The Three Stages of Editing

Editing is the most daunting, frustrating, and labor-intensive part of being a writer. I often say that writing is just prep-work, and editing is the real writing.

If you've read any of my articles about plotting, you know I like a well-defined task, and editing is no exception. I don't just muddle my way through, reading my manuscript over and over, blindly feeling my way towards a stronger story. I break it down into three distinct stages, working the various issues from largest to smallest.

Developmental Edits

The big picture stuff is first. Once I finish a draft, I take some time to read the whole thing cover to cover. I usually convert the manuscript into an ebook (using Calibre), and read it on my phone. This takes me out of the writer's mindset; it makes it impossible to tinker and get distracted as I go. I have Google Keep or a blank Google Doc open, and I jot down everything that comes to mind as I read.

Mostly, I try to focus on big-picture issues like showing and tellingstory structureproportion, and how my characters are coming across. I do my best to ignore typos and grammatical errors because A) I will fix those over the next two stages, and B) the issues I find during the developmental stage usually require extensive rewrites, so a lot of what I read will end up getting cut out or rewritten anyway. It's a waste of time to tinker with the grammar in a paragraph I'll be cutting out later.

As a self-editor, this stage usually lasts the longest. Depending on the complexity of the novel, I might end up doing two rounds of developmental edits, because the more new material I write, the more new issues pop up during rewrites. This is one of the reasons I'm so heavily in favor of plotting. If a sequence of events clashes with a character's motivations, or if a particular chain of causality doesn't work, it's much easier to rework in the plotting phase. But, try as I might, sometimes I can't see the flaws until the manuscript is written, so there are always rewrites in the developmental stage.

Once developmental edits are done, I usually send the manuscript out to beta readers. It's essential to get another pair of eyes on your work, to catch what you can't. As a writer, you'll always know what you were trying to say, and sometimes that makes it hard to see what you did say. Beta readers cut through all that mess, and give you ammo for the next stage.

Line Edits

Once I'm sure the story is structured and proportioned the way I want it, I dive into the words themselves. Line edits are best done with tunnel vision; you want to ignore the story as much as possible, and focus on how well the sentences work. I look at paragraphing, word choice, dialogue mechanics, character voice, and a whole host of other issues. This can involve multiple passes, but usually by this point I know where my strongest and weakest scenes are, so I try to focus my energy where it's needed most. 

The hardest part about line editing is knowing when to stop. There is never a point where I can read a sentence and not imagine another way of saying it. Even if I'm satisfied with something one day, the day will eventually come when it sounds like garbage to me. I fully believe this is a fundamental law of writing. If you never stop learning, you never stop improving. If you never stop improving, the gap between your current understanding and your previous work is always growing, and that means your old writing will always look worse every time you revisit it.

So at some point, you just have to stop. Do it arbitrarily if you must, but for me there's always a point where I take a step back and realize I've tried a sentence or a passage five or six different ways, and I'm beginning to retrace my steps. That's when I stop.


Once I realize I'm torturing myself, the only thing that remains to be done is make sure I don't look like an idiot. Even nit-pickers like me make typos (I'm sure there are dozens on this site), but I do my damnedest to keep them out of published fiction.

Unfortunately, I fail as often as I succeed, which is why I like to use a program like ProWritingAid to help me clean up the mess. Editing software will always fall short of a human editor, but it has its advantages. Software doesn't get fatigued or distracted. Software isn't replaying highlights from last night's game while its eyes tumble over a mess of letters without comprehension. And software is fast. The burden still lies firmly on the writer, but the writer can do more with a little help from a machine.

Once I've dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's, I have myself a finished, polished story. And then it's time to send it out into the world, and risk starting it all over again.

But hey, that's the job.


Admonitions for Pantsers

Writers are defined by their approach to the task.  On one end of the spectrum, you have Plotters (thanks to James Scott Bell for introducing me this distinction), who range from people who write a simple, hand-drawn idea webs, to obsessive-compulsive people like me, who have quasi-romantic feelings for charts, spreadsheets and bullet lists.

On the other hand, you have the Pantsers, who sit down to a blank page and just go.  They let the ideas flow, and worry about arranging them into a coherent order later.  Sounds like the easy alternative, right?

Not if you ask me.

If you've ever talked to someone who wrote a novel, and they told you "It's a mess..." chances are you were talking to a Pantser.  If you ever wrote something, then looked at it after the heat of creation had cooled, and thought "God this is awful," then chances are you Pantsed your way through it without a plan.

In case it's not apparent, I'm not a big fan of this strategy.  I think refusing to plan ahead is disrespectful to the task of writing a novel.

But the aggravating fact is, a lot of good writers are Pantsers.  Stephen King, whom I all but worship, is a Pantser (though he doesn't use the term when he discusses his methods in On Writing).  And to me, that's maddening.  How Pantsers manage to wrangle bloated, festering novels filled with irrelevant scenes into readable books is beyond me.  But people do it.

Most of the Pantsers I've encountered, however, are what they are because they don't know anything else.  And I can't blame them for that.  They're simply stuck in the first of the Four Stages of Competence. And there's no shame in that.

The thing is, you don't apply to Novelist Incorporated when you decide to become a novelist.  There's no predetermined course of training (alright, there are creative writing degrees, but you know what I mean).  There's nobody to tell you you must learn story structure before you attempt a novel.  I'd be willing to bet that most novelists start as Pantsers.  Even I, loudest herald of the Plotters, started as a Pantser.

But if you're aware of the distinction, and you choose to remain a Pantser, there are some things I think you should come to terms with, or you'll find your writing life an unhappy one.

Above all, you MUST accept the reality that you will delete 4-5 times as much as you you keep. It's the price of "letting ideas flow".

In this world, most ideas are bad. If you don't accept that early, you're in for a world of heartache.

This is the job. This is what you signed up for. When writers talk about killing your darlings, this is what they mean.

Another thing to realize now is that the burden of editing lies on you first.  Unless you have an ongoing relationship with a professional editor, you can't just write any old drivel and expect someone else to "fix it".  Even with a professional editor, it's rarely that simple.  Writing is hard work, but editing is what makes writing readable. If you're not participating in the editing process, you don't deserve the credit for the final draft.

The last thing to realize is that the defining emotion of your writer's journey is going to be frustration.  You are going to hit road blocks, and you're not going to have a map around them.  You're going to write scenes that go nowhere.  You're going to put characters in situations where they don't belong.  You're going to foreshadow some turn of events and then forget about it by the time it should come to fruition.  You are going to make massive story revisions and practically rewrite your books from the ground up.  In short, your rough drafts are going to be really...
...bad.  And 90% of the work you do as a writer will not be "letting ideas flow", it will be fixing the jumble of ideas that spilled out of you.

If you're willing to spend 90% of your time fixing what you wrote, then my hat is off to you.  As negative as I sound about Pantsing, I applaud the hardy souls who are able to work this way.  I don't have the emotional fortitude for it.  But if you do, then go forth with my blessing.

If this post scared you away from Pantsing, check out my Plotter's Manifesto and my series on Story Structure


The Plotter's Manifesto

Writers are defined by their approach to the task.  On one end of the spectrum, you have the Pantsers (thanks to James Scott Bell for introducing me this distinction), who sit down to a blank page and just go.  Sounds easy, right?  I don't think so, but the reasons why are the subject of another post.

On the other end, you have Plotters, who range from people who write simple, hand-drawn idea webs, to people like me, who spend months devising detailed spreadsheets, building templates, writing mini-scenes to develop characters, and generally making themselves look crazy to any outside observer.

Figuring out whether you are a Pantser or a Plotter--or somewhere in between--is one of the first tasks you should undertake when you start your journey as a writer.

highly recommend becoming a Plotter. You don't have to be as obsessive as me, but plotting saves you great hulking slabs of time, effort, and indecision. 

Wait, plotting saves you time?  How can that be?

Alright, the truth is plotting does put more distance between you and actually writing your story, but it's worth it. When you start from a suitable plan, your first draft will be better, which means you'll delete less, and spend less time reworking pages that fall short.  In the long run, you'll write more, because you won't spend so much damn time wrestling with a slithering mess of a novel.

Even a relatively straightforward novel can be a convoluted, multifaceted, byzantine thing when you're creating it.  When you're in the thick of it, ideas are firing off in your brain at random; you get ideas in the shower, ideas in bed, ideas when you're out to dinner.  Character motivations are gradually refined, plot turns are tested and rejected, locations are changed.  Think about it; would it be easier to do all that shuffling around in a novel, or an outline?

True, even the best plotted novel will go through some unexpected transformations after being written.  That's part of the process.  But the first ideas are seldom the best, and I find it's better to get those worked out in bullet list form.  A professional Pantser might take a book through seven complete drafts before it's ready to see the light of day.  Plotting can potentially cut off two or three of those drafts, and cut down on developmental edits.

If you're ready to begin your journey as a Plotter, check out my series on Story Structure.


How to Structure Scenes

Last week I took a little break from my regular posting schedule, because I've been working on a very exciting project. More news to follow. In any case, I'm back now, and I decided to take the next few weeks to feature some resources from the site. Most of what you'll be seeing over the next few weeks is permanently hosted here, but I'm going to feature a few selections that cover some of the most important issues I've encountered.


If you've read my series on Story Structure, hopefully you feel confident about the types of scenes you can and should include in your story.

But what about structuring the scenes themselves? If there's a macro-structure to a story, surely there must be a micro-structure?

Thankfully, there is. Traditionally, what I'm about to discuss is known as Scene and Sequel, but I've always disliked that term.  K.M. Weiland did a series on this concept, and in it she differentiated between two definitions of scene: Scene, being the first phase of the Scene-Sequel model, and scene being what we commonly refer to as scenes, I.E. a series of related events that take place in a single specific setting.

Are you confused yet? Because I was. (No offense to Weiland, it's not her terminology!)

Despite the messy terminology, the Scene and Sequel model has enormous advantages. It helps you craft a story where each moment is a link in a causal chain. Great stories feel like they're going to keep moving with or without us, so we pay attention because we don't want to miss anything.

So let's redefine some terms. I'm a stickler for terminology, and any time I see a single term with two different meanings, I go hunting for a superior synonym to regain some clarity. I'm pretty sure I developed this habit as a result of reading the chapter on repetition in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

For me, I like the little-s definition of scenes, because when I use the word in everyday parlance, that's what I mean. In my model, a scene is whatever happens in a single time and place. If the time, place, or point of view changes, a new scene has begun.

But Scene and Sequel comprises a group of related scenes, so what to call the whole model? Luckily, I paid attention in Film 101, so I remember that a group of related scenes is called a Sequence.

For the purposes of this model, a Sequence consists of two phases: the Action Phase (Scene), and the Reaction Phase (Sequel).


Now that we have our terminology out of the way, let's get into Sequence Structure. We'll look at the Action Phase first.

The Action Phase begins with a character that has some kind of goal. It could be as simple as getting a bagel at the local coffee shop, or it could be as complex as talking a room of government heavyweights into declaring war. Whatever it is, the first task in any Sequence is to demonstrate a goal.

Next, there will be some conflict that prevents the character from achieving that goal. Something happens to block their efforts, be it the actions of another character, a physical or social barrier, or their own incompetence.

And if there's going to be conflict, it's going to have some kind of outcome. If you want to keep the tension high, this outcome should almost always be bad. The character needs to encounter constant setbacks and diversions, whether minor or major. Occasionally, for whatever reason, the character will need to succeed in some goal, but if they do, you should always try to include some kind of secondary outcome that is a setback. This pattern should hold true right up to the end of your Final Showdown.

So that's the Action Phase:

  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Outcome

The Reaction Phase begins with--what else?--a reaction. This is some kind of emotional response from the character. If they encountered a setback, maybe they're frustrated or angry. If they achieved some goal, maybe they're elated. These are the moments that will help readers identify wiht your characters.

Sometimes, the reaction will be implicit in the outcome of the Action Phase. And if the reaction is obvious, you don't always have to spend page time on it. But you should know what it is, just to make sure it's involved in whatever you do write. Color your character's thoughts and actions with this emotion. If they're angry, don't show them sniffing daisies and sipping herbal tea.

After the reaction, you have some kind of deliberation. The character reflects on the outcome, and examines their options on where to go next. Sometimes this deliberation will take the form of an internal struggle, sometimes it will be an argument with the character's allies.

Whatever it consists of, the deliberation will eventually reach some kind of decisionwhich in turn provides a new goal. In this way, the Reaction Phase lights the fuse on the next action phase.

The point is to create a domino effect, where every scene has a causal relationship with the next. This provides that feeling of momentum, and keeps the reader hooked.

So that's the Reaction Phase:

  • Reaction
  • Deliberation
  • Decision

In structuring a Sequence, each of the six items (goal-conflict-outcome, reaction-deliberation-decision) could be its own scene. It might feel a little choppy that way, but it's totally possible.

It's also possible for the entire Action-Reaction Sequence to take place within the space of a single scene. It might feel a little slow, but if you keep the stakes high, it can provide delicious tension. Quentin Tarantino is the undisputed master of slow, tense Sequences.

But typically, the Action Phase will be a single scene, and the Reaction phase will be a single scene. To return to an earlier example, the Midpoint Sequence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows presents itself as two scenes.  The Action Phase happens at the Lovegood house:

  • Harry and co enter the Lovegood house with the goal of learning more about the strange symbol they've been seeing.
  • They encounter conflict when Xenophilius seems distracted and inhospitable toward with them.
  • The outcome of this is that Xenophilius has betrayed them and is stalling, and Harry and co must make a daring escape.

The Reaction Phase follows when they finally get back to their tent:

  • The group reacts by being distraught over what happened and disagreeing hotly about the importance of the Hallows.
  • They deliberate over what their next move is, and because of the disagreement, they cannot decide whether to look for the Hallows or continue hunting Horcruxes.
  • But eventually, Harry reaches the decision that the Hallows are of paramount importance, and acquiring them becomes his new goal, even though the others aren't on board.

Then, however, something odd happens. Rather than move forward with his decision, Harry is taken into captivity along with his compatriots and several others. A new Sequence has interrupted the flow of decision-to-goal, and Harry's overall goal of acquiring the Hallows is supplanted by the more immediate goal of keeping his identity hidden from the Snatchers.

This brings up an important point: Sequences do not always need to unfold unimpeded. One can interrupt another--in fact they should. The domino effect can survive a little chaos. Sometimes the outcome of an Action Phase should be a disaster that begins a new Action Phase right away, and the following Reaction Phase can do double duty.

Split streams every now and then, and have one Sequence crash into another. So long as everything flows into the same river by each of the three Turning Points, you're free to do whatever you want. At each of the Turning Points, a full Sequence should go uninterrupted.

A Sequence should nearly always straddle the Act One-Act Two transition. Act One should probably end with an Action Phase, and Act Two should begin with the corresponding Reaction Phase.

The Midpoint Sequence is one of the most important parts of your story, and should not be interrupted either.

Turning Point Three should also be a complete Sequence. The Low Point, Mounting Forces and Hero Gets a Boost scenes should make up the Reaction Phase of the Turning Point Three Sequence.

The last point where you should have an uninterrupted Sequence is at the very end. The Final Showdown should be an Action Phase, and the Denouement should be the corresponding Reaction Phase.

With these major Sequences in place, the most important points of your plot will be sound. Beyond that, Sequence structure is a wild and crazy business, and I advise you to make the most of it.