence to just let your book be out there, like a bird, instead of trying to wind it back in and control its path, like a kite.

Do read the reviews, if you like, and where criticism is constructive, learn from it and apply it to your next book. But continuing to meddle with a book you’ve already published is like trying to change the past – into one, perhaps, in which the parents stay together and the dog doesn’t die. By heeding too closely the opinions of others, you risk trying to please everyone, and we all know how that story ends.

*Of course you’ve also undergone a rigorous editing process, right? You have a smashing cover at the ready, and your novel has been proofed and formatted inside and out.

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7 Questions Your Editor Should Ask You

What Tone Are You Aiming For?


by Carla Douglas

Image by benhusmann (CC BY 2.0)

Most of us have had the experience of beginning a book and then rejecting it after reading only a few pages. Why? Frequently, it’s because of the author’s tone. Something bothers us about it – it may be hard to put a finger on, but we find we are uncomfortable with it, we don’t take it seriously or we may even be offended by it. When a writer doesn’t get the tone right, it’s often because he hasn’t given enough thought to its context – how the tone fits with the purpose and audience of his writing.
Tone is usually defined as the author’s attitude toward the subject, characters or audience. Tone can be anything from deadly serious (think a CPR manual) to absurdly playful (think The Cat in the Hat), but it is always created through the author’s use of language – whether the author is aware of this or not. The same definition of tone applies to both fiction and nonfiction, but for writers, how to achieve a desired tone depends on the genre, too. Because it’s more straightforward, I’ll discuss nonfiction first.
In nonfiction, the author addresses the reader directly. If you think of writing as a conversation, then the words you choose will depend on who is listening (your audience) and how you hope they will respond to your message (your purpose).
Try this. Before you begin writing, answer these questions:
Who is your audience?
You may not know who your readers are. Who do you hope they are? Are they older than you? Younger than you? By how many years? Are they your peers? Students? Employees? Colleagues? Experts? Are they knowledgeable about your topic? Eager to learn more? Reluctant to try? Are they smart? Not so smart? Rich? Well travelled? Silly? Important? Describe them. You need to know who they are if you want to engage them in conversation.
Who are you?
And who are you in relation to your readers? Teacher? Boss? Expert? Colleague? Peer? Adviser? How do they perceive you and how do you hope they’ll perceive you? Authority on the subject? Expert? Newbie? Insider with secrets to share? Explorer? Confidant? Supportive friend? Create a profile. Pay special attention to how you are (and how you’d like to be) perceived by your readers. Hint: If they think you’re looking down on them, they’ll bolt!
What is your purpose?
What do you hope your writing will do? Persuade couch potatoes to change their ways? Motivate employees? Support clients? Entertain readers? Or do you want readers to buy your product? Understand a concept? Agree with you on an issue? Be clear about this before you start writing. It will help you stay focused.
If it helps, put your ideas down on paper. Here’s an example:
This sketch shows the relationship between you, your audience, your purpose and the tone of your writing. Writing it down puts what you want to say into context and makes it easier to choose language that fits the situation. And clearly identifying the audience and purpose helps you draw conclusions about the tone you’re aiming for.
Next week I’ll talk about how tone is typically used in nonfiction, how to choose language to suit the tone you want and what happens when tone goes over the top. Remember: In writing, it’s always all about the reader. Stay tuned!