What Is a 50-Page Edit… and Why Will It Rock Your Story?

Whether or not you edit as you go really isn’t the bazillion-dollar question. The real questions you should be asking yourself are “What’s the 50-page edit?” and “Why am I not taking advantage of it?”

Okay, so it wouldn’t take IBM’s Watson computer to answer that the first question. The 50-page edit is pretty obviously an edit that takes place around the 50-page mark. Why 50 pages—and not 40 or 60 or 38.5? Well, honestly, no good reason except that the big five-oh is a memorable milestone, one that should find you approximately a quarter of the way into your story. That’s far enough for you to have some serious mileage in your rearview mirror, but not so far that your destination is anywhere in sight. In other words: It’s the perfect place to stop and remember where you’ve been, so you have a better idea of where you’re going. In his book Revision and Self-Editing, legal thriller author James Scott Bell refers to the 50-page edit as the “20,000-Word Step Back”:

After 20,000 words you stop, take a day off, then read what you have. By this time your story engine should be running. You’ve done enough of the novel to know pretty much what it’s about. You then take some time to make sure you like the characters and the direction…. You can also make a decision about the tone and feel of your novel. It may want to take on a different emphasis than what you had planned. A better novel may be asking to be released.

Bell only recommends one 50-page edit, but I take it one step further by printing off my manuscript every 50 pages. So maybe you’re now asking yourself a third question: “Why should I go to the time and trouble of editing my novel every 50 pages?” Take a look at some of the benefits:

  • Grounds you in your story.
  • Helps you spot inconsistencies.
  • Helps you fix plot holes.
  • Reminds you of details.
  • Helps you identify potential foreshadowing and symbolism.
  • Allows you to recognize when you’re on the wrong track.
  • Polishes your first draft.
  • Helps you build the next 50 pages.

Whether your preferred writing method is planning or pantsing, by the time you actually start crafting your first draft, it’s amazingly easy to get lost in the minutiae. The fact that crafting a single scene sometimes takes days can put us in a mental time warp and fog our memories about scenes we wrote even just a few pages back. The 50-page edit centers us in our story, reminds us of what we’ve already written, and keeps us on track for the next 50 pages. In a novel-writing journey that can span months and even years, the 50-page edit is an important tool for ensuring our stories maintain cohesion and consistency over the entire story arc.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever utilized the 50-page edit? What were the results?

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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. The 50 page edit is a great idea. I wish I’d have read this when I was writing the novel I’m editing now. I’m catching a lot of inconsistencies that your 50 page edit technique would’ve cleared up early on in the writing process.

  2. I do a 50,000 word edit, which may be too late in the novel. I get my 50,000 words from nanowrimo – I have 4 lots of 50,000 nanowrimo words, edited into novels. I have self epublished one as a 75,000 word novel, ‘Call me Aphrodite.’ I leave it until after Christmas (nanowrimo is every November) then I start from the beginning rewriting and editing as I go. This works well for me because the off time is good thinking time during which I make notes and make plans for the ending.

    This year I might try an edit after 25,000 words. This November I could write 2 x 25,000 word starts to novels.

    This has got me thinking; thanks.

  3. Edit, no? I’m not changing anything in the first draft. I’m a big picture thinker, and I need to be able to see the whole story before I start changing things in progress. Otherwise I’ll end up changing things that I don’t need to change.

    However, I am going to do an audit at various points — but only for one thing. I have a problem with starting the story too late, and it mucks up the setup. If I catch it early, I can work out the problem enough so that everything from that point on might be better. Everything else that might be wrong I can let go, because if the setup doesn’t work, then the book as a whole will not work.

  4. @Lovelyn: Inconsistencies can be one of the most frustrating parts of editing, in part because they’re so difficult for the to catch. Sometimes it takes an objective outside reader to really nail them. But the 50-page edit definitely helps.

    @Christopher: Giving each draft of your novel time to breathe is crucial, but I don’t find the breathing so important during the writing of the first draft. At that point, you’re just trying to get the initial ideas on paper. The 50-page edit is more about orientating yourself within the story than it is being objective. If your goal is to win NaNo, the 50-page edit probably won’t fit into the contest’s tight schedule, but, other than that, I highly recommend it over the 100-page edit.

    @Linda: Although I’m an advocate of actually *editing* every 50 pages, if you’ve discovered that editing as you go is detrimental to your process, just going back every 50 pages to *read* what you’ve got so far is still hugely beneficial.

  5. I’ve never done a formal 50 page edit, but I’ve started doing something similar with my current WIP. I’m actually handwriting the first draft and then typing it into Word as I go. However, I’m about 10,000 words behind on the typing so I have a chance to do exactly what you’ve said, spotting plot holes, character inconsistencies, etc.

    I didn’t plan to write this novel this way, but it’s working extremely well!

  6. I did that for a while with A Man Called Outlaw. It’s very helpful for line editing, as well as gaining an overview of the story as a whole.

  7. I remember one speaker at a conference bemoaning how many 50-page novels he’d seen in his years of teaching–meaning that if you hadn’t thought out a lot of plot points, details, motivations, etc, then about 50 pages in is where it all hits the fan.

    Up until then, you’re doing world building, establishing characters, jumping off from the exciting, inciting incident. But if you haven’t done your job with those, the holes start showing after those first 50 pages.

    So I think that’s a great idea to have a checklist to evaluate what you’ve accomplished in the beginning of your book, so that you have all the tools ready to move onto evaluating the story as a whole.

  8. Excellent point. If you’re unsure where your story should go after the 50-page mark, printing off the manuscript and reading it over can serve both to rejuvenate your enthusiasm for the story and to give you new ideas for the next 50 pages.

  9. I haven’t tried it yet. But I’m game to try anything to have effective and shorter time on edits. I’ll give it a go this summer.

  10. I’ve always found it an enjoyable process, in addition to its more practical benefits. The 50-page edits are about the only edits I can honestly I look forward to.

  11. I’m revising my first novel so I haven’t developed hardcore techniques. I’m in the trial phase of what works and what doesn’t. The 50 page edit is a great suggestion. Next time around I may give it a go.

  12. If it appeals to you, it’s definitely worth a try. If it works, you’ll be able to add a wonderful tool to your toolbox. If not, you’re under no obligation to ever use it again.

  13. nowhere near this point in my writing journey, but once again I’m left with butterflies in my stomach after reading one of your posts…for now I think I’ll implement the 5-page edit on my short stories 😉

  14. Yeah, five pages probably would be more practical in a short story. 😉 Glad you enjoyed the post!

  15. I can’t inagine not going back at all until it’s over in the first draft, though some swear by it, I can’t. I do like the suggestion of every 50 pages. I’ll give it a try, since it’s structured enough to take away the impulse to go back at will… which is what I tend to do.

  16. I’m a structured person, so I need to carry that over to my writing. Doesn’t work for everyone, but I swear by it.

  17. Excellent Article on one of my weaknesses. I tend to edit early causing me to start tearing my work apart. I’m working on editing later.

  18. I’ve never done a 50-page edit, but it sounds like a fantastic idea! Especially for exploration writers who don’t do too much outlining before heading out on the journey (me).

  19. @A Mom’s Choice: The 50-page edit is a good compromise between flat-out editing as you go and avoiding editing altogether until after the first draft.

    @S.F.: I’m an extensive outliner and I *still* get lost in my first drafts’ big picture. The 50-page edit has been invaluable in my own process.

  20. This is such a great idea. I’ve never tired the 50-page edit, but I’ll give it a go. I think it’ll be fun. Thanks for the post! I’m always willing to try something new. ^__^

    *~` http://rockielove.blogspot.com/ `~*

  21. Sounds like a great plan. I’ll be trying it tonight!

  22. Heck, I’ve never even HEARD of the 50 page edit till I saw this post. 😀 I don’t know if I could do it – when I’ve got to 50 pages, I’m generally on a roll and just want to keep going! But this sounds like it’s worth a try!

  23. @Rockie: I always like to see authors who are willing to experiment with new techniques. Never know when you’ll find one that revolutionizes your writing process.

    @Matthew: Happy editing!

    @Trisha: If you find that you have a hard time getting back on a roll once interrupted, you’ll probably want to finish your roll before stopping to edit. This is a process that admittedly works best for authors who aren’t lightning fast with their first drafts.

  24. I don’t think I ever have done a 50-page edit. But, I generally re-read at least a portion of whatever I’m working on with great regularity. Sometimes it may be 20 pages, 50 pages, or even 100 pages. It just depends on the story and how things are flowing. Usually, it happens when I get seriously stuck in the mud the first time.

    Of course, it’s been so long since I’ve done an actual book that’s demanding “Write me, write me NOW” that I’m kind of foggy on my “normal” practices. I’m definitely open to new habits as I try to get grounded again.

  25. Habits, structure – I live by that stuff. But, ultimately, every story has to dictate its own rhythm. I’ve learned that what’s worked in every story to date won’t necessarily work in the next one.

  26. I don’t think a 50 page edit sounds plausible as I’m not a linear writer. In my current novel I had written the first chapter or so, several scenes from different parts of the middle and a little bit around the climax and ending when I hit 50 pages.

  27. I’ve never done this consciously, but, in effect, that’s what I’m doing. My part time writing schedule has dictated writing in spurts. Some glorious weeks I can get in 10,000 words. Other times, there are 2 or 3 weeks with nothing. Most of the time it’s about 3,000 words.

    As a result, I have found myself going back every 50 pages or so to edit, just so that I can reorient myself to the story. As a result, I have a much cleaner 1st draft. I’ve been able to refine my story. I’ve been thrilled to find some awesome scenes that I had almost forgotten. I’ve also found some real garbage, which is either refined or removed completely.

    Though the process has slowed my writing a tad, it has really made the writing more enjoyable.

    Thanks for another great article.

    Randy

  28. Interesting. I tend to slow down around the 20,000-25,000 word mark anyway, just to immerse myself more fully in the story, and see if there aren’t other options for the plot.

    I’m doing a major revision right now, rewriting from scratch, and it’s going well, but now I’m at a point–the 25K word mark– where I need to step back and analyze all my options.

    Working in smaller chunks seems to be easier for me, anyway. I’ll have to print out my pages when I get home, thanks for the advice.

  29. Recently in my WIP, I discovered I kept getting two younger characters confused with each other. One is an heir to a treasure, the other is a murderer. I’ve changed one character to be a street kid with similar language, and the other is normal; but now I’ve decided they could be cousins. That makes them co-heirs, which I think works well into motive.

    The point is, this is not something I could have caught after 50 pages, as the inheritance angle occurred much later in the story. So, to each his own. Good post, though.

    ~ VT

  30. I used to get stuck in the endless-edit cycle, where I spent so much time editing what I already had that it took me years to complete a draft. I finally broke out of that by refusing to let myself read more than the last few pages until I had completed the draft.

    I know breaks are good, but what makes me nervous about reading at the 50-page-mark (or every 50 pages) is the desire to go back and rewrite whole scenes. I can see going through and coming up with ideas to jot down, changing direction, and rewriting the scenes after the draft is complete, but I’m not sure I want to spend so much time editing the first 50 pages, when I’m so likely to just rewrite them all anyway.

    It’s a tactic that might prove useful–maybe I’ll try it on the next book and see if I can keep myself to comments and basic ideas.

  31. I do that! I always stop writing and go back to the beginning if I don’t fell comfortable to move forward. But I had no idea there was some sort of rule for that.

  32. What I find very intriguing about this post is it relates to the way I decided to write my book. Instead of writing a whole novel, I’ve released it as a series of novelettes. So, I ended up forcing this “50 page” edit idea for each released story. When all six novelettes are out, the book is done. And, it has allowed me to fine tune the book as I go along.

  33. @S.P.: Going back to assess what you’ve already written is always valuable, but, you’re right, an edit of a non-linear 50 pages won’t offer as many benefits.

    @Randell: It’s remarkable how much authors often do right simply on instinct. The 50-page edit isn’t a “right” or “wrong” technique, but it is interesting how many people have commented on the post, indicating that they’ve use the 50-page edit without consciously thinking about it.

    @Tere: I work best in smaller chunks as well. Our brains can only hold so much of a story at once, so it’s inevitable that, even as its creators, we forget important details.

    @Victor: This is why I utilize the 50-page edit every 50 pages. It’s too useful a trick to use only once per manuscript.

    @Scribe: Not everyone works well editing as they go. For some, taking the time to rewrite scenes before the first draft is finished can be counter productive. It’s important to recognize the methods that make *you* most productive, and the 50-page edit may not be one of them. But if you can come to peace with editing (and rewriting) as you go, the benefits can be startling.

    @Natalie: It’s definitely not a “rule,” just a technique that I and other authors have found useful.

    @Time Capsule: Serialization has fallen out of favor these days (although such noted names as Stephen King have experimented with resurrecting it), but it is an interesting realization that the classic authors of days gone by *had* to use variations of the 50-page edit when publishing their work in weekly and monthly periodicals.

  34. I think I have found my process somewhere in the middle of regular planning/story mapping and more organic pantsing. This 50 page edits makes sense. I have also read advice on the other extreme of the spectrum saying to write your novel as quickly as possible and save all of your edits for later. I personally feel better editing a little bit as I go, but saving the intense edits for the finished manuscript.

  35. The truth is you can find conflicting advice, all of it from respectable sources, on practically every element of writing. Ultimately, each writer has to weigh each bit of advice and decide whether or it’s something that would be beneficial for him and his own methods of working most effectively.

  36. Oh, great idea! I should have done this. I am now at the end-middle of my revision and still filling plot holes. *sigh* but I’ve most definitely learned a lesson!

    Great post ;o)

  37. Every new story is a new lesson. Try it on the next manuscript, and maybe it will be just the trick.

  38. I’d never heard of a 50-page edit before.

    I’m in the middle of what Anne Lamott would call my “crappy first draft” (though she uses a different word than “crappy”). Her philosophy is that she knows she’s going to write the first draft badly, and she gives herself permission to do that. I’m finding it to be a freeing process, as well.

    But I’ll try the 50-page edit when I do the second draft.

  39. The 50-page edit doesn’t eliminate the freedom of a crummy first draft. We still have all the right in the world to let ourselves churn out trash the first time around. What the 50-page edit does is allow us to clean it up in smaller segments, as we go, instead of all at once, at the end.

  40. Great post! I’d never heard of the 50-page edit. This is terrific timing, actually, as I’ve just reached the 20,000-word milestone. I’ll try it and let you know how it goes. 😉 Thanks for the suggestion!

  41. Sounds like the perfect time to experiment with this edit! I hope it proves useful for you.

  42. I never heard of this either, but it sounds like a great idea to see where you’re heading and how you’re getting their. Thanks.

  43. It’s a fabulous trick for orientating yourself – and we all know it can be easy to get lost in the middle of a long novel.

  44. I have heard of this before but never tried it. Always worried that it would break my momentum. Actually, I really like the thought of an edit every 50 pages specifically for keeping details in mind and cutting out inconsistencies. That’s what I spend so much time doing in the first revision.

  45. It’s amazing how much we can forget as we journey deep into our stories. We get so lost in the minutiae of one scene that the details from previous scenes can get pushed completely from our minds. The 50-page edit is really great for reminding us of these important little nigglers.

  46. I usually edit as I go. I will do a serious re-read edit when I get to 50 pages of my manuscript. I am on page 37 and I have 19,158 words so far.

  47. Awesome! Assuming your book is standard length, you’re almost a quarter done. That’s always a landmark.

  48. Oh my gosh. I’ve been wondering about how I should do my editing, because my poor first chapter is completely revamped four times whilst the rest of my chapters after it are still in first draft mode as I’m writing.
    Thank you so much! Now I can stop skimming all over when I scroll down to write and groaning at the thought of editing it all (whilst stopping and editing a page instead of writing.)

  49. Editing as we go can end up being a quicksand trap. We just get sucked in deeper and deeper! But I do think it’s extremely valuable to stop at pre-determined points and review what’s written and bring it up to speed.

  50. Michael Saltar says:

    I can’t deny the benefits you’ve listed, but the danger for me is to fall into REWRITING those pages. I must forge ahead, so here’s what I do after the read:

    1) Fix any glaring errors or simple tweaks.
    2) Make notes for any major changes I now plan to do.
    3) Forge ahead with the rest of the pages!

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