How To Karate Your Novel And Edit That Motherfucker Hard: A No-Foolin’ Fix-That-Shit Editing Plan To Finish The Goddamn Job

Let’s get something out of the way:

Editing is writing.

At the end of the day, the actual execution of your editing process is writing. It’s you doing surgery and excising all the unsightly tumors from your work and filling in the gurgling wounds with better material: healthy flesh, new organs, cybernetic weapons, robot dongs. Sometimes it’s as simple as killing commas and adding periods. Other times it’s as complicated as dynamiting the blubbery beached whale that is your entire third act, picking up all the viscera, and filling in the hole with clean, pristine sand. Sometimes it’s a leeeetle-teeny-toonsy bit of writing. Sometimes it’s a thousand rust-pitted cauldrons of writing.

Writing is editing. Editing is writing.

Writing is rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

Problem, though: no editing plan is ever going to be quite as simple as a writing plan (especially the “Big 350 No-Fuckery Writing Plan” I outlined last week). Writing, particularly that first draft, is often a purgative push — equal parts digging a hole and puking into it. It’s not a sniper’s bullet; it’s a clumsy machine gun spray held in the hands of a spasming bath salts addict. Writing is the part of surgery where you’re just cutting open a dude. Editing is the part where you need to know what you’re doing once you’ve got a fistful of spleen.

Point is, editing requires a level of finesse and awareness.

Or, to return to the medical metaphor, you require a diagnosis.

You need to know what’s wrong before you go biting off warts and ripping off limbs. You don’t just kill every third chapter because you’re at a loss for what else to do (“I DON’T KNOW IT FELT RIGHT AT THE TIME”) — editing demands that diagnosis.

So, before we get into The Editing Plan Proper, let’s talk about how one obtains a diagnosis.

Two Columns

First thing to do? Take a piece of paper or a whiteboard or an Excel spreadsheet and make two columns: WRITING and STORYTELLING. Because those are the two overarching aspects of your work and while both have interplay with one another, the solutions for each are very different. Writing problems tend to be far more technical and objective; storytelling problems tend to be far more subjective and instinct-driven (meaning, far more in the neighborhood of “WTF?”). Further, you will want to tackle the storytelling problems first, the writing problems second.

Reason for this is that storytelling provides the architecture of your tale.

The writing is the presentation of that architecture.

So, you’d better fix the structure of the house before you pick out paint colors and wall sconces.

The Colonic Jury Of Your Intestinal Flora

Time to take a first pass at identifying the symptoms of disease, decay, and rampant drunken discord within your story. Which means you pick up the thing you just wrote and you read the thing from front to back. You can do so quickly. But you must re-read (do so aloud if you can).

A writer’s best friend is his instinct. This is not a thing that is born overnight like some kind of fast-growing vat-baby. This is part of why that advice of read a lot and write a lot matters — doing both of those things (and doing them critically) help you to cultivate instinct. I like to say that instinct helps us understand which way to jump. Meaning, in the midst of a moment, if forced to make a snap decision in the platform-jumping game that is our life, we’ll know which way to jump in order to not fall into a spiky pit of doom. And, in terms of fiction, when forced to choose whether a chapter stays or goes or how a character should really act in a given scene, you know the answer of how to execute without having to ruminate for long periods of time.

So: the first pass is the INSTINCT PASS. You read it. You consult the chorus of bacteria that populates your guttyworks. And you start writing down all the writing and storytelling problems you think you have in their appropriate columns. Don’t stop to think too long about it — if something tweaks your guts and puts your bowels in a kink, write it down.

When Instinct Fails Us: The Power Of Other People

Our instinct isn’t a perfect creature. Much as we like to think we know the score, sometimes we’re the worst judges of our own work because of a host of unsavory reasons like EMOTIONS and LIQUOR. Put more succinctly: sometimes we’re a lot fucking dumber than we’d like to think. We hate parts of a book that totally work. We love parts that don’t work but we want to keep anyway (our so-called “darlings”). We refuse to see problems that are as plain as a pair of dicks stapled to somebody’s chin. (“NO NO IT’S SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE THAT *sob*”)

Which is why your second pass requires other humans.

Give people you trust a blank spreadsheet with those two columns (writing, storytelling).

Put them to work.

(A Brief Comment On Other Humans)

Working with other humans is an act of creative agitation — and while agitation doesn’t always feel great, sometimes that’s just how we scrape the barnacles off the narrative hull.

Just the same, it’s important to meet the right people — beta-readers, best friends and editors won’t do you much good if they’re too nice or too critical or worst of all, not readers of your genre or books in general. The critical relationship between writer and editor (amateur or otherwise) is, to belabor the obvious, still a relationship. It has to work. It has to make sense. IT HAS TO MAKE SWEET LITTLE WORD-BABIES.

Further, inevitably other readers will want to point out solutions rather than problems. In other scenarios, this is exactly what we want; challenges are expected to be met with ways to overcome those challenges. In fiction, it’s crucial to look for the holes while not asking others to fill them for you. Train yourself to listen for the issues at hand while ignoring the proposed “fixes” — when someone tells you, “I think Dave should be a cyborg instead of a robot and maybe he should just have sex with the copier machine instead of proposing marriage,” you need to recognize the problems (issue with Dave’s identity not working, concerns over his relationship with the copier) while dismissing the solutions (cyborg, copier-sex).

“What Am I Looking For, Exactly?”

I’ve covered this part pretty well elsewhere, and I risk redundancy if I list it all again and again, so I’ll just casually point you toward these two posts and hope you’ll click:

Edit Your Shit, Part One: The Copy-Edit

Edit Your Shit, Part Two: Editing For Content

Edit Your Shit, Part Three: The Contextual Edit

Those should give you a good starting list for potential symptoms to diagnose the patient.

Further, you might wanna check out a more recent post:

How Chuck Wendig Edits A Novel

The diagnosis takes as much time as it takes. Two days. Two years. I wish I could speed that up, but I can’t.That said, hiring a professional editor may get you there a whole lot faster.

Now, onto…

The Actual Zippity-Doo-Dah Motherfucking Editing Plan

Here’s the thing, right? You have a novel. It is, let’s say, between 300-400 pages.

It took you somewhere in the neighborhood of a year (or south of it) to write that.

You’re going to approach this in much the same way.

You’re going to edit for five days a week. You have weekends off so that means you can fill those two days with whatever activities you feel are appropriate.

(DRUNKEN NAKED SCRABBLEDOME WOOOOOO)

You will edit five pages per day.

This adds up to around 1000-1500 words per day edited.

At a rough guess, that’s about 18 weeks worth of work (3-4 months).

Sometimes a day of editing will be easy. It will be a few word choice issues that need fixing, a handful of little grammatical errors, whatever. Some days, this will be a lot harder. Those five pages will need rewriting. When new writing is necessary, you’re free to fall back on the same 350 words per day writing plan if that’s what got you here. That will probably tack on some editing time when that happens — so, let’s add another three months to the pile.

From start to finish, that means you’ll take one year to write the novel.

Then another six months to edit it.

A year and a half to a second draft of a novel.

Hell, let’s assume that life continues its ceaseless assault on your writing habits, just a constant fucking barrage of kitchen appliances catching fire and dogs getting sick from eating your baby’s diapers and some rare Namibian baboon-flu that keeps poxing the shit out your house and on and on. Even then let’s say it’ll take you another full year to edit and get to the next draft.

You might be thinking, “That’s two years of my life. That’s really shitty.”

Uhh, it’s totally not.

First of all, two years to write two drafts of a novel is better than two years to do absogoddamnlutely nothing. Two years may seem slow but Sweet Molly Monkeyshines, it’s better than nothing. And that is our goal: to defeat the specter of Nothing.

The ghost of Got Nothin’ Done, Son.

Second, that means in ten years time, you can have five completed novels.

You know how many so-called writers have gotten five novels to a second draft phase?

It’s probably some obscenely low percentage. Like, a number smaller than a ladybug’s pee-pee.

The Goal

Is a second draft. Plain and fucking simple.

The Other Rules

Poop noise to the other rules. None exist.

Things To Consider

Editing five pages a day need not happen in immediate succession. Steal five minutes from your day whenever you can — the baby’s asleep, the dogs are outside trying to hump a raccoon they’ve cornered, the boss isn’t hovering over your cubicle like a goddamn mosquito, whatever. Pilfer time. Abscond with moments. Use them to edit just one page. Do this five times.

If you feel like you can edit more than five pages a day, do so.

If you can’t manage to edit that many a day, tack them onto the next day.

Do this plan once, editing will get faster thereafter.

Sometimes you might need a third draft. Or a fourth.

You do as many drafts as you need to and you work your way through it at whatever speed you can manage. Doing something is better than nothing. Slow and steady will indeed win the race. The jackrabbit is an asshole. He’s high on coke. He’ll pass out before the finish line in a smeary streak of his own foamy drool. You are the tortoise. Resolute. Armored. Forever.

Think of it as a prison escape from your old life.

One spoonful of dirt at a time. Scrape, scrape. Scoop scoop.

A tunnel is dug.

You can see the light.

TIME FOR DRUNKEN NUDIE SCRABBLEDOME.

Shut Up And Edit

You can do this.

It takes a little bit of time and a little bit of effort. This is part of what it is to write. Writing is editing. Editing is writing. You have to tackle this. You want it to be right. Right takes time. And getting it right this way isn’t a Sisyphean epic. It’s not asking you to vacuum the whole house in a single given day. It’s asking you to like, polish that one Hummel figurine and maybe Dust Buster a merkin or two. This is replacing a frayed shoelace.

One word after the other.

Read them. Tweak them. Add to them. Take away from them.

Word by word. Page by page.

Until the book is done. Again.

Until your instinct is sharpened to a gleaming shiv.

It still won’t be perfect.

It’ll never be perfect.

But the perfect is the enemy of the good and this second draft of yours?

I’ll bet it’s actually good.

Five days a week.

Weekends off.

Five pages a day.

Rewrite at 350 words per day.

Edit. Write. Edit. Write.

Finish your shit.

Completo el poopo.

Amen.

(EDIT: Now with bonus graphic)

(Feel free to share as you see fit.)

63 comments

  • I have two manuscripts at this wonderful stage, and I certainly have not been keeping up with editing every day. It’s funny, because I can manage writing every day just fine. Anyway, it’s always good to get the old Wendig kick in the ass to get me back to doing the work I’m supposed to be doing.

  • I do *all* my writing at work. I may look like I’m feverishly compiling a detailed report on management information for the last few years, but I’m actually hammering out chapters involving Kurdish drug dealers and corrupt police officers. Work provide me with a big monitor and require me to be at my desk for 8 hours straight, hell yeah I’m gonna use that time to get word-count down!

  • I need this post. But, halfway through I have to stop because I’m eating a bagel, and I discovered I can’t actually eat and read about spleen ripping…but I will return after breakfast!

  • Perfect. And yesterday I killed 6,000 words. And then I realized: Wait, those were good words, just in the wrong place. So today, I’ll need to resurrect them EARLIER in the narrative. Your timeline sounds reasonable, but it is so much more grueling than popping out that first draft.

    Thanks Chuck. I’m back at it this morning.

    Thanks for pointing me toward the other posts. I’ll check them out later. You are soooo bookmarked.

    • I’m the opposite — I don’t find editing as grueling or as time-consuming as the draft, though I find it more intellectually draining. At least, in terms of obtaining that diagnosis I’m talking about here — trying to see the forest for the trees (or sometimes the trees in the forest) and get a clearer picture of what needs to be done in terms of editing can be a bit mentally trying. Once I have a plan in place, it tends to be yet another series of dominoes that merely require the flick of my metaphorical finger to get moving.

      Glad the post worked for you, Renee.

      – c.

  • This plan is wonderful because I did the first draft thing, but now I need to edit. The kid turned one this past Sunday and I finished my first draft two weeks prior to that.

    I typed while breastfeeding. I thought about what would happen next while changing diapers. I baby proofed the room and then released him into the wild to crawl around and explore the carpet lint.

    But now it’s time to edit, and I don’t know how to incorporate major changes into a rough draft. I’ve edited books before, but never added things at this level. I outline, but how things come out is something I figure out as I write the scene and it feels right.

    Short of rewriting (again) I don’t know how to figure out which scenes need to mention the major thing (she raised her dad back from the dead and is hiding that from her zombie apocalypse group) and when it’s going to come out.

    Thoughts?

      • People told me I was nuts for writing with a 3 month old (or 5 or 6), but a) I wrote for my sanity and b) I know people do it all the time. Case in point, Chuck. So don’t listen to these people. Follow the 350 word plan, and sally forth. There were some days I was lucky to get 13 words written, but that was more than was before, and I stayed inside the story too.

        The biggest help for me was planning out what I was going to write next. I had an outline, and even scene goals, but a lot of time was spent at the computer trying to figure out how the scene was going to go. Who was going to get shived and who got eaten by a zombie…the usual. So to save time, I just pictured the next scene in my head while I was doing something else. Rocking the baby to sleep, washing bottles, doing dishes, etc. I pictured it like a movie, trying to think up bits of dialogue, and imagine the action like a movie.

        Then when I actually had a spare minute or two, I wrote like my fingers were on fire. It was a lot easier to write like a madwoman when I knew exactly what was going to happen next.

        • I’ve found myself doing this, too… I will sketch out tiny snippets of scenes in my head while I’m on the subway, or in the shower, or whatever, and then flush them out later. If I have the ability, I’ll usually jot down the concept of dialogue in my phone, just enough to remind myself of where I was going, and then I come back to it later. Works like a charm.

        • I can’t remember who it was, Elizabeth, but I remember a woman writer of some note saying that she had written all her books with children crawling over her or being sick in her lap and she’s sure it affected the content! Good on you for perservering!

        • Tssharp: Oh I didn’t see that comment! You’re doing great then!

          Bethany: I usually had to jot something down lest I forget all the awesome stuff I thought of. There was nothing worse than coming up with a brilliant opening while trying to fall back to sleep after that 3 am feeding and forgetting it when I woke up again.

          Imelda: Thanks. My alpha reader doesn’t seem to think the draft is complete trash, although the main character DID talk about being tired a lot…

  • Great stuff as always. And once again I seem to be landing on the amount of work Chuck thinks is reasonable–I aim for 5-10 pages per day on the editing (and expect to grind to a much slower pace–or not–when I hit the end, which needs to be completely rewritten).

    Elizabeth–at you point, the first thing I did (before tackling the edit) was to read the MS twice. The first time, I just got it all in my head (necessary because I abandoned this one 5 years ago). The second time I created an outline–exactly what was in each scene. Then I could look at it and decide if things needed to stay, move, or get dumped in the verbal compost heap.

    THEN I started actually doing it, which is where the 5-10 pages come in. But I know when I sit down with a chapter more or less what will need doing.

  • So, I’m wondering, is this five-page-a-day regime of which you speak only to do with the line edit? Seems like there needs to be a step before that in which you edit the whole novel as a big picture. Otherwise you’ll end up lovingly giving your patient lipstick and a nose job, unaware that their organs are collapsing and their arms are falling off.

    • @holly –

      That’s part of the diagnosis phase I was talking about — which can involve any measure of things, from re-outlining to making notes/comments in-line within the draft, etc — that’s part too of those other links I provided in the middle of the post.

      Hope that helps.

      – c.

  • This makes my little writer heart infinitely happy. I have no problem with the 350 word a day rule (usually average more) but like some of the deviants on here, most my writing is done at my job. I find it so much harder to edit in small windows than to draft in small windows. But, as you said, editing is writing. Five pages at a day is doable, and it is better than do nothing while the manuscript sits waiting for me to have a bigger block of time.
    Thank you for sharing this and the link round up.

  • Thank you, Chuck, for this very timely post. It seems that, despite having a few people reading my current stuff, I’m still short on the diagnosis part.

    In desperate need of a story doctor… I wish I knew what sort of practise it takes to become one (except the obvious ‘write and read more’, which I will).

    *mutters something incoherent while wandering around*

    OH! You actually gave us a method to do that! That’s doable. Not the ‘edit 5 pages a day’ point, but ‘take a sheet and write down story issues and writing issues’. That’s what this story needs. A method that does not need touching the story itself just yet. It makes so much sense.

    /will read the links later, and bookmarked

  • Word, bro

    You know what?

    Writing isn’t about the writing. Really.

    The best writers are those that can edit/rewrite to make that sucker shine.

    I’m crap at writing, but I edit passably well. It’s where the wheat is sorted from the chaff etc. So, do you want to be chaff, punk? No? So get down on it (get down on it). *boogies*

  • Because I like stating the obvious (and this post together with the links just hammered this point home for me); there is no ‘why did I write this?’ if something is just not fitting. It’s irrelevant. The bit in question needs to be either kicked out or is in severe need of fixing.

  • I’m much better at editing than I am at writing. The problem is turning off the editing part of my brain long enough to write for awhile so I have enough to legitimately edit :/

  • So, here’s a question: I seem to have kind of literary constipation. I take FOREVER to write out anything, but when I do it is the most perfectly formed sentences made of spun gold. I feel like I’m subconsciously editing in my mind before I even start writing. Not to say I don’t need to edit after, of course, I’m not that hubristic. Rather it seems like I am wasting mental energy pre-editing, when I know I’m going to need to edit again anyway. If anyone else has this problem, I would appreciate any advice on how to just knock some shit out from time to time. That’s a difficult thing to google.

    Now that I write that out, I realize it’s only tangentially related to this post, but in the time-honored tradition of the internet I am going to post it anyway.

  • If we show you ours, would you show us yours? (Laughing hilariously, and running like hell.)
    Okay, whenever everyone gets their minds outta the gutter — examples of outlines, that is. Even a couple of chapters worth. Would really help, getting to see some examples.

  • Thank you so much for this. Writing is easy, editing is hard especially since all of your writing books are on Kindle. I’m incapable of figuring out how to bookmark chapters or use a table of contents. Thank you, thank you for consolidating your editing advice in to easily digestible post.

    Any updates on when the physical book is coming out?

  • This was great! Thanks! I’m actually really happy to say that after 5, no make that 7 years… I finally finished that 3rd, or is it the 4th, 5th draft of my eternally unfinished rewrite? It was gruesome, but I’m finally happy with it. I’m actually editing someone else’s work now and your storytelling versus writing observations will be very useful. I’m afraid I’m diagnosing the shit out of this, but hopefully for the best. Thanks again for the great advice. Now following…

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