How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: editing – chop until you drop?


Welcome to Part Twenty-Eight of this popular series. This week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher shows you how to edit your story – often thought to be the most important part of the fiction writing process.
How to write fiction without the fuss

“Editing is like pruning the rose bush you thought was so perfect and beautiful until it overgrew the garden.”
Larry Enright

1. Take a break

Finishing the first draft of your story is a huge achievement; you should congratulate yourself, then take a break. Start planning, even writing, your next fiction project or turn your attention to something other than writing for a few weeks. You should do this, not because the story you’ve been working on is finished, but because you need to put chronological and emotional distance between you and it before you can come back and edit it with an objective eye.

2. Get feedback

Even though what you have completed so far may be only the first of several drafts (yes, I’m afraid the editing phase can be just as time-consuming and difficult as the initial writing), it is well worth asking trusted beta readers, or a professional editor, to read and give you feedback before you start the next phase. Perhaps the most useful pointers they can give you are to note where in the story they began to lose interest, disengaged with your character(s), felt confused or that the plot lacked credibility. Accept any negative responses from honest readers at this stage as a gift; they may save you from rejection by agents or publishers, or bad reviews from critics or paying readers.

3. Self critique

medium_7874958188When, after at least three weeks break, you come back to edit your first draft, print out a hard copy for extra separation. Try to read it at times and in the way you would read fiction for pleasure, but do so with a pen in hand and, like your beta readers, note your emotional responses especially. Write yourself a critique, as if for a writer friend, particularly about the bigger issues you have become aware of, such as structural problems, character flaws, subplots that don’t work, loose ends that still need tying in – anything that feels unsatisfactory or takes you, as a reader rather than writer, out of your fictional world.

Only at this point will you have an idea of the size and complexity of your editing task. You should expect it to be as long or big a project as the initial writing. Whether your plot hangs together, but your style and grammar need a nitpicking edit; or you realise that a considerable structural overhaul is required, don’t be daunted. This is the heavy-lifting of fiction writing, and the work that will build your muscle and technique as a story-teller.

4. Be systematic

While everyone should work in the way that best suits their methods and thought processes, it is crucial to be systematic as well as creative when editing. Try to stop thinking like the writer you are and take on the mindset of a professional editor. This means stepping back from your investment in all aspects of your story and looking for what might be missing – a crucial scene, a key piece of information in the right place…  Focus on cutting out distractions from the main story – pointless dialogue, unnecessary characters, sub-plots that don’t tie into the theme… Be systematic – and ruthless.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

5. First the big picture

It makes sense to start with the big picture aspects before drilling down to sentence-and word-level fine details. This is because revisions in any area, but especially in story-wide issues, will very likely lead to change throughout the manuscript. It’s clear enough that if you find a problem in Act 1, you will need to work it through the action of Act 2 and into the resolution. If, though, you pick up on a glitch in Act 3, you may have to work backwards to the moment you introduced this character or set up that thread. And if your midpoint reversal turns out to be flawed, it will need reworking both before and after.

Big picture areas include those we worked on to create your story “bible”. Check that your plot and structure are really working and re-read the sections taking you through the three act structure. Character, theme and setting are all big picture elements that need to be questioned thoroughly by your editing self. If your beta readers’ comments resonate with your own intuition, don’t be afraid to make changes, major or minor.

6. Then the detail

Once you have finessed your story in terms of these wider issues, it’s time to edit the manuscript for fine detail. If you have made some major revisions and done some extensive rewriting, it could be helpful to take another break before you start the close work on syntax and style.

In addition to checking against the information in the sections on scene writing, paragraph and sentence construction, as well as grammar and punctuation, make sure you:

  • Check your facts – dates, science, events, real places or people…
  • Vary your vocabulary – try not to use the same word more than once in a paragraph, let alone a sentence; find different ways to express yourself.
  • Make each sentence and every word count – shorten, delete and rephrase for accuracy and simplicity.
  • Read aloud for rhythm – if any sentence doesn’t feel quite right, read it aloud to discover where it’s losing pace or tying itself in knots.
  • Get up to speed with grammar – if you’re not already a grammar nerd, buy one, or more, handbooks on grammar and punctuation and look up anything you’re not sure of. Learn the rules and remember to apply them: it’s slow going at first, but it will improve your writing – and editing – immeasurably. Clarity of expression leads to clarity of thought.

“Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time!”
C.K. Webb

When you reach the end of the self-editing process, re-read, ask others to read and feedback. Repeat the process if necessary. As many times as required. And when you have come to the end of your own editing abilities, consider seriously paying or begging a professional editor to review and polish your manuscript.  As any successful author knows, if you are going to publish your story, or try to get it traditionally published, this is an investment you should not skimp on.

Next week we’ll get your manuscript formatted for presentation to an editor, agent or publisher.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

photo credit: LMRitchie via photopin cc




  1. You hit the nail on the head. I think it’s implied in your post, but I always feel that the key is stamina. Writing is a marathon, and if you look at it that way from the beginning, it makes the editing process much less daunting.

    • Speaking from a nonfiction writer’s point of view, I’d agree with that, Kristen. I’m sure Lucy will be along later to share your point, too. Thanks for commenting!

    • Absolutely, Kristen. The whole process requires huge mental, and often physical, stamina and editing is one of the hardest parts to stay focused and enagaged with. Thanks for reading!


  1. […] Welcome to Part Twenty-Eight of this popular series. This week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher shows you how to edit your story – often thought to be the most important part of the fiction writing process. "Editing is like pruning the rose bush you thought was so perfect and beautiful until it overgrew the garden.”Larry Enright  […]