Joanna Penn

Editing And The Writing Craft. Tips From An Editor

How does the drafting, editing and rewriting cycle work?

In general, my advice to writers is to breeze through the first draft as quickly as possible. There may be times you’ll need to go back to rework sticky plot points or address other major structural issues, but the goal of the first draft should be to get the bones of your novel down on paper.

From there, there are several editing, revising, and rewriting cycles you’ll go through, ideally including beta readers, an editor, and a final proofreader in the process. Your ultimate goal is always forward movement—even if that forward movement can sometimes feel painfully slow. Every revised draft should feel a little bit better than the last, until eventually you have a complete, polished novel.

For a more complete analysis on the subject, read From Conception to Publication, my blog post breaking the writing, editing, and revision process down into ten unique stages.

How do I do structural revisions for fiction quickly and well?

I can write a certain number of new words per day–no problem! But I spend a lot of revision time staring out the window, wondering whether I’ve chosen the absolute best plot options.

First off, don’t just dismiss that time you’re staring out the window during the revision process—many times, that’s actually your subconscious mulling over what happens next. Of course, other times it’s just you staring out the window, so you do have to draw a line somewhere. When coaching writers through the revision process, I tell them to ask these questions about their novel.

(1)   What is the novel about? What is the plot, or central conflict?

First drafts tend to run incredibly long or incredibly short, but there’s rarely a middle ground. By clarifying in your own mind what you’re trying to say, you’ll be better able to edit your novel into a cohesive, saleable whole.

(2)   What are the secondary and tertiary plots?

Often, the secondary plot has to do with a romantic interest, but it may be another mystery, a subplot relating to the characters, etc. In one to two sentences, write down what the secondary plot is. In longer works of fiction, particularly sci-fi, there may tertiary plots, as well. Write down each plotline as succinctly as possible.

(3)   Where does the story begin?

This is key. Look at your central plot, and ask yourself when forward movement related to that plot actually begins. There’s a tendency to pack a lot of exposition into first drafts. Now is the time to start chipping away at that in order to determine how much is actually necessary, how it might be distributed more evenly, and how to convey that information in the least obtrusive manner possible.

(4)   How does each scene move the story forward?

Sit down and make a list of every scene in your book. What happens in each one? How does it relate to the book’s central, secondary, or tertiary plotlines? How long does each scene go on? Every scene in your novel, regardless of the genre, should be active and should move your story forward.

When you find yourself stumped during the self-editing phase, I’m a big believer in beta readers. If you have between one to three trusted betas, give them the manuscript with a brief rundown of your areas of concern. When they’ve completed the beta read, ask pointed questions about the issues bothering you. You can find more information on how to effectively utilize beta readers in this blog post.