Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Self-editing for plot holes might be the most difficult task an author undertakes. Why? Because in an author’s mind, the story is all laid out. The characters are in place. Their relationships are cemented, and the plot is solid in the author’s mind. In other words, author’s get so firmly entrenched in their plot that the holes don’t show up.

What I thought I would do this week is to share with you examples of some of the plot holes and other mistakes I’ve made in my works in progress.

Identity Errors: I recently found a plot hole large enough to drive a tractor trailer through in a work of mine that I have labored on for thirty-five years—yes, thirty-five years (I thought it was twenty-five, but apparently I’m ten years older than I feel). When I stumbled across it, I marveled at how it had gotten past critique partners and me for so long. The problem was in the identity of one of my major characters. Others were not supposed to suspect who she was, but she had the same unusual last name as another character who was related to her. Oops.

Another type of identity error I faced in the past was using a woman’s married name before she was married. This is easy to do because we know the past, present, and future of our characters.

Does the System Really Work Like That? Recently, my editor caught an error with a prison scene in one of my works in progress. She asked me if the system really worked liked that in the state in which my villain was in prison. My only reply to that was, “Great catch.” I was working on what I knew of a local jail system and not a state run prison system. A little research told me I was wrong, and a change in a couple of sentences resolved the problem.

This was a great reminder to me to never take procedure for granted. Some things can be done differently. Research might reveal choices, or it might indicate that there is only one procedure. Authors should not risk the ire of an informed reader by making up their own process.

Realistic Character Arcs: The same editor mentioned above also called me on the arc of a pretty belligerent character who seemed to become angelic overnight. When I reviewed the manuscript, I found that she had a right to question the character’s arc. Tweaking one scene made that change more realistic. Manuscripts should be reviewed with an eye toward locating and remedying any implausible character changes.

Timeline Issues: Only in daytime soap operas where children are born one week and turn twenty-one the next are timelines not an issue. I’ve run across this problem a few times in my works in progress. A good practice is to keep track of timelines as the story develops. Back track and make sure that a logical timeframe has been followed. Check your character’s birth dates. Do they match up with such things as technology? For example: were cell phones in use when the character was a certain age depicted in the book? This is important in contemporary and historical novels.

Even the smallest of plot holes can derail a plot. The identity error I mentioned above is a major problem for my novel, but I’ve been able to fix it with a minor tweak. The other instances mentioned seem like smaller details, but to a reader, they might make or break the plot.

The best practice for seeking out and plugging that hole in your manuscript is to set the story aside for a while. Letting the story cool for a while, stepping back from what you know, and letting a little of that knowledge seep away, and then coming back to it, helps to pinpoint a lot of the problems.

Better yet, put your work into the hands of a beta reader, an editor, or a critique partner who will look at the story as a whole, and ask them to look for any major areas where the plot doesn’t come quite together.

Happy editing.


  1. Appreciate the insight, Ms. Lamb, especially about research. I wrote a farm scene, and having grown up on a farm, thought I had it right. A wonderful crit partner corrected my disparity: a 1930s plow hardly resembled the one I'd described. She even sent a picture of the two so I could compare. Realism is crucial!

  2. Thank you very much for this post, Fay. Writing a story is a team effort. I am so thankful for "eyes that see" the holes I don't see because I am so close to the story.