Self-edit Warmup Exercise

As threatened, here’s the pre-self-edit warmup exercise that got cut from the upcoming self-editing guide. I’m posting the exercise just as it appeared in the guide before it was cut without editing it much, so a few things might require some expo beforehand:

First, this self-editing guide is targeted to commercial fiction authors, that is, authors who strive to entertain their audience for profit. If you can read that sentence without getting all huffy or missish about how commercialism ruined art, then yay, this exercise is for you.

Second, the upcoming guide treats writers and authors as two different animals. Writers are the angsty worker bees. Authors are the spokesmodels-slash-executives. Later, once we get to the post-mortem parts of the exercise, the roles of each during self-editing become pretty distinct and important.

Lastly, I’m only posting the exercise here, not the post-mortem where we look at responses and how they reveal and affect both attitudes and approaches to self-editing. I’m separating the results from the exercise to derail the folks who get addressed in the lead-in paragraphs.


Now, I know how you all are. And that means I can predict at least half of you are thinking right now that this exercise is just another meaningless delay standing between you and what you came for. The other half will take it seriously enough to read through the exercise and try to identify themselves with possible outcomes, but never actually do the exercise.

Both camps, stop right now, and hear me: Yes, this exercise will take time and yes, it will make many of you uncomfortable. Do it step by step anyway. Complete each step, and don’t skip ahead. It really is that important for the story you’re about to edit, and for you as an author and writer. Spending the time to struggle through this now will save a lot of floundering later.

Expect this exercise to take about twenty-five minutes to half an hour. It requires a pencil and two sheets of paper. Label the first sheet “Act I”, and number it one to ten. Label the other sheet “Act II” and number it one through twenty. If you write big, leave enough room between numbers for one or two sentences.

Now, you have two options:

Screw all this pen and paper nonsense. Give me the form version so I can type.

Everyone else, ready? Okay, here we go:


Picture yourself in a very large dark room, sitting in a spotlight’s circle. Just at the edge of your sight is a broad, C-shaped table. Twenty tall-backed chairs line the table, and before each chair is a copy of the manuscript you’re about to self-edit.


Now populate that tribunal table with the following people:

1) Your mother

2) Your father

3) Simon Cowell from American Idol (or substitute any ultra-brutal reviewer)

4) Your great-great-great-great-grandfather

5) Your best friend

6) Your first love

7) Someone who hates you

8 ) Your favorite language teacher from school

9) Your least favorite teacher from school

10) Your favorite author

11) Your doctor

12) A military commander

13) Your biggest fan

14) A socialite

15) A promoter paid to promote the book

16) An Amish child

17) Your worst enemy/most powerful rival

18) A librarian

19) A total stranger who had no idea why he or she was pulled into this tribunal

20) A rockstar


Now, imagine sitting there in silence while the tribunal pulls your manuscript toward them and begins to read.

Answer the following questions on the paper labeled “Act I”:

1) What is the first part that will make them laugh?

2) What is the first part that will make them cry?

3) What is the first part that will scare them?

4) What is the first part that will anger them?

5) What is the first part they will skim?

6) What is the first sentence they might struggle with?

7) Which character will they most identify with?

8 ) Which character will they dislike the most?

9) Which layer of the plot will they find the most exciting or engaging?

10) Which member of the tribunal did you picture most often while answering these questions?


Imagine everyone on the panel has finished reading, now, and they all have one or two brief comments regarding your work.

Approach the table. Stand in front of the first panel member. Face them, and hear their comment. Write their comment down on the paper labeled “Act II”. Then move on to the next panel member. Make sure you stop to face them and listen to their entire comment before writing it down.

(Remember, each tribunal member will have one or two SHORT comments. Don’t let them ramble like Paula Abdul.)

Give me the post-mortem.

One Response

  1. […] Self-edit Warmup Exercise […]

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