editing / writing

8 Steps All Writers Follow When They Edit

Every author has a different approach to writing. I know this because I read Rebecca Bradley’s wonderful series on how writers do their thing. Each author she spotlights adds a personal twist that intrigues me.

Not so surprisingly, no one’s approach is like mine. Here’s how I write a novel:

  •  Draft out events for the novel in a spreadsheet program like Excel. This gives me room to add columns and rows with new information, new ideas, notes to track an event through the story. Here’s what my spreadsheet for my latest WIP looks like:

plot with Excel

  • JK Rowling’s is low-tech, but still an obvious spreadsheet:

jk rowlings plot

  • Convert the draft to a word processing program like MS Word. Mine is usually 70+ pages.
  • Add details about timing, setting, characters, clothing, transitions, chapter breaks.
  • Start at the beginning and read for flow, timing, pacing. Edit diligently. I do this a day at a time. I finish a day’s worth of editing and start over the next day, repeating the process. Eventually, when I read to edit, it sounds fine (kind of) so I move on to the next part. I like this because I get some sense of continuity for the story. Otherwise, I forget what happened when. It sometimes takes until the third or fourth day of editing the same section to realize the character’s voice changed or s/he wouldn’t have said whatever I have coming out of his/her mouth.
  • Continue until I finish the entire manuscript
  • Search for obnoxious words like is, was, that, there, thing and change them. I’m identifying words that make the story passive, difficult to understand, and/or boring. I actually have a long list of them so it takes me a full twelve-hour day
  • Repeat the edit process(often, three-six full read-throughs) until the flow, pacing, and timing are fine and I feel it’s ready to submit.

99.9% of you are saying, Gee. That’s not how I do it. And that’s OK. There are rarely two writers who follow the same method and lots are successful. Find an approach that works for you and use it until it doesn’t. But, there are eight editing tricks we all use in some form. See if you agree:

  1. Ignore the fat lady if she starts warming up. Keep writing. You know what you’re doing and you’re going to do it well.
  2. Keep your pet snake around to greet detractors. Or tarantula, or scorpion. Whatever you have that will keep naysayers outside your orbit.
  3. Expect other people to get out of your way, do your chores, bring you coffee to keep you going as you prepare your Baby. Whatever they’re doing couldn’t be as important as writing a d*** novel.
  4. Repeat this mantra–Editing problems are only opportunities with thorns.
  5. When you scream at your mate (when s/he interferes with your writing) and s/he accuses you of needing anger management, remind her/him that the only help you need is for them to shut the F*** up
  6. Offer a crazed smile when people interrupt. That’ll back them off.
  7. When distractions call, let them go to voice mail.
  8. If you get unwanted visitors, quote Oscar Wilde–“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.

Lest you think I’m the only one who writes like this, check out Gina Holmes at Novel Rocket or Adam Blumer here.

More about editing:

 15 BIG Writing Blunders

How to Edit Your Novel (according to Yuvi)

10 Tips Guaranteed to Rescue Your Story

Book Review: Self-editing for Fiction Writers

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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42 thoughts on “8 Steps All Writers Follow When They Edit

  1. Pingback: Today's Author | (Re)Starting a Novel–What are the Hurdles

  2. Pingback: Writer’s Tip #90: 11 Tips to Self-Editi Your Manuscript | WordDreams...

  3. #7 is especially important to me. In our connected age, most people flock to emails or texts as soon as they come in. It’s best to set those distractions aside and concentrate on the work before you implode. Great list!


    • I was writing a post today about desktop tools I love–I included my two monitors. One reason was because when email comes in, it shows on Screen #1 while I work on Screen #2. I barely need to stop typing to glance and catalog. Barely a distraction.


  4. Editing problems are only opportunities with thorns. Yes! Excellent, Jacqui, excellent!
    I don’t know how to create a spreadsheet like yours – so many columns, very large page. I’d have to put 3 monitors side by side to do that.
    I write pages and pages of notes. Lots of files for entries like: characters, time frames, setting details, background info, plot development, theme and primary ideas. Then I find myself writing a long passage and I’m taken by my own story right into the action. It starts to flow, I can’t stop the writing, and I’m into developing the way beyond dry details.That’s when I open a new file, transfer anything good, and begin the actual book. For my most current WIP , I did create an outline of sorts, or maybe you’d call it a chapter by chapter synopsis. It was more structured than I’d done for earlier books and proved effective in both moving the story along and keeping the chapters relatively short. But I never liked formal outlines for school projects and I ain’t gonna start now. 😉
    I do like how organized and attractive your spreadsheet is.


  5. As I begin writing, I have a general feel for where I’m going. Before I start each day, I re-read, and do a cursory edit of what I’ve written the day before. Once I’ve let the characters bloom enough to get a feel for them, I become more organized in my approach. At that point, I list the essential elements for the plot and plan it like a trial–What information do I need to deliver at this time and from this witness (oops, character); how did that character know that information; to whom does this need to be revealed to move the plot forward (and can it possibly be done through direct observation.) Then, at the start of each chapter, on a yellow pad, I write a point form list of objectives that must be met (and then meet them as I write.) Once a chapter is written, I print it and then read each completed chapter, making pencil notations of things to expand upon, or change. Then I go on to the next chapter.
    When the book is finished I read through for continuity issues and edit as I go–filling in details and adjusting character issues (as often the characters have revealed themselves more fully to me along the way and I backfill accordingly.) Then I read the manuscript–page by page– backwards, for punctuation (and, to a lesser extent to smooth dialogue and to make it as natural as possible.) Finally I turn it over to my editor, who does both a structural review and a line by line rough edit. We discuss the structural stuff, generally and if changes are needed, I make them. Then, we go over the line by line for each change.
    Then, we each re-read the whole thing, looking for errors. It’s tedious, and means that I (we) go through the manuscript at least five times. My editor is forever adding commas that I have to remove–and we debate them vigorously. Along the way, my editor turned into my husband, so it’s close work–without rancor. I can’t say that it would work for anybody else.


    • I like you goal-setting for each chapter. I read that in the Marshall Plan for Writing, but never fully engaged it. I’m glad you reminded me.

      I like the part your husband plays in it. It’s hard to trust any reader–that they are providing good advice. A husband–yep, he’d qualify. Mine, too. Love it that way.


  6. I can write in public, with music, and in other circumstances, but I have to edit in silence. I put on a white noise mp3 or edit late at night into the morning, when no one is going to bother me.

    To answer your question, I work on 2 or 3 books at the same time.


  7. Great as always Jacqui. Fortunately I am able to work in complete solitude, so no distractions or interruptions. And I enjoy the editing and revision phase as much as any other part of the writing process. For me it’s like varnishing, adding coat after coat of varnish after sanding in between the layers, a chore many of my fellow sailors find tedious, but which I always enjoyed. Perhaps since it is also a solitary endeavor. But the final product, that gleam and shine when you’re done, whether on teak or in a manuscript, is satisfyingly worth the effort.


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  9. What a useful post, Jacqui. I’m working on a new novel right now that requires a timeline of events. I hadn’t thought of using Excel, but your spreadsheet has great appeal. I think I’ll try it. Thanks!


  10. Great ! I work in similar way but with Liquid Story Binder XE. It’s another choice with storyboards, mindmaps, timelines, journals, dossiers, outlines and others features.


  11. “Like” is not enough! I love it especially when I remember time when I wrote books by pen (there was nothing else available). It is a different world for writers today!


  12. Jacqui thank you for sharing your process. LOVE number 4. I never realised how many layers there is to editing my novel. I needed help. I am learning a step-by-step course with Holly Lisle taking my first crap draft of a NaNoWriMo novel through the ringer. As a new writer I love seeing how other people get through this process too.


      • Lots of different writing groups – and groups to do with mental health – my daughter does read the blog – I sought her permission before I commenced – funnily enough I’m pulling the blog tomorrow – there has been an issue – a police complaint re malicious letters containing my blog and mr big I am – but plan to write a book


  13. Find your observations very useful. I used to think that writing is a creative process. It will either happen or won’t. After having been writing for some time, I realise that a lot of it is perspiration and process and diligence, of course with the occasional spark of creativity thrown in.


    • So true, Ankur. I’m with you–I used to think I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t creative enough. Now… Well, there’s still that, but there are lots more reasons, too, why it might not work!


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