Self-Editing After Burnout

rewrite edit text on a typewriter

Getting restarted a year after burning out and a bit of legal/mental health shit isn’t as straightforward as I’d fantasised it would be. I’d anticipated some teething troubles in the shape of trying to force my arse into the chair and staying focused on self-editing. But, I hadn’t seen the real issue that got buried under the burnout.

Mistakes Were Made

yellow scrabble tiles

The issue was how I was tackling the editing. It was a three-prong eejit mistake on my part. First, I didn’t take heed that I was on the edge of burnout. Second, even if I wasn’t on the edge, I should have taken a break after completing the manuscript before I jumped into the edit. And third, I didn’t have a solid editing plan.

I’ve tackled the first two errors. Well, I was forced to, by the whole being physically and mentally unable to think about working on it. The third required a bit of time to figure out.

Confronting Reality

Before focusing on writing my novels, I was a freelance editor and proofreader for other writers—mostly romance and erotica. When I got their manuscripts, they were in pretty good shape, some better than others, but still workable. I hadn’t thought about what their first drafts looked like before they’d killed their darlings and polished the text into what they’d sent me.

Though, I had a couple of writers who’d sent me their very rough first drafts to ‘clean up.’ There isn’t enough money to make me go through that again. But that’s precisely what needs to happen with my draft 😩

Shitty First Drafts

I’d gone into the edit with my pro-editor brain in gear (it worked well with my novelettes) and ran straight into a wall of ‘Did I write this shite? Where the hell is the rest of this scene? Why are they not reacting to XXX?’ And the never-ending stream of, “Ooh, you know what would be awesome to have happen instead…?’

Every writer thinks their first draft is shite. It both is and isn’t. I was prepared for the terrible writing—though there are some gems in there, too—but I wasn’t ready for the second-guessing on the storyline, the missing scenes, or the extraneous ones. And when you’re in burnout, you can’t deal with any of it, let alone figure out how to fix it.

A Pack of Drunk Kittens

close up photo of cat with its eyes closed

While taking the time to deal with the burnout and the legal bit, my brain was brimming with what felt like super-cool ‘what ifs’ for the story. I decided to note every idea down—no matter how cringey it might seem—when I eventually got around to dealing with it. The resulting notes culminated in a 15K+ word document!

Many of these what-ifs affected the story’s structure (mainly at what point characters will die 😈) and the character lineup (reducing one character’s part and adding a whole new character to the mix). Add all those new notes to the pack of drunk kittens that is my 50K-words-over-its-ideal-length-manuscript, and it’s a nightmare to wrangle.

Drowning In A Sea of Repetition

My editing career hadn’t prepared me for the nightmarish self-editing chore. So, while recovering from overdoing the writing bit, I read every self-editing book I could… and learnt nothing new. It was all the stuff I’d studied before editing others’ work—grammar, homophones, homonyms, story structure, etc. There was nothing on how to sort out my manuscript’s inebriated kitties.

Hope on the Horizon

It got me thinking about all the how-to-write books I’ve read over the years and how unhelpful I found them. I’ve been reading writing books since I started screenwriting at UCLA ext back in 2003. Once you’ve read a few, you’ve pretty much read them all. That was how it was for me until I read H. R. D’Costa’s books on iterative outlining.

Her books explained things I knew but hadn’t been able to absorb before. I think it was her use of multiple examples that finally made something click for me. I used her books to help me outline Running the Asset. But, to fully absorb anything I’m learning, I must learn it by doing. It was inevitable that I’d screw up a bit in the outlining while using a new method—that’s nothing to do with HRD’s books. That’s a me thing.

Wouldn’t it be cool if I could self-edit similarly?

Pinning Down Why Iterative Outlining Works (For Me) and How It Could Work for Self-Editing

Not wanting to run away from the mess I’d created or the great new ideas I had, I set about figuring out what it was about iterative outlining that clicked for me.

Yes, the explainers and examples were invaluable, but that wasn’t what kept me going. When I looked back at my journal entries for that time, it was clear. It was the Action Steps. Clear, concrete action steps that got me closer to my goal of a complete outline.

[Action Steps are simply subtasks of a greater main task. As the name suggests, each step requires you to take action on the project to move it along.]

Creating a Comprehensive Self-Editing Plan

With this revelation clear in my mind, I sat down and wrote out every main task I could think of that would take me from a rough draft to a polished manuscript.

E.g. Main Task: Blend the 15k words of brainstorming notes with the outline created during the editing process, resulting in a fresh outline.

I then broke each task into bite-sized actionable steps (granted, some of those bites will take weeks to complete).


Now, I have a fully personalised editing task list to guide me through the scary task of self-editing.

self-editing guide
Screenshot of my custom self-editing guide

One Action Step at a Time

So far, the guide is working well. I’ve made my way through the first few Action Steps for Running the Asset, and it’s been an enormous comfort to know exactly what I need to do and what I will do next.

The draft and the new ideas sections are still separate on paper, but I can now see how they will merge, and I can’t wait to shape them into the story in my head.

Recovering from burnout and mental health issues and rekindling my passion for writing has not been an easy journey. But confronting the challenges head-on, it has been rewarding.

Self-editing a novel has proved to be a completely different endeavour than editing my novelettes. Editing short works is complex but didn’t prepare me to work on full-length novels. By taking a step back and looking at what worked for me in iterative outlining, I’ve found a way to motivate myself and transform my manuscript into a book I can be proud to have written.

Since creating my editing guide, I’ve used HRD’s style Action Steps to help in other areas of my life, like sorting out the mammoth task of turning our junk room into a usable crafting and workout space. Have you tried something similar to action steps? If not, could it work for you?

Until next time, stay awesome!

Author: Susan T. Braithwaite

Royal Navy veteran from Scotland. My journey into writing started with a screenwriting certificate program at UCLA Ext. Since then, I've worked as a freelance content writer, erotica author, proofreader, professional beta reader, and content editor. I'm now working hard on my dream writing career: romantic suspense author. When I'm not writing, I can be found drinking too much coffee, obsessing over yarn, and planning world domination with my husband,, and our squirrel army.​

12 thoughts on “Self-Editing After Burnout

  1. bushboy says:

    Put your helmet on and peddle away Susan 🙂

    1. 😁 Will do, Brian!

  2. etikser says:

    I got to your ‘One Action Step at a Time’ and realized this is what I need for life, as in upper case ‘L’ Life. It would be a comfort to know what I need to do and what I need to do next. Seriously, though, good for you for tackling it this way. I think it would keep you moving forward, even if you sit down on any given day with only 30 minutes to work.

    1. Thanks for reading, etikser! You’re right. Knowing what I need to do to get me where I want to be–and having it mapped out–takes so much pressure off. I set a timer for 30 mins when I’m finding it difficult to get going, and after that, it’s easier to keep going. I hope you give it a go. You can go really tiny on the steps so that you see some progress when you cross it off your list. Good luck 🤞

  3. Chris Hall says:

    Small steps… I’m sure you’re getting there.
    And in the meantime, always have fun!

    1. Thanks, Chris! I’m starting to see some good progress with the Action Steps. Don’t worry about the fun part. I made a promise to myself that if I get the day’s work done early, I get to play a level of Halo. So far, it’s working wonders for creating a more balanced life. 💐🤗

  4. One step at a time Susan! So glad you doing it!!

    1. Thanks, Aletta! It’s been great to get back to it.

      1. I am glad you did! 🤗😁

      2. Thank you!

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