Understanding the Editing Process

Perfecting Your Dream House.jpg

Writing is a lot like building your dream house. Maybe you find yourself over budget, and you need to trim back on some details. Out goes the fancy copper sink. Or maybe the contractor left a gaping hole in the roof. Or a tiny crack in the drywall. They'd better patch it up before the rain comes in and wrecks the whole structure.

Part of the writing process is learning what to trim and what to make more robust, or the whole thing will fall apart.



Writing is mostly editing. You have your shitty first draft done, and you know it needs work. Rarely will someone put down words and walk away feeling like it’s perfect (unless they are delusional). This will include both cutting, or adding, scenes and sentences, as well as fleshing out characters and plot. This is not a simple task, so it is good to do it in stages.

There are many different types of editing processes, and they are called many different names depending on what you read. To clear up any confusion, we are going to keep it simple by breaking it into two types for manuscript edits: Developmental edits and line edits.

Developmental Edits: The Big Picture

This editing process involves perfecting your storytelling skills. Plot structure and character development are key to this edit (in both fiction and non-). You will want to ask yourself these questions as you edit your drafts (yes, there will be multiple drafts):

  • Does the story flow? Watch for glaring holes in the plot. Watch your pacing; do you rush through important plot points?
  • What are my characters’ motivations? You probably already know what that is before you begin writing. But does it stay true throughout the story? In a nonfiction piece, do you highlight the motives of your main players? Their actions should move the story forward, and their voice should stay consistent.
  • If I have a theme, does it show throughout the manuscript? Make sure your story is organized and ties back to the theme throughout. Your theme might be a big idea or vision (women's rights, aliens are real, horses have feelings too) and intrinsically tied to the plot, or it may be tied to a character or setting (Anne of Green Gables as the personification of innocence; the Wild West as American ruggedness).
  • Is there tension in my story? It’s important to create a reason to compel your reader to keep reading and wondering.
  • Have I done my research? Fact checking is especially important in nonfiction, but can also help shape a more believable story in fiction writing.

There are as many different writing styles as there are people, so don’t overthink it. Instead, read it like you are seeing it for the first time; it helps to take a break between the first draft and the first edit. Put it away, take a walk, or let it sit a few days, then go back to it. When you do your read-through, think about it from the reader’s perspective. A well-edited manuscript will keep your reader from putting the book down after the first chapter.

Line Edits: The Details

This is the craft of writing. True prose. Do you have a handle on the art of language? Here’s what you want to look for:

  • Sentence flow
  • Paragraph structure
  • Word choice
  • Readability

A big part of line editing is making sure you aren’t wallowing in exposition. SHOW, don’t tell. Many people mistake proofreading for the line edit, but proofreading is a whole different beast that we will cover in a future post.

You don’t always have to edit in different stages. You can think about both developmental and line edits simultaneously as you comb over your work. The more you edit, the more you will get a sense of the best way for you to review your own work.

With that being said, many people find editing their own work to be an insurmountable task. This is why I recommend doing it in stages.

A few tips:

  • Try not to self-edit as you write. Get the words out, then go back and review.
  • Set up a writing routine. Start every writing session with a thorough review of any writing you did the day (or week) before. I know a writer who writes Monday through Thursday, and on Friday she spends that time editing her work from the past week. Imagine how much easier a full manuscript edit will be if you’ve already kept a regular check on it as you built it?
  • Always take breaks between writing and editing. This is why a writing routine is so important. It is much easier to see what needs to be changed after a break.
  • Breaks during both writing and editing sessions are great for reflection. Get up and walk away from your computer or notepad and do something else. Walk. Shower. Read someone else’s work. The most amazing ideas will pop into your head when you are nowhere near your writing space.

One of the most important things to do is to have other people read your work. It can be very challenging to edit your own work because we all get attached to our ideas and our characters. Getting a fresh perspective will help you find the holes that need patching. Some ideas for getting other peepers on your work:

  • Ask your friends/family to read your work (although they may be biased and tell you it is good because they don’t want to hurt your feelings). In that case…
  • Join a writing group. A fresh perspective in an unbiased package.
  • Hire an editor. If you are serious about writing and want to self-publish or get professionally published, this will be a vital step.

Don’t let that dream house spring a leak. Take the time to edit your work, whether by yourself or with the help of a professional. Editing is like the support beams in your house; it won’t hold up without them.


Tell me: What is your editing process?