What to do when you’ve written a book – 11 editing steps

Reading Time: 4 minutes
editing with a fine quill pen
Grab your editing tools and start polishing your own first draft into something worth casting in bronze. A quill and poem, Bournemouth, England, August 2017.

How do you turn mush into gold? When you finish the first draft of a novel, you’re on a high. You did it, you put in the hours and you completed a book. Next thing – publication and worldwide acclaim. Right? Wrong. Next is poring over that book, finding its strengths and weaknesses, and making it into something you could possibly put in front of an agent or publisher. In other words, editing.

But how do you do that? Yes, you can hire an editor, but if you want to give them to best chance to focus then your draft will already be in the best shape you can make it. So that means a large amount of self-editing before you share with anyone.

What, then, does editing involve? Spellcheck? Grammar check…? Yes, and more. Here are some broad areas for your post-first-draft attention.

1. Make a scene list and number the individual scenes. Forget chapters for the moment, list your scenes. This gives you a manageable picture of your whole story. A scene list involves writing a line or two – no more – per scene. Highlight its main moment, how the plot moves on and any important setting.

2. Now think about tone. Look at your scene list again and in one word, note the tone of each scene. Gloomy, flirtatious, thrilling? It’s very hard to be consistent over a whole novel, and what starts out light and fluffy may veer into grimdark territory by chapter ten. Ahem. So if your book’s promise is a light-hearted romp through a fantastical landscape, check that what you’ve created delivers that.

3. Think about the must-have scenes. These are the scenes that must happen for the plot to work, the big or momentous scenes,  the ones you want the cinema audience to remember for months after they see the film. Where are they? Do you have everything your imaginary back-cover blurb  promises? Focus on those key scenes. This is another step that helps dodge overwhelm.

4. Consider the structure you want for your novel. This may have changed since you first started writing it. Get out your structure reference sources (I like the structure laid out by Save the Cat. I also like what James Scott Bell does with structure )  -and using your scene list, map your story onto the structure that best fits your genre. This exercise lets you see if your story performs a beautiful arc to a towering climax and perfect denouement… or if it arrows to a peak in chapter three and then meanders for the next two hundred pages. Try to pin your novel’s key moments to that of the structure you want it to have. Does it hit all the key points? What’s missing, what’s repeated unnecessarily, what’s over or underdone? For me this is the hardest part of editing, but it is necessary.

5. Consider character story arc. Now stop thinking about plot and think about character story arc. Now you know how the main plot points work out and fit together, how does that match up with your main character’s personal story? It’s no good him having an epiphany in chapter two and then following the plot for another eighteen chapters, fully developed. His epiphany must come at or close to the realisation of the main plot point; his disasters must coincide with the plot’s low points, his triumphs with its final resolution. Or at last, there must be a correlation between whats going on in his heart, and what he’s trying to achieve in the external world.

6. Check your facts. I prefer not to research in any detail before I start writing. I do a bit of googling to get broad facts right, but leave the detail for later. So now is the time to make sure you know when and where things happened – dates, places, names. If you refer to a train journey, check it’s possible and how long it takes. Maybe like me you write the work CHECK!!! in your manuscript for stuff you know you’ll need to look up later. later is now. Go!

7.Look at the book’s pace. Does the reader have time to breathe, to get to know characters, in between breathless action scenes? Does the story move forward at every point, with no redundant scenes of local colour and texture but no plot? Jack Reacher drinks a lot of coffee, allowing him and the reader to take stock. If gunfight followed gunfight, we’d never keep up. Editing specifically story for pace can fix that. Seek that balance between reader interest and reader overwhelm.

8. Listen to the dialogue. Find your characters’ speeches and make sure that each person sounds like herself, every time. Each of us has a distinct speech pattern and it should be obvious, even without tags, who is speaking. I reckon you could pick out Sherlock, Hermione and James T Kirk from their dialogue. Your characters need to be as distinctive.  Add idioms unique to each person, work on patches where everyone seems to sound the same.

9. Setting check. I’m guilty of under-describing things because I can see them just fine in my mind. This is not good enough. So I spend a lot of my editing time checking that events are not happening in a narrative blank space. Make sure the reader can tell where the action is happening – what it looks like, its atmosphere and weather/lighting. And the time of day. Also make sure it’s obvious when in the narrative this is happening – right after the last scene,

10. Timescale check. Make sure it’s obvious when in the narrative this is happening – right after the last scene, some time later, or what? And make those settings work for your story. If they are a bit generic, make them specific. If they are a bit mundane, make them amazing. Not everywhere needs to be the Paris Opera House in a thunderstorm, but everywhere needs to feel like somewhere.

11. Theme. Make sure that the theme of the book is present throughout the story. You needn’t hit readers over the head with This Is About Friendship! every two minutes, but the motifs and set-pieces where the theme is explored, need to be there. Make sure it’s introduced early and tied up, or at least referred back to, at the end.

12. Spellcheck and grammar check. Now you can do the line edits, sentence structure, scene structure – starting with basic spelling and grammar checks. And check by eye, not by squiggly red line on the screen. Read each word slowly and individually. It amazes me that even after three final read-throughs on my weekly stories, someone (often me) always picks out a typo after the piece is shared in the workshop. Every time.

There are many other things you can do to tidy up the enormous pile of mush that is a first draft. But these few should keep you busy.

Let me know how you get on, or if you have any other tips you want to share. -Sef


Editing: KonMari your writing and declutter your prose

Reading Time: 4 minutes
KonMari book
Marie Kondo’s bestselling book demonstrates how to tidy your space. But why not KonMari your writing as well as your house with the same simple principles?

Tidying the house is exhausting. It’s physically tiring because of all the running up and down stairs with items which need relocating from room to room. But more than that, it’s mentally exhausting because of all the small KonMari decisions you need to make as you tidy. Keep or toss? Put it with similar items or have a spare set of them in this room as well as that room? Charity shop or recycling? Can I eBay it? Can I please stop now?

Writing is also a morass of tiny decisions – every character needs to sit or stand or speak or do nothing, every sentence must have rhythm and sense, every word must mean exactly what you intend, and this all takes place in a setting which you must design in its entirety. Wouldn’t it be great to have a system you could use to declutter your writing in the same way you declutter your house?  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to make those editing decisions with confidence, kowing that what is left is exactly what you need and love?

William Morris has a famous saying: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  Marie Kondo, AKA KonMari, the Japanse tidying guru, believes that you should only possess things which ‘spark joy’ when you touch them. These tenets simplify tidying decisions.  If it’s not useful and sparks no joy – it goes. Easy.

Using these ideas, my house now contains less junk, less of the things I previously had two or three of, and more free space. Now, if I need to declutter, it’s only a surface layer built up during a busy period – and my task is simpler because I know the rules by which I keep or ditch each item.

So a couple of years ago I began applying this principle to my writing. At the time, I was writing fanfiction, a chapter a night, two or three different stories at once. In fanfiction, people don’t have time to read long stuff. (Sometimes a reader tells me they stayed up all night and finished my book-length fanfic in one gulp, which is flattering – but the exception rather than the rule). People read in snatched moments, while the dinner is on, or while commuting. So every chapter needs to be snappy, and every chapter must move the story on or deliver gratification in some way. *

This approach simplifies writing decisions. I have a continual internal dialogue with myself which goes like this:

-What’s the point of this scene? (points to lengthy section detailing a trip to a market square).

-It gives local colour of the market in this fantasy town, and shows how I’ve invented amazing foodstuffs for my characters’ breakfast!

-OK, so do we learn anything except that there’s a market and my characters have breakfast?

-Uh, there’s a bit of gossip they pick up about the Plot.

-Right. I can put that in on their way to the Palace.

Decision: 1500 words gone, replaced with the line, After breakfast in the market…

I find these decisions go double for dialogue. If I find a raft of to-and-fro while a character updates another character with what’s happened in the previous chapter – I usually ditch it. I am especially suspicious of relating phone conversations where everyone on this end of the line already knows what’s gone on: dull. If there’s a funny line or two, I cut and paste it into my ‘edited out/keep for next time’ document (see below for more on this.) I have loads of hilarious exchanges between my hero and his friend – but they did not fit with what their scenes needed to achieve.

Decision: unnecessary dialogue gone, replaced with tell-not-show lines such as, I brought him up to date with events at the temple…

But what about sentimental items, you may wonder – in your house, this might be ornaments given to you by departed loved ones, or memorabilia from a wonderful trip. In writing, these are the beloved scenes which are your absolute favourites, or which inspired the whole story. The FlyLady has a solution for this tidying problem – take a photo of the thing and get rid of it. That way you still ‘have’ it – the ugly vase, the mountain of your children’s’ drawings – but you don’t have to store it.

You can apply the same idea to writing. If you have a beloved scene which makes you laugh or cry or which is just too adorable or clever to delete – cut and paste it into a separate, Edited Out document, and store it well away from the finished work. That way you have not lost it, but it’s not cluttering up your manuscript either. (Della Galton, veteran womag writer,  has a policy of never throwing away stories, even ones which have found no favour over years of editing and resubmission. One time she told a group of us that she rewrote a story editors hated, but which she loved,  about ten times before finally rewriting it from the point of view of cats and submitting it to a cat lover magazine. Bingo – success. )

Decision: the great scene in which my hero is obliged to dance with his friend’s abrasive sister, gone. I love that scene. But I’ll find another story where it moves the plot forward for the hero to be blackmailed into a foxtrot.

All right, so in a genre plot you can trim out the non-essentials. But what about literary fiction? Well, the beautiful/useful rule can be applied here too.  Literary language is meant to spark joy. So you are still watching for pointless scenes, but in lit fic, the ‘point’ might be it’s just so beautiful. (I think. I only distantly appreciate lit fic. The subject matter is mostly too miserable for my taste.)

In my own writing, I try to include only things which move the story forward, or are vital for the reader to experience the setting. I’ve got more work to do – a lot more work – before my writing is as lean and efficient as it should be – but with these principles beside me, alongside my trusty KonMari book, it is not as exhausting as it seems.

How do you tidy your writing?  Let me know in the comments.


Spark Joy by Marie Kondo the global phenomenon that is KonMari explains her guiding principles for a tidy and beautiful living space.

The FlyLady – a system for avoiding chaos in your home and your life.

William Morris

Della Galton

*There is a whole genre of fanfiction known as fluff, which basically requires zero plot and is one hundred percent indulgence of favourite fantasies about your beloved characters – Sherlock and John getting a puppy for Christmas, for example. So plot is unimportant, but the beautiful/useful rule still applies – a chapter without squee is a chapter that wastes the reader’s time).