While there are lots and lots and lots of ways of going about writing a book, I actually feel like editing is a little more of a uniform process. It’s all about first turning a critical eye at your book in order to get as far as you can on your own, and then repeating that process when you have some good feedback from an editor or critique partner or both.
Over the course of writing and editing three books I’ve developed a system for editing that I hope you’ll find useful! My best advice is in my guide: How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel You Will Love Forever.
But hope this post helps you out in the meantime:
Step #1: Pre-editing
Some of my most important editing work happens as I’m writing the novel. Before I start my writing day I’ll often re-read sections I wrote earlier to see if I can improve them and make sure the plot arcs are fitting together. I plan ahead so that I know vaguely what’s going to happen in a scene before I write it.
This can be a time-consuming way to write, but the end result is that I don’t usually have an overwhelming amount of editing to do by the time I’m done.
Another form of pre-editing is to float some plot points to people I trust when they ask what I’m working on and see how the ideas resonate. But other than a few informal discussions or test-reads of scenes I’m not sure about, I don’t really share too much about what I’m writing as I’m writing it and instead focus on getting it done.
Step #2: Self-editing
After I’ve finished a draft I let the manuscript sit for at least a couple of weeks and then go back and read it over. I start first by only looking for big things that aren’t working, I don’t sweat things on the line or scene level. As I’m doing this I try to keep myself as distanced from the manuscript as possible and really listen to my gut. If I’m feeling a little uncertain about a scene or a stretch in the book, chances are something’s not right with it.
When I’ve made all the changes I want to make and have all of the big pieces in place I go down my revision checklist and make sure I haven’t missed anything. And when I have everything as good as possible and am feeling like if I have to read one more word I’ve written I’ll go completely insane… that’s when I know I’ve gotten as far as I can on my own.
Step #3: How I Respond to Feedback
One of the most difficult things about an editorial letter or beta critique is the sheer number of different things that need changing. It can be daunting to get a huge list of suggestions. How do you decide what to keep and what to change? How do you go about implementing the changes when changing just one thing can mean a million different things then have to change afterward? It’s impossible to keep all of those things in your head all at once. And that’s on top of the inevitable difficulty of reading someone else’s critique of your work, no matter how polite they are.
Here’s how I go about it:
- I take the editorial letter and ease into it very, very slowly. I read it once and then put it away for a few days. Take it back out, read it one more time. I try not to leap to any conclusions and wait until my defenses have come down a bit. Like most writers I sometimes find it hard to have my work critiqued (especially when the changes feel daunting), so it takes a little time to get acclimated.
- I color code the editorial letter. I mark all of the changes I’m definitely going to make green, all of the ones I don’t plan to change red (I try to make sure there’s way way more green than red), and mark the suggestions I’m not sure about yellow (these have a tendency to turn green). Then I have a nice color-coded editorial letter and action plan.
- I start with the most significant changes and work from there down to the smallest line edits. Here’s the reasoning for that: It’s kind of pointless to work on the line edits first if that chapter is going to come out or if those small changes are going to be later consumed by the bigger changes. So I start with the biggest changes and then work my way down.
- And rather than working chronologically through the book, I take one change and trace it all the way through. This way, rather than having to try to keep all the moving parts in my head all at once I can just focus on making sure one thread makes sense throughout the book. Then I move on to the next thread, and repeat.
Once all the scenes are roughly in place I move to the low-hanging fruit and start polishing on a scene-by-scene and then line-by-line level.
(See also this post about responding to a critique)
Step #4: How I Know When It’s Done
It’s definitely possible to tinker with a book endlessly, and it’s important to resist that temptation. At some point the novel has to be done, whether you’ve made it as good as you can make it or it’s time to move on to your next project.
I try to really take a mental step back from the book and evaluate it as objectively as I possibly can. When I’m both as satisfied as possible with how everything fits together and how it reads and when I also am feeling exhausted from working on it and can’t think of any more to do… that’s when I think I’m done.
When I know I’m done is when my editor says it’s done.
What’s your editing process like? Do you have any editing tips that have worked for you?
I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Mr. D says
I find myself always editing. As I write, after I write, between meals… always!
I prefer the wrting than the editing
Nathan was it hard to get a agent?
Rick Daley says
When I solicit critiques, I reach out to a wide range of readers and writers. I like diverse points of view in the feedback.
Once received, I look for trends. If one person didn't like something, big or small, it doesn't hold much weight until several other people have commented on the same element of the story.
Chris Phillips says
My process is pretty similar. I like seeing how your steps allow for the humanness of not liking to get critiqued.
Great post. This is pretty much how I edit, too, though I will admit that if I come across a spelling or grammatical error, I have to fix it even if it's a section that might be edited out later. I can't help myself. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to check the lock on my front door again after I wash my hands and confirm the knobs on my gas oven are turned to "off."
Shelly Goodman Wright says
I first finish the novel and let the characters define themselves to the very end. Then, during the first contextual editing, it's easier to add character traits or actions, or even sub-plots because you know the characters better.
Barbara Kloss says
Another great post. I particularly like how you color code your editor's note. 🙂 And I think I will implement your style of editing through themes, rather than chronologically – it's so hard keeping all those in your head simultaneously. Not to mention, chances are, you'll forget something. At least I do.
Thanks for sharing your process. It's SO encouraging and helpful!
Rebecca Henderson says
This is truly helpful advice for me at this point in the writing process. I recently finished my own self-revisions on my first novel and sent several copies off to beta readers. Once I get their feedback returned to me, I can see myself using your color coded method to go through the next phase of editing.
Thanks for these posts…it's helpful and encouraging to see how the writing process works for others.
Thanks, Nathan, for some practical tips.
Glad to see #1. So many people tell you not to work this way (editing the first draft as you write it.) But how can you write the next chapter without reading the previous chapter or two, to get back in the flow of the action. And how can you do that without fixing appalling grammar/syntax, or adding things as well as pulling things out. You just have to listen really carefully to your intuition, so you don't ruin something. And save as a new version, of course. (Security blanket.)
The color coding system looks so practical & easy, even I can do it!
I do this pre-editing. But I also like to stop writing when I get close to the end and edit everything (yes, since chapter 1). It takes time but pays off; the story becomes fresh on my mind and the end comes naturally. Also it's great for fixing gaps.
About taking other people criticism. Well, I never had to, but I'll take your piece of advice into consideration when the time comes. Thanks for sharing!
I'm probably coming from a different POV because I'm published, but I'm sharing anyway.
First, I write. Then I edit what I write later in the day so it's still fresh.
Then I repeat this the following day.
I actually think of the book as a recipe, where I add ingredients and constantly tweak.
When the book is finished, I spend another week…sometimes longer…editing everything all over again from start to finish.
But, frankly, I find it's all about the copy edits…and the copy editor. If you are lucky enough to get a good copy editor, you learn to listen, take their advice, and let the book relax in the copy editor's hands. The relationship between author and copy editor is the most important in the business.
If you get a bad copy editor (and you'll know on page one), you revise with little happy faces and hope they get the hint politely. Then you kick the wall.
Sierra McConnell says
Oddly, I'm one of those strange people who enjoy the editing process far more than I should. Because it means I have that much down and I can mold it. The basic clump is in front of me, and all I have to do is work at it to shape it into the proper form.
Writing the story is the hard part. Polishing it is an easy breezy. I love to mark things in red ink, circle errors and correct, and go back and change them. I read through the manuscript three times that way, and then go back to the computer to actually input the changes. It keeps me focused on the book and not the bazillion distractions availble online.
Rewriting is a little less fun, but so is climbing a hill. Once you get over it, there's a sparkle of light, so you just have to keep focused. Always think about the end of the chapter, the end of the book. It'll keep you going through those tough spots.
Ah. But I haven't worked on the book in two weeks. XD Bad me, moving and having a life. :X
Great post! I'm stealing that editing checklist. I made the comment yest that I was worried that I edit too much while I write, but I see you and others here write that way, too. I guess the point is not too worry about it too much and do what works.
One problem I have is patience. I know I'm supposed to let a draft just sit for a week or two before editing, but I find that hard to do. I should freeze my laptop in a block of ice when finished w/ a draft. But then I'd probably reach for the ice pick after a day.
suzy vitello says
Incredibly helpful, Nathan. Thank you! Love the color-coding idea in particular. I just received a comprehensive editorial letter from my agent, and feel, at first flush, overwhelmed.
One of the hardest things, when a writer gets notes on things that don't work, is to rally the confidence that fueled the previous draft.
In my case, I've asked my agent to identify chapters that are working well, and to illuminate what in them is most appealing as a way to bolster the spirit of the revision while I go in and sort through the chunks.
Robena Grant says
Is all of your editing done on the computer?
Sommer Leigh says
I also write as I edit, which apparently a lot of writers can't do. Once I finish a chapter, I go back and usually read all of the chapters up to that point (or just the last few, depending.) I like to keep track of how things are flowing, but I can also make little connections that I might have missed otherwise.
It also means that all the chapters are very well edited by the time I am all done. It takes longer to write the first draft, but I can jump right into BIG edits when I'm done.
Nathan Bransford says
D.G. Hudson says
I edit some of the story as I go if something is obviously not working (like D. Koontz says he does).
I make notes on the manuscript to insert things later such as more setting details, or to verify items.
I do use a red pen and I edit on hardcopy if there's a lot to do. I prefer editing on the laptop, but I like to identify the points on hardcopy to reduce the scrolling back and forth.
I've got Nathan's checklist (copied earlier on) and James S. Bell's Ultimate Revision Checklist from his book, Revision and Self-Editing. (I like checklists)
During the revising, I also make notes in the novel bible (story data) for future reference.
Critiques help point out gaps and areas needing to be fleshed out, but I always keep in mind that they are suggestions and can be used or not. This can vary according to where I am in the editing process, and who is suggesting the changes.
It's great to hear how you handle editing, Nathan, but what's the third book you mentioned? (Is that the one in the drawer or is there a new one (Jacob) on the horizon?)
K.L. Brady says
In addition to editing as I go along and reading out loud, I use autocrit.com. It helps you pick up recurrent issues in your MS that would be very difficult to see as a new writer. I highly recommend it. As a relatively new novelist, using that program has helped me go from needing to write 5 or 6 drafts to 2 or 3 before it's pretty solid. It's a painful process but it'll sure get you to a clean MS faster.
Darlene Underdahl says
"For me some of the most important editing work happens as I'm writing the novel. Before I start my writing day I'll often re-read sections I wrote earlier to see if I can improve them, and make sure the plot arcs are fitting together."
I do that to get into the mood for the day. I also write a great deal in my head, before I ever sit down.
Matthew MacNish says
I have no problem taking criticism, which by definition is meant to help. The hard part is facing up to all the WORK it's going to take to fix things.
But I didn't get into this because I thought it was going to be easy, and if I did, I was a fool.
Mary Kate Leahy says
I usually work off the assumption that both the reader/editor and I could be wrong but they probably aren't. If someone spots something I was iffy about then I change it, or if a lot of people say the same. But if my immediate reaction is no that would mess with the meaning of the story then I keep it. I don't want to ever compromise on the essentials but I don't mind changing other details.
Eliza T says
Cheryl Klein recently self-pubbed a book called SECOND SIGHT. I use it like a bible during my self-editing stage. ( http://www.cherylklein.com ) I highly recommend it (and I don't get kickbacks. I promise.)
Rebecca Stroud says
I love editing so I do it "in clumps" as I go. Then I give it a quick scan when it's done. Then – since I'm an indie author or whatever you want to call it – I save it to HTML. And that's where I (hopefully) catch the remaining typos/grammatical errors.
After all that, if the sucker isn't ready, it never will be…
When writing the first draft, I edited the previous day’s work before moving on. As Nathan points out, it’s a good idea to leave sufficient time between finishing a first draft and starting the editing process. In my case, a month and I read a couple of novels in between. I read somewhere that you’re done editing when you find yourself going back to earlier line edits. I think there’s merit to that rule of thumb. So now, I’m at beta reader stage and looking to take notice of any issues that are repeatedly brought to light.
I suppose I work in a similar way, though I feel I have to do at least one print out of the novel toward the end of the editing process. Reading on paper is a different experience than reading on the lap-top, and I tend to catch mistakes I was no longer seeing in the word document.
Thanks for this week of posts, Nathan. The insight into your process has been really interesting so far.
I am at the stage where I'm editing my novel and getting ready to have it looked at by a critique partner. I am wondering about your "editorial letter," since I'll probably need to write one soon. What goes into an editorial letter? How long should it be? I have only critiqued short stories and book chapters in my writing classes and have never tackled something so long and complex as a novel. In my writing classes, my letters are usually just a page or two. How long and detailed should one be for a novel?
I'm sure the structure of such a letter would emerge organically, but I'm just curious what sort of editorial letters you got during your editing process.
Thank you, Nathan! I'm looking forward to the rest of this series. 🙂
Sheila Cull says
Hi. I don't have any tips. But I like your tip Nathan, from big changes to smaller ones. As in, why line edit if you end up cutting the paragraph?
An outstanding read for me, thank you.
I recently experimented with giving my manuscript to a large number of beta readers for feedback. It actually made it easier to sift through what changes should be made, and which ones were just one person's opinion. And because I'm me, I ended up running it kind of like a psych experiment. I blogged about it in a four part series An Experimental Psychologist's Take on Beta Reading.
Nicole L Rivera says
Love this! It physically pains me to print out my manuscript…all that wasted paper. But, if I don't I miss so much. Something about having the words on paper helps me. In return for my mass slaughter of trees I try to print two pages on each side of a sheet (when my printer cooperates). I'm so bad about the paper thing my friends make fun of me. They know when I've committed tree murder because I come to our Starbucks writing sessions with my head hung in disgrace.
Great advice! 🙂
The Pen and Ink Blog says
Your process does not include a critique group. Our critique group is our version of the editorial letter. I have a friend who edits as she writes and Karol's first draft is a masterpiece. I can't work like that. Editing is an art. One you can't start practicing too early. I used to pay my kids ot write/ one cent a word if the wrote, but two cents a word if they went back and edited.
Nathan, you didn't mention writing groups. Don't you use writing groups? or do you consider them as beta critique?
How long does it take you to write and edit these blog posts? I don't think I've ever seen a typo, a misspell, or a grammar error on your posts. It'd take me a whole day to write this particular post.
Recently I experimented in mapping out my editing process visually with loops. It was helpful in showing myself the different stages for my own writing process.
loops and loops and loops back through
Nathan Bransford says
I don't use a writing group or a critique group. It takes me about a half hour to an hour to write each blog post and there are usually at least several typos in each post!
Kristin Laughtin says
I love editing. I think I just like correcting people, even myself.
As I'm writing, I write down notes about things that aren't working, or things I need to add in earlier or emphasize more in order to make the current scene make sense. (Even with an extensive outline, things change and usually one or two things need to be introduced earlier.) After finishing the first draft, I wait a few weeks and then reread, taking note of any major changes that need to be made: scenes to be added, scenes to be cut, plot arcs to strengthen or lengthen or resolve, character motivations to clarify. Then I work down to the minor issues, saving the line edits for last. (Well, in theory. I'll usually end up doing some as I work through everything else.) For words I think I've abused or overuse of adverbs, I do control-F searches to isolate and address each one. Then voila, hopefully it's done and strong.
Addison Moore says
At the very end of my thousandth edit, I like to back and see if I can throw in a power sentence or two in each scene. Then I hand it off to my free lance editor who shreds it to pieces. (Just kidding, you're nice, Tiff.)
Rebecca Kiel says
After receiving feedback from a generous agent, I have had to rehaul my main plotline. As you mentioned, this impacts a million more details. This can be overwhelming at times but I, too, take time away and revisit. When I am able to distance myself, areas for improvement are always much clearer. When I return to my manuscript, I will sometimes jump into one of my favorite scenes to get started and then tackle an area that needs work.
Love this week's posts! It is interesting to read about what works for different people. Plus I am always open to new strategies. Thanks!
I've been doing the line edits before I do the big points. Your way makes a lot more sense. But then it's too depressing when you get a whole stack of notes to start on the big points. At least, by deleting the small points, I feel like I'm making progress even if I'll probably rewrite what I've changed later.
When I'm doing major edits, I like to have a print-out in front of me, because there's something satisfying and comforting about marking it up by hand. It means that, even after I change the words, or even cross out entire scenes, the words are still there, under the pencil. (Plus, there's a certain satisfaction I get from drawing a huge X through an entire page that just isn't the same when I press the delete button.) It also lets me look back and see what changes I've made. It also makes it easier to undo a change, or re-change a change later if need be, because I have both versions in front of me on the same page.
(Of course, I've also learned to transfer it all to the computer copy every few scenes. Otherwise, I'd have a lot of tedious work ahead of me when I finish the edits.)
I also find it useful to make a scene by scene outline for myself, sometimes on post-its, because it lets me get an overall sense of the book before I jump in and do major restructuring. This is especially useful when I need to change the order of numerous scenes.
I guess I'm one of those people who likes to be able to touch and physically handle my writing in addition to reading it.
I pre-edit too, just a little differently. I never stop writing at the end of a scene, I always force myself to write at least one line (or better yet, a paragraph) of the next scene before I sign off for the day. That allows me to tap back into the *rhythm* I was writing in the previous day when I re-read, make small changes, the keep going.
I'm a pantser, so I write to find the story and find the characters. When I get to the end, I have to let it sit for a few weeks, then come back to it. When I do, I read it all the way through and make notes in a separate file categorized by how badly each problem will screw up the entire story when I try to fix it.
Then I go at the big stuff with a sledge hammer. There's no use worrying about pretty prose when you're hacking off scenes, moving chunks of text forward or backward through the timeline or re-writing an entire character from scratch.
I colour code when I'm doing this… Red text is for brand new writing. Green for any text that I've moved that needs timeline help and Blue for major character changes. Then when it's all ripped apart and *pretty* with colour, it's so much easier to put back together again.
Karen Peterson says
After I'd spent a year perfecting my first three chapters, I realized there HAS to be a better way.
Thanks so much for this process. I've gotten over the idea of editing my work to death, but you've given me a new way to focus.
Kate Evangelista says
Thank you for adding perspective to responding to critique. Opened my eyes there. 🙂
Kevin Lynn Helmick says
Pretty much the same way, edit as I go. I write in single space. Double space for the second draft and try to concentrate on words, spelling, sentances, punctuation, cutting, cutting and anything that's obviously a problem. (hate this part, frustrating and always stressed I'm missing something)
Return it to single space, print it out, let it sit for a week or two or three, sit back, get my pen handy and…read it.
And then…do it all over again.
When it's all done as far as my skills can take it, and only then, I let a few people read it and work on anything that I hear repeated.
It makes me apriciate a talented editor, which I am not.
Marcia Richards says
I edit as I go, also. It does take a long time to get the book written, but I find I just can leave a paragraph or scene unless it's great each time I read it.
Thanks for such a logical order of self-editing and how to handle an editor's letter. Another great post!
JM Leotti says
Great tips, and a logical editing process.
I tend to edit as I go, rereading from the day before. Since this is my first novel, I'm very anxious to reach the end of my first draft so that I can go back and view what I've written as a complete story. I've only done this with short pieces, so this will be a different experience for me.
Great post. I'm really enjoying this series!
Hey Anon @ 8:24 (if that's your real name)–
"I'm probably coming from a different POV because I'm published, but I'm sharing anyway."
There's actually quite a few published folks who frequent this blog. If you didn't want to come across as an elitist you may want to take your own advice and edit your comment while it's still fresh.
Great post. One of the things I've recently started doing is compiling my manuscript in epub format and reading it on my iPad. I use the note and highlight features within the program to edit. Yellow for "needs rewriting," pink for "just delete it" and green for "new ideas."
This creates a list at the front of the "book" so I can find all my edits (under bookmarks and notes)
Once I'm done I go back and make the changes in my manuscript.
I use Scrivener on my laptop, so it's easy to type a phrase or sentence into the search field and find the corresponding edit from my iPad.
It's easier than it sounds. Maybe I should work on my explanation a bit and try again on my own blog.
Nathan, this is great. I like your description of how to handle major editing notes; I've always wondered about that. I like your suggestion of color-coding and of following one thread through before starting on another one.
Thanks for the suggestions – very helpful.
This is a fun week!
Oh yeah, the reason I do the edits on my iPad is because it looks different and I see mistakes much easier than if I just read it in Scrivener. Much like how a printed draft looks different.
Another thing I do when it's time to line edit is let my Mac read the text out loud while I follow along and read silently.
The typos seem to jump off the page when I do that.
Francis Tuohy says
I hate editing! If editing were a person I would ride it over with a bus and then back up over it until the crunching had stopped.
Unfortunately, especially because I dont plan more than a general outline, I spend twice as long editing and revising as I do writing…should have become something sensible like a CPA 🙂