Five Colored Pens: A Self-Editing Strategy for Authors

Every author knows the feeling: You’ve finally finished that first draft. You feel so good. You feel like you’ve written the next Great American Novel. And then you go back and read that first chapter, or first page, or first sentence, and the dream crumbles like a sand castle. It’s okay. That’s what first drafts are for! That’s your experimental time, your space to let your imagination run wild. Now, it’s time to pick up the pieces and make your novel great again.

Fair warning: This post is fairly long. I know the internet rules: Shorter is better. But I wanted to explain my strategy in full, so I’ve opted for something a bit unconventional in terms of length.

It’s not just for the indies

 Self-editing is one of the most important parts of writing a book. Even if you plan to send your work to a traditional publisher, you have to have it polished to a professional sheen before you even start considering packaging up your brainchild and shipping it off to who-knows-where. Trust me: First drafts are always pretty bad. No matter the potential in your story, a publisher isn’t going to want to dig through all the trash to find the diamonds. That’s your job. You’ve got to make it shine, so that you can land that book deal you’ve always dreamed about.

I must confess that before late 2016, I did not know this. When I wrote my first book, a YA mystery/fantasy novella called Behind Her Mask was Death, I didn’t really know exactly what I was doing. I had a first draft, which thought was pretty good, and I wanted to get it published. This was before I had even begun to consider self-publishing. I was all ready to ship it off to a publisher without even touching that first draft, much less editing it to shreds. I am extraordinarily glad that I found an editor who was willing to wade through all that first-draft trash and help me make a book out of my manuscript, but I ended up making her do a lot of work which I could, and should, have done myself.

And, of course, if you’re going the indie way, it’s just as important, if not more so. Although getting a professional editor is highly recommended in the indie business, it has always been way out of my range, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. My ‘editor’ is family. Extraordinarily well read family who aced her writing course, but she still works for free. So if you can’t afford to pay someone to do it, the value of self-editing skills go way, way up, as does the value of beta-readers/family/freinds who will read your book and give you honest feedback. In my experience, your family are you toughest critics. If you can get them on board, you’re doing great. But don’t even  try running your dream book past them until you’ve tackled that first draft. Nobody wants to muddle through a bunch of half-completed ideas, stunted subplots, characters who might be diamonds someday, but that are still definitely diamonds in the rough. Well, unless you are some kind of magical magician author, who plans out every detail and gets stuff just exactly right the first time. If you are, congratulations. You don’t need to read any of this, at all.

But, seriously, if you’re like 99.999 percent of the authors out there, your first draft is probably at least a partial mess. When I write, my stories have almost no concrete structure. I have a beginning scene, and a nice vague idea for an ending, and the middle is nothing but open water. At the end, I get a basic story, often with a lot of loose ends or inconsistencies that need to be worked out before anyone even can even see the first page.

I’m betting something like this happens to you too, right? So, is there an effective strategy to work out those wrinkles and make everything just as good as it can possibly be before you send your story off, either to that carefully selected publisher, or to those beta-readers/family/friends/people who care? Yes. Yes there is. Today, I’m going to share my Five Colored Pens self-editing strategy with you! I hope it helps! Here goes…

First of all: Everyone sees clearer on paper

The first step to any good self-editing strategy, in my opinion, is to print out your manuscript on paper. With Behind Her Mask was Death, I never actually did this. My editor did, but I didn’t. It was a mistake on my part, and made her job a whole lot harder and more time consuming. (Sorry!!!)

When something is printed out in physical ink and paper, you notice things that you might otherwise skip over when reading your manuscript on the computer. There were errors I never even saw until the proof copy of Behind Her Mask was Death was actually in my hands! I’m just glad I had time to fix everything.

Everyone sees clearer on paper, and the ability to make physical notes on your manuscript is very important for the next steps.

What about those colored pens?

This blog post isn’t called ‘Five Colored Pens’ for nothing. For the editing of my upcoming novel The Tangle, I used five Paper Mate felt tip pens which originally belonged to my mom, and I will definitely be using them again for any other book projects. You can use any colors and any kind of pens, as long as you can easily distinguish between colors. Note down what colors correspond to what errors. We’re going to assign a different kind of mistake to each pen, and use that pen for that mistake consistently throughout the entire manuscript.

Mistake 1: Stylistic Errors

I used a peach colored pen for these.


You can see in the photo above a stylistic error which I’ve underlined in my own manuscript, The Tangle. I’ll be using examples from it for the rest of this post.

Stylistic errors can range from cumbersome sentences to word choice problems. If you’ve got the gist of what you want to say down on paper, but you’re not saying it in quite the right way, that’s a stylistic error. Mistakes like these are much different from problems with the plot or characters. It’s an issue with the words, not the actual content. If your description is confusing, or your word order is weird, or something in your sentence structure is just a bit off, underline it with your Stylistic Errors pen and note down the problem, and, if you have a clear idea of it at that moment, the fix. You can also strike out words that you don’t want in a particular sentence.

Nota Bene: Always be clear with your notes, not witty. Save the wittiness for your writing. You don’t want to come back later and have forgotten just exactly how or why you were going to change that thing in the first place.

Mistake 2: Typos

I used a light blue pen for these.


Typos are the bane of a published work. Don’t you just hate it when you come across a typo in your favorite book? They can mar a perfectly good paragraph, or even change the whole meaning of a sentence. If a word just looks and sounds wrong, or if its obviously missing a letter or anything like that, underline or cross it out with your Typo pen and note down the correct word.

Mistake 3: Show, Don’t Tell

I used a dark purple pen for this.


As writers, we are constantly being told to ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t tell the readers that your character is afraid. Actions always speak louder than words. Show how much she’s sweating, or how hard he’s breathing, or how those icy fingers of dread are climbing up her spine. See? Much more effective than ‘She felt very scared’, and it sounds so trite when you just flat out tell like that. If there’s a place where you’re telling your reader how to feel, underline it with your Show Don’t Tell pen and make a little note reminding yourself to show! I like to wait until editing the second draft on the computer before figuring out exactly what I’m going put as a fix. Simply noting down the problems makes it  fixing them much more manageable.

Mistake 4: Character Discrepancies

I used a dark blue pen for these.


Character discrepancies are yet another writer’s bane. You don’t want your characters to act out of character. Yes, they can be spontaneous. But they can’t just go against their nature on a whim, or for the dictates of the plot. Things like physical discrepancies also fit into this category. Don’t say your character had green eyes in one part of the story, and brown eyes in another. It’s just annoying, and it confuses people. If you have trouble remembering all those pesky details, consider starting a ‘character bible’. It can be a file on your computer, or a section of your notebook, where you keep all the correct physical descriptions of your characters. Can’t remember if Mary is tall enough to look John in the eye? Hop over to your character bible and find it all in one place!

Is your character doing or saying something that they just wouldn’t do or say?  Just underline it with your Character Discrepancies pen and note down what needs to change.

Mistake 5: Plot Discrepancies

I used a purple pen for these.


This is a fairly important, and large, category. For me, it includes everything from, say, a character having a knife in one scene, and never even thinking about it again when it might have been useful, to a room which is said at one point to have windows, and at another to have none. You could create a sixth category for ‘setting discrepancies’, I guess, but I decided to just lump all those things under one heading. As with the example above, you don’t want to have characters in the possession of useful things that they just inexplicably forget about. This also goes for magical powers. If a character has super strength, and is trapped, say, in a cage made of normal strength steel, they can’t just suddenly be unable to get out. Either put them in a better cage, or let them bust out and get caught again or something. Having a door be locked at one point and then open at another, unless there is a valid explanation, would also fit under this heading.

So, has your plot gotten… tangled? Underline the problem spot with your Plot Discrepancies pen and make a note of what needs to happen to fix it.

Nota Bene: None of these categories are set in stone. You can add new ones or redefine existing once as you see fit. I’m just explaining the process that I used to edit my novel. Every writer is different. Do what works for you.

So… Now what?

 So, now you have a stack of papers covered in multi-colored scrawls. What now? Well, it’s time to fire up your computer and go back and fix all of those mistakes you just uncovered. Copy the manuscript file and name it something like ‘[My Book Name Here] Second Draft’ or whatever, just to be organized, and grab your papers and start fixing stuff. If you find new problems, great, go ahead and fix them right now. And when you’re all finished with that, if you’re a super nitpicky person, or if you think there might still be epic flaws in your book, you can print out the second draft and grab your handy pens and repeat the process all over again. If you do this, I recommend waiting a week or so after you finish editing the first draft, so that you see it with fresh eyes and don’t gloss over any more mistakes.

Another Nota Bene: Always save your early drafts. Just do it. If you end up taking out huge chunks of the book, and you edit the original file, you might lose something good. Save everything. (This was something else I didn’t know about when I was first working on Behind Her Mask was Death. I ended up losing (FOREVER!) several sections of description that I really liked, and I thoroughly regret it.)

To recap:

  1. Print out your manuscript onto physical paper. It’s a lot easier to miss certain flaws when reading on the computer.
  2. Use five colored pens, one for each type of error: Plot discrepancies or issues, stylistic errors, typos, character discrepancies or issues, and ‘show, don’t tell’ errors. (You can also add new categories if needed)
  3. Write fairly detailed notes. Nothing is more frustrating than forgetting why you wanted to change something in the first place.
  4. Take it slow. Do your very best work!
  5. Fix it on the computer. Then leave it for a while and come back and read it again. If you want, print out the second draft and repeat the Five Colored Pens process for ultimate nit-pickiness.
  6. Save your original drafts! All of them.



Thanks for sticking with me to the very end of this rather long post. If you have any suggestions or questions, please leave them in the comments below. I hope you found this post helpful. 🙂

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