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E2A 010: Test & Self-Edit 

 July 13, 2021

By  Scott A. MacMillan

You’ve written your manuscript. It’s full of interesting ideas, novel concepts, and great stories and anecdotes. You’re pretty proud of it…and of yourself. But you know somethings need to be fixed.

Well, you’re right where you should be. It’s time to self-edit. Time to root out those problems you may not have noticed when you were deep in the proverbial trenches.

In this episode of The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, your host Scott MacMillan shares how to self-edit your manuscript and improve it significantly before ever involving a professional editor.

This is a vital step towards authorship is often the difference between a good book and a great one.

Episode Transcript

Scott A. MacMillan:      

You're listening to the Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, episode number 10.

Mike Manz:                 

Welcome to the Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, the podcast that brings you practical strategies for building authority and growing your business. And now here's your host, Scott MacMillan.

Scott A. MacMillan:      

Well, what did you think of your manuscript? You finished reading the first draft, right? Cover to cover. Probably a couple of times. Was each chapter better than the previous one? Wouldn't change a word? Maybe. But if you're like me, like most authors, it felt rather clunky in places. Some parts dragged on, others felt light, trite, or just not quite right. Lots of great content there though, right? But it really needs some polish. That is perfect. Just how it should be at this stage. The ideas are there. The stories are there. It's complete. But it's rough around the edges. And some of it's just not working. So before we climb to the highest mountain and announce our book to the world, let's pause, reflect, reread. That's right, reread, and listen to that voice inside you that picked up on some wrinkles the first time you read through it. Let's go back through the manuscript and self-edit.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Doesn't that sound like a terribly honest and sobering exercise? Yeah, it is. With your draft written, it's time to get real with yourself. The more you can refine and improve your book yourself, the more a professional editor will be able to help elevate it to the next level. And it will also make you a better writer. It's time to self-edit, to improve your own work. And I'll tell you how. I'm Scott MacMillan and welcome to this edition of Entrepreneur to Author.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

A good thorough, honest self-edit can be cleansing, liberating even. It's a different perspective as you give your manuscript a once, twice, thrice over that really only you can. After all, you're the author, it's your story. Now, here's something to consider before you start to self-edit. It's a really good idea to put some time and space between you and your manuscript before you dive back into it because, let's face it, you two have been attached at the hip for a very long time. So put it away. It's going to be fine without you for a week or two. Do it and just walk away. You'll be surprised when you come back to it how you see it from a new vantage point, from the perspective of a reader rather than the author. And that's exactly what you need to do now.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Okay. You're back. Self-editing is an important step for an author. It's an entirely different mindset. And the more you edit, the more you'll start thinking like an editor and that's going to help your writing. Now, don't worry, you're not expected to edit your book to perfection, to take it all the way across the finish line. A professional editor will help you get there. Your goal with the self-edit is really to move the yardsticks, to take it as far as you can before passing it off. And that ensures that your message and your ideas are as authentic as possible, as close as possible to how you intend them to be. And by doing that, you'll get far more value from the professional edit that's yet to come.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

In your self-edit, you'll go through your manuscript three times. First, at what I call the 50,000-foot level. And that means looking at your book's overall structure. The next is the 10,000-foot level, looking at the paragraph and sentence structure and at things like voice and tone. And I'll come back to both of those. Then finally, at the ground level. This is where you look at the technical details of spelling, punctuation, grammar and the like. Those are the three levels of self-editing; 50,000 foot, 10,000 foot, and ground level.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

So let's begin at the 50,000-foot level. Now, editing is often best done by printing off a hard copy and then reading through it offline. That allows you to get away from the screen and read it like your reader would, jotting handwritten notes in the margins. Now, at this level, you'll read through your manuscript jotting notes about the big picture. Is it presented in the right order? Does it assume knowledge that the reader doesn't have, or does it cover certain topics in more detail than is needed? Is there content that doesn't fit, or maybe you've repeated the same concepts in multiple places and need to strip some of that out?

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Your goal at this level of self-editing is to make sure the information in your book flows logically. So put yourself in your reader's shoes. Does the book progress logically? Can you follow along? More importantly, could your reader follow along? Make it as tight, crisp, and concise as you can. Remove any rambling and stick to the core of the message. Remember your central question? Well, eliminate anything that doesn't serve to answer it. Especially for nonfiction books, readers often value shorter books that deliver information clearly and concisely.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Something else to consider is chapter length. Keep it within a consistent range. Just check the word count of every chapter and aim for between 2,500 and 5,500 words. And if you've grouped chapters into parts or sections, are they balanced? I'd aim for three to five chapters per part. And here's something to ask yourself at the 50,000-foot level, is your content balanced? Consider the stories and supporting content you've included. Have you included enough supporting content to convince your reader of important or controversial points? That's important. It hammers home the points you're trying to make. Because balance is key, make sure the supporting content and stories are sprinkled throughout your book rather than being heavy in some chapters and entirely absent in others. Now, once you've completed your read-through and handwritten your notes on the printed copy, open your electronic document and make the changes you think are needed. And if the changes were substantial, you might consider printing out again and giving it another review at the 50,000-foot level.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

All right. So that is the 50,000-foot self-edit. Next is that 10,000-foot level. And you'll quickly see the difference. Now that you've reviewed everything at the structural level, it's time to drill down and have a closer look at the paragraph and sentence level. And the goal at this stage is clarity and readability, making sure the text flows well for your reader. As you read through, continually ask yourself this question, am I saying this in the best way I could?

Scott A. MacMillan:   

And there are many ways to do this. And the first that I'll mention is to capture your voice. What does that mean? Well, listen, we all have a unique voice to our writing. You don't choose your voice. It chooses you. But you can refine it. Think about it this way. You know how when you hear somebody speak, you can often tell who it is without ever being told? Now, that's partly the sound of their voice, the timbre, but it's also the rhythm of their speech, the formality or informality of what they're saying. Their vocabulary and things like that, isn't it? Well look, apart from the sound, it's the same with your writing. You have a style to your writing. That is your voice.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

One difference between professional authors and the rest of us is that they understand their voice. They hone it and they maintain it consistently. The rest of us go in and out of it, and we don't really think about it, do we? But your voice is key for authenticity and authenticity is vital when you're writing a nonfiction book. It's what helps you develop a connection with your reader. When that happens, the reader becomes invested, not only in the material but also in you.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Now, something else to look for at the 10,000-foot level is try to use the active voice as much as possible. Okay. So there are two ways to write a sentence, in the active voice or the passive voice. In an active sentence, the subject is doing while the object is having something done to it. In the passive voice, those roles are reversed. Now, here's an example of a passive voice. The goal was scored by the youthful recruit. Now, while the recruit is the one doing something, scoring, the sentence is structured with the goal as the subject. So let's flip that around to active. The youthful forward scored the goal. Active versus passive. Active is more interesting, isn't it? More involved, more engaging.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

I also suggest at this 10,000-foot level to make sure that you're writing directly to your reader in the first person. By this I mean referring to yourself as I, me rather than we or it even. And your reader as you, rather than people or one. For example, rather than it is suggested that people refrain from looking directly at the sun. It sounds very clinical, doesn't it? Instead say I suggest that you refrain from looking directly at the sun. That's how you would talk to somebody if you were in a room with just them. You wouldn't refer to them as one. This really helps you connect with your reader. And it also amplifies your position as an expert.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Okay. Also, look for awkward sentence structures. Long-winded or clunky sentences are really quite hard to read for a reader, and the meat of your message can get lost. People often try to make themselves sound smart or academic by using more words or more complicated words than they need to, but really that doesn't serve anyone. It doesn't serve you, and it doesn't serve your reader if they can't understand what you're saying. So just say it. Say it as clearly and simply as you can with as few words as possible.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Here's another really helpful tip you can make use of. Begin each sentence with your main point. So instead of according to a recent study, half of all students cram for exams the night before the test, put that main point first like this, half of all students cram for exams the night before the test, according to a recent study. According to a recent study isn't the main point. It's that half of all students cram. It's tidy, it's clear, and it works. Make your main point the hero.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Similarly, try starting each paragraph with the main point. I remember a great speed-reading tip I learned years ago. In a well-written book, you should get the core message by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph. And it's an impactful way to write. English, and many other languages, offers a lot of flexibility when it comes to sentence structure. Take advantage of those options. And here are some tips for using them to your advantage in your 10,000-foot level self-edit.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

When grouping things in lists, watch that you keep the sentence structures consistent. Consider this example. My favourite activities are running, cycling, and travel. In this example, running and cycling are verbs, but travel is a noun. So change travel to traveling and your list feels more cohesive. You should also use the 10,000-foot level to fact-check. As you read through, if you're at all in doubt about a statement you made, a name you've used, or any other fact, now is the time to check it and get it right. And finally, pay attention to tone and make sure that you keep it consistent throughout your book. Funny and sarcastic can work if you're doing that throughout your book. But if you only do it in one chapter and then in the next chapter you flip to a more serious and professional tone, well that's just not going to fly. That's going to be jarring and confusing for your reader, and you'll come across as confusing and inconsistent yourself.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Okay. We're through the 50,000 and 10,000-foot levels. We've got one more to go. And that is the ground level. This part of the self-edit is much more mechanical and technical, and it's meant to catch as many spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors as possible. And yes, word processors do an okay job of catching the most egregious spelling mistakes. But they by no means catch everything, especially when something may work grammatically but it has a completely different meaning to what you intended. That's garbage is grammatically correct. But if you meant to say that's a garbage, well spell check isn't going to pick that up.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

And I get it, not everybody is a terrific proofreader. But most of us can catch most of these types of cringe-worthy mistakes, things like obvious spelling errors, correctly spelled but incorrectly used words, missing or incorrect punctuation in complete sentences, duplicate words, you get the idea. So proofread and catch as many of those mistakes as you can. The reality is even popular books by big name authors published by the big traditional publishers contain the odd typo. And each time you or somebody else proofreads you'll reduce the chances of something slipping through.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

So there you have it, three levels of self-editing; 50,000-foot level, 10,000-foot level, and ground-level self-edits. At this point, you should feel like you've taken things about as far as you can on your own. And you should feel pretty great about the work you've done and where things are at. And you should now feel entirely comfortable putting it in the hands of a small group of readers to get their input. And we call these beta readers.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Beta readers are unpaid, non-professional readers who'll review your manuscript and give you feedback. Real feedback from real readers will help make sure your book is useful and interesting and engaging to read. And it can also help validate and verify fact and concepts. So who should you choose as beta readers? Well, first and foremost, look for people who are your ideal reader, clients or prospects perhaps. You may find it helpful to include a colleague or a peer or two, especially to help fact-check and push back on controversial topics. Finally, if you have anyone in your network who's a strong writer with a solid grasp of language, they can be very helpful for feedback on your structure, style and things like that.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

But one word of caution here, stay away from close friends or family. Too often they'll struggle to give you honest, candid feedback because they love you. They don't want to hurt your feelings. But even if they do, they're rarely part of your ideal reader group. So their feedback may not be all that relevant. Get your manuscript into the hands of five or six beta readers. That's going to give you a solid sampling of opinion.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Now, you may be asking, when should I send my manuscript to beta reader? And the right answer can vary. If you send it out now, you'll be able to make changes before sending it for professional editing, and that means it will be further along and hopefully a stronger manuscript. On the other hand, sending out your manuscript after a professional edit means that beta readers will be seeing a more polished version of your book, so the feedback you get will be stronger. The choice is really yours.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

As far as the beta reader is concerned, their input is important, but you need to be careful how you consider and incorporate it. So I'm going to share a six-step process that you can use when sending your manuscript to beta readers to make sure that you get the most out of it. The six steps are as follows:

Scott A. MacMillan:   

First, format your manuscript, that is make sure you've done your self-edit, be thorough and take the self-edit as far as you can, and then make sure that the formatting is clean, simple, and easy to navigate. Beta readers are doing you a favour, so don't waste their time with a sloppy manuscript. Now, the second step is to make the ask in advance. Contact your prospective readers well in advance of sending them the manuscript. Let them know what you're doing and why you're asking them. And give them a general description of the book. Now, be honest about your expectations about turnaround time so that you can maintain your momentum. And make sure that they know that if they can't commit to meeting that deadline, that that's perfectly okay. You'd rather know now than have it not come back and find out later.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Thirdly, provide clear instructions. Once the beta reader agrees to take part, send them your manuscript with a personal note and remind them of that deadline. Mention specific areas where you'd really like to have some very clear feedback. And ask them to be honest. This is important. They need to provide honest feedback. That's why you're doing this. Flattery does you no good right here. But also ask them to provide clear and actionable feedback rather than general criticisms, which are not helpful. Now, if possible, it's great to have them provide feedback as comments in a Word or Google Docs file. Not only is this easier to process later, but it avoids issues trying to make out someone's handwriting if it's not all that clear. And finally, remind beta readers that the manuscript is still a work in progress and to overlook any minor typos and things like that.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Okay, next, you just wait for feedback. Be patient. Step away. Inhale. Exhale. Do it again and keep breathing. Then as the deadline approaches, maybe a week out, send the beta readers a little note. Thank them again and tell them how much help they are providing and just give them a little reminder that you're expecting it back by the deadline.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Now, when you finally get comments back from all your beta readers, the next step is to synthesize it and decide what to integrate. Now, don't take feedback personally. That can be hard. But the fact is some of the feedback will be spot on and some of it won't be. So take it all in stride. And remember, ultimately you decide what to change. Just because a reader has an opinion, that doesn't mean it's correct. Now, if all readers are saying the same thing, weigh that more heavily. But at the end of the day, it's your book, so you have to make the call.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

And the last step, follow up. Be sure to respond with gratitude to each of your beta readers and follow up on any and all promises you made. Sign copies of your book. That makes a really nice gift.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

Okay. Let's step back. When your manuscript is finally written and you're ready to test and self-edit, remember this, testing and self-editing are powerful and effective tools to improve the quality of your creative work. Step away from your manuscript for a while before self-editing so you can come back to it with a fresh perspective. Then self-edit in three passes, the 50,000-foot structural level, that 10,000-foot paragraph and sentence level, and the ground or technical level. Then get it into the hands of some beta readers to get their valuable input. With all that done, you've got yourself a manuscript that's ready to submit for professional editing and publication. And again, breathe. This is the iteration your manuscript needs because progressive refinement eats perfection for breakfast every single time.

Scott A. MacMillan:   

So are you ready? Because now is the time. It's time to write, time to publish, and time to grow. I'm Scott MacMillan, until next time.

Scott A. MacMillan


Scott A. MacMillan is a speaker, international best-selling author, entrepreneur, and the President and Executive Publisher at Grammar Factory Publishing. He and his team help expert entrepreneurs write and publish books that build their authority and grow their business.

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