How I Edit Fiction

No two writers write in the same way. But even fewer writers edit in the same way. We all wield our red (or blue) pens (or pencils), hacking flabby words and injecting strong verbs and nouns in their places. We all share the end goal of a crisp, clean, beautiful final draft. And we all pull out rather large handfuls of hair on the road to that final draft. But the methods we use in fulfilling these edits are often quite disparate. Each of us has to find the method that works best for him, and often that method continues to evolve with every passing project.

5 Ways to Edit

Among writers, we find approximately five different methods of editing:

1. Write the entire first draft, then edit.

Woe be to this editor if he starts proofreading before finishing the draft, lest he never finish.)

2. Write until you figure out where the story’s going, then go back and edit the first half of the draft to match the rest of the story.

This is often the method favored by “seat-of-their-pants” writers, who find that outlining stunts their creativity.

3. Write to the end of a scene, then edit.

This very linear approach to editing allows the writer to establish each building block of his story as he goes.

4. Write to the end of a chapter, then edit.

This is just an extended version of the scene-by-scene edit.

5. Write a little, edit a little.

Favored by both procrastinators and obsessive outliners, this method is probably both the most dangerous and the most precise.

The K.M. Weiland Method of Editing

Were this a multiple-choice test, I’d be forced to check Option #5 abive as my method of choice. Fortunately, however, in the no-holds-bar world of writing and editing, we’re allowed as many choices as we like. Therefore, the approach I’ve developed over the years tends to encompass all five choices—in reverse order.

Step #1: Outline

I rarely begin a story without knowing where I’m going with it. As a result, I am often freed from the desperate rush to fill that great white chasm of paper between me and The End. Since I know how my story will end and how each scene will build toward that end, I’m free to polish each sentence and each paragraph as soon as it appears on my screen.

Step #2: Re-Read Previous Day’s Work

Instead of re-reading each scene as I finish it, I prefer to read over the page or so I wrote the previous day. Before I continue writing where I left off, I read everything I wrote the previous day (which usually amounts to half a scene), making little changes and checking the general flow of the words.

Step #3: Edit Each “Chapter”

Over the course of my last two projects, it’s become my practice not to divide my stories into chapters until I’ve finished the project. I simply break at any logical point, regardless of word count, and call that a chapter for the time being. Whenever I reach one of these logical breaks in my writing, I stop and take a day off from active writing in order to proofread that “chapter.”

Step #4: Edit Every 50 Pages

One of the best tricks I’ve snagged for my editing repertoire is what I call the “50-page edit.” Every 50 pages, I print my entire manuscript, sit myself down with the hard copy and mark it up with my red pen. Aside from the obvious benefits of word polishing, this allows me to reacquaint myself with scenes I may have written as much as a year previously. I’m able to get a good idea of the overall feel and pacing of the story. Old subplots, snippets of foreshadowing, and minor characters that I may have otherwise forgotten are once more brought to the forefront of my memory. Plus, the week-long break from active writing is often a much-appreciated chance for rejuvenating my brain cells.

Step #5: Edit the Entire First Draft

Finally, when I’ve typed those coveted words “THE END,” I buy myself a brand new ink cartridge and print the entire manuscript. As a rule, by this point, I’ve read most of the story as many as ten times, and much of the rough verbiage and weak scenes have already been discarded. After reading through the complete draft two or three times, I pronounce it temporarily finished and, knowing it’s the best I’m capable of by myself, send it off to a few trusted critiquers.

Final Tips on How to Edit Fiction

  • Although this method slows down the first draft, I have to believe it speeds up the overall process. Instead of overwhelming myself at the end of the first draft with plot problems, dead-end subplots, and clunky prose, my completed first draft is a relatively clean, sharp product.
  • Some people prefer to focus on one problem in each edit. For example, in the first edit, they might ignore the plot problems and focus only on typos. But I’ve never been able to do this. If I spot a problem, no matter how small or large, I’ve never been able to pass it by. Therefore, I rarely focus on any one thing in particular in any given edit.
  • If I happen to stumble across the need for a major rewrite or clean-up, I won’t bother printing the manuscript. It’s much easier to cut and rewrite major portions of text on the computer. For fine-tuning, however, I prefer to look at a hardcopy.
  • Once the story itself is free of bugs and I’m ready to proofread, word by word, for typos, I use a blue pen to mark beneath each word, ensuring my mind doesn’t read words that aren’t on the page.
  • After I’ve corrected any problems spotted by my critiquers, I generally toss the manuscript into the closet for a few months until I can gather some fresh perspective. I’ll edit it once or twice more, throw it back into the closet, wait a few months more, then edit again.

Stories are never finished until they’ve been forced into the irrevocability of print. Some of my stories I expect to be editing until the day I die!

Tell me your opinion: What is your preferred editing process?

how i edit fiction

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. well all thsi time I thought I was reading a man’s writing. And now you say “madwoman”. so excuse the Keep on writing Sir and let’s change that to a Keep on writing Mam.
    Angela

  2. That can really work when you always know where are you heading.

    It´s funny that I was just discussing this today with a writer buddy. She says she likes to plot things before she writes, I said I need to write and let the cahracters lead me.

    I don´t always wait to know how I´ll finish before I start because then I might never start.

    Thanks for another great post!

    M.

  3. I’m a big proponent of outlining (although I realize it doesn’t work for everyone). If I know where I’m going before I begin the actual writing, I can save myself so much time when editing.

  4. That is true and great as long as it works for you! (You are so lucky!)

    I just can´t keep ideas flowing if I don´t sit and write :O

    xoxo

    M.

  5. Everybody’s different. The trick is finding and refining the process that works best for you.

  6. You are very right there, as you usually are 🙂

  7. I am a combination of 4 and 5. I think I am on my way to becoming an out liner. I tried “the seat of my pants” method my story was a mess.

    I started out doing the Write until you figure out where the story’s going, then go back and edit the first half of the draft to match the rest of the story. I ended up deleting my first half of the book and rewriting the first five chapters so the rest would match and make sense.

  8. Been there and done that on both approaches. The security and sanity of outlining definitely works best for me!

  9. To me, writing is like animating. Before you can begin your first frame, you have to know where the final frame will take place. Your character will start at one spot, but you need to know where the character will end before you can plot out what you want to happen.

    I never really took any writing classes (seriously, the two I took in college were a joke), and simply learned as I went. I’ve been writing since I was a child just learning how to hold a pencil and string words together. It was my animation classes that had taught me to outline, to build your character before you release them. Then Stephen King once explained how a backcover blurb is the bones of the story, and the rest of it is just meat, like an outline.

    Once I’ve learned these few little tricks, writing has become so much easier. I construct a full detailed outline, chapter-per-chapter, to know where I’m going to go and I review that outline every time I don’t feel like writing, to envision the story in my head without having to see the mss words. I can edit as I go because I have the outline to fall back on, and this helps to make sure I don’t have to do yet another rewrite of the story I write. In 12yrs I’ve had to rewrite the same story four times in a row, never satisfied with the amount of plot-holes, lose ends, disappearing characters, and unanswered questions, and each rewrite has brought about another set of problems, not to mention the wordcount was horrifyingly extrenuous. For my final rewrite I’ve edited as I went, and after 8 months, I’ve finally finished the 104k story. Shortest I’ve ever written, and still 4k words over my goal.

    While some people argue pushing through is the “way to write”, they fail to realize the amount of time it takes them to revise and rewrite when they’re finished. Perhaps these people have never truly written a story they were determined to see through, or perhaps they never really *knew* what it was they were wanting to accomplish with it, but finding they’re left with a sloppy first draft because of careless writing holds them back just as much as “editing as your write” can. In my opinion, both versions of writing equal out to the same amount of time; it’s just a matter of what the writer feels is more important.

  10. Totally agree with you. Writing is one of the few artistic disciplines people think they can approach without putting in the prep time. In truth, you *can* approach it this way. But it causes so much more work in the long run.

  11. It is sad the amount of new writers who believe what established writers are telling them. I have not yet been published, and am still working towards that life-long goal, but I’ve learned the tools of the trade without having to fall prey to the generic belief that I should listen to my author-elders.

    While its true what these established authors have done worked for them, it doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. I’ve been kicked from several writing groups and forums for arguing their beliefs that every writer should write the same way that works for them, and many times I found myself (still find myself doing it, too) telling new writers that they don’t need to listen to what other people say.

    Like myself at one point, these poor writers have been forced to believe that there are rules to writing everyone must follow, and yet, after months of research, I have yet to find a single rule that is followed by *every single writer*. Believe me, I’ve looked everywhere. Unless you’re writing a comprehensive paper, and not a piece of fiction, you can write in fragments, and start a sentence with “but”. And you can even write in… *gasp* gaps!

    Once these new writers hear me tell them they don’t have to conform, and in fact, shouldn’t conform, they find themselves suddenly free from these imaginary ropes and their writing blossoms into beautiful stories.

    All hindered because some published author made them feel they weren’t following a guideline. The only thing I tell these fresh new writers to keep in mind, whether they edit as they go or not, is word count and main story genre. No matter how you write, you want to keep a goal in mind to not go over, lest you find yourself having to revise just to get published, and you want to keep the genre in check so you don’t find yourself curious to know what it was you wrote when you finish.

  12. Something I like to emphasize is the importance of each writer finding the individual process that works for them. Studying and learning from the processes of other authors, especially successful ones, is hugely valuable. But, in the end, we have to pick and choose the bits that work for us – and discard the rest.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I tend to edit at the end, but then again my books are usually 50,000 words rather than big, sweeping epic stories.

    I do have a friend who edits act by act. She’ll divide her manuscript into three acts, write one of them, then edit fully before continuing on with act two.

    • One thing I do always try to do is stay aware of the story and the general rhythm of the writing experience. If I feel like I’m on a roll and that stopping mid-book to edit would hinder that roll, I’ll just keep right on going. It’s always valuable to stay flexible (not my strongest suit) and listen to our instincts.

  15. Kurt Petrey says:

    I am like you. I am a big believer in outlining but I’m truly obsessive about it. I follow my own version of Save the Cat then I start my outline.

    1. I outline every event that occurs from beginning to end.
    2. I write a list for each event that describes actions that need to occur to progress the story until every event within the outline has depth and a proper place.

    Here’s where I head off the deep in.

    1. I write, from the seat of my pants, different events ignoring the overall outline which leads me down rabbit trails that I sometimes use later.
    2. I write background stories for characters that give reason for the actions required.
    3. I write any scenes I am pretty sure will make it to through the editing process.

    Now I go back and re-outline the entire story from scratch only referring to the first outline if I get stuck.

    I repeat the writing from the seat of my pants process then call my outline officially done. I section off the events to form logical chapters. I create files for each chapter then paste the events that must happen within that chapter in the file. At this point I have a detailed direction to write within each chapter. I write from the beginning to the end until i write “the end”.

    Traditionally my goal is to write 2000 words a day.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I prefer a thorough approach to the outline as well, which includes mapping out the general plot, writing extensive character sketches, and finally outlining scene by scene. It makes a world of difference in the viability of that first draft. I don’t often veer away from my outlines, but it’s important to give yourself permission to do so. Why stand in the way of a better idea if one comes along?

  16. Used with only my first novel and not an established method, but I only edit the final first draft. It just makes the process quicker for me and I feel I have acomplished the hardest bit when I finish. The first draft isn´t a mess though… I just can´t turn off my inner editor as I go along and my hands refuse to type anything that seems senseless or silly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Shutting off my internal editor has been a battle for me in recent years. With my last WIP, I finally got it to shut up – and I had so much more fun with that first draft than anything I’ve written in a long time.

      • Oh yes. Hard it is. I’ll keep practicing my zen and maybe one day I’ll reach your level :p
        It is still fun though. Is the best part of all. I hate editing…

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Every part has its good aspects and its bad. Editing’s not my favorite part of the process, but there are still many things about it that are enjoyable.

  17. Part of my “day job” involved editing (all kinds of things). At one time, I thought that was a benefit, but as I rekindled my fiction writing, it turned out to be a huge pain in the arse! Talk about struggling with your internal editor–she won’t shut up. I’ve had a rough time taming her. She has the uncanny ability to make writing 500 words take 8 hours or more as I agonize over every detail.

    To shut her up, I started free-writing scenes. I let her speak only after I had run out of things to write. It worked because I outline and build a story world and symbol document first. Then I just go from point to point in my outline doing that free-write-then-edit thing. It gets me through a story quickly. At the end, I do a whole MS edit. But, I think your method makes even more sense. I just need those couple of steps in the middle… especially the time spent away from the MS!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “infernal internal editor,” I like to call her. She’s valuable in her place, but during that first draft I duct tape her mouth and tie her up in the closet.

  18. I’m a blitz writer. I spend months assembling the plot in my head, occasionally down to individual scenes. When the time comes, I sit down and write it all down. I commonly write 100k in the month of November. Then I leave that book and pick up another one. I read and mark places that need to be fixed for plot holes etc, then work the fixes. I send it out to beta readers as many times as needed to get a book that is engaging. Then I fine tune solutions to issues they bring up. Fix problems that those solutions cause and generally polish. I often have a couple of books in these stages, so I’m working on something while other books are out getting vetted.

    I have used outlines, though I’m more likely to outline after the fact to find and fill holes than before hand, at least on paper.

    There is no one perfect method of producing a book, even for the same author. I use somewhat different ways of editing depending on the size and complexity of the project. The last book I blitzed I will have to plot out pretty aggressively since the timelines and character interactions are very complex.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree with your last paragraph. My writing routine evolves with every book I write. Finding the right routine is really all about discovering our best working methods in general and then paying attention to the specific needs of each story.

  19. Sounds sort of how I go through things. Write write write, then go back a chapter at a time. Reread the last page or so of what I wrote in the last session to get back in the groove. I like to let my chapters sit and stew a bit though before I go back and edit. A five chapter or so gap, so I’m looking at it with fresh eyes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s amazing how much of our own stories we can forget in just a few weeks’ time. If for no other reason, I find the fifty-page edit vital for keeping me in sync with what I actually wrote – instead of what I may think I wrote.

  20. I am used to toss around in 3rd,4th and 5th way. But I liked your way much and will try that from now on.
    Its soo good to get this much insight of what I am getting myself into, in the beginning. 🙂
    Thanks Weiland (BTW I always found it hard to pronounce your name until the day I found your podcasts. 😉 )

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