Editing: How I edit my own work in 5 stages

Okay, first off let me tell you that this is only how I do it and how I find it easiest to work on my projects, you might find a totally different method works better for you and that’s fine. The only rules in your book are the ones you make, and the same is true for writing and editing processes.

I’ve found, after several projects, that seperating my workload into stages makes it loads easier. It helps me to stay focused on one aspect at a time and to check my own progress while giving me time to mull over ideas I want to play with. I’ll make it clear right here that this is not writing advice, but editing advice, as in advice for work after the first draft has been completed.

I should also note that I don’t meticulously plan my work on paper before I start writing, instead I play with the ideas mentally until I feel ready. At which point I boot up my laptop and get going, running it from full to zero charge twice a day for a couple of weeks or however long it takes to make that first draft. I’d also advise anyone editing their work to save the original text as a seperate document labelled as “draft 1” or something like that and to edit on a copy of their original transcript. It’s always worth having a spare!

Stage 1: Expansion

I’ve finished my first draft, not focused too much on making it crystal clear and perfect, just on enjoying the creative flow and letting myself fall into whatever story I’m creating. But now I read it back and it looks like an utter bag of arse. It needs work — SERIOUS work.

I’ll take my first novel, The Fomorian King, as an examaple. When I finished my first draft it was 55,000 words long with some chapters barely scraping 1,000 and others smashing 8,000 words. My characters were ill-defined at the start of the book, but by the time I’d finished the first draft I had a much clearer (and in some cases different) view of them all which gave, as you might imagine, a lot of inconsistency in the novel. But that’s fine, nobody else is going to read this draft and now the characters and story are more clear in my head I can work on making it presentable to other humans. This is also where I start to look more deeply into thematics.

The first part of this stage is to scan the chapters and note down all the critical moments in each, whether it is critical for a character, the world, narrative or something else important to the story. Some of these can be mind-boggling simple such as the first time two people meet or the moment this character first recognises their conflict — whatever it is, I jot it down.

Once I have this, broken down by chapter, I go through this book map and question each part as though I didn’t know everything about the story and make notes of what needs to be added. Things like a mention of this, an extra encounter to show this or even whole new chapters and characters with the express purpose of bringing some new life to the story.

The third, and most enjoyable part of this stage, is to go through the book and expand on everything. Expand on the map, but also on any fluffy language used. Thought verbs, as Chuck Palahniuk calls them in this article, get unpacked here, as do things like single actions or passover statements. I’m a devil for writing “these characters do this around here, write that later, Future me” in my first draft. I should note that not every thought verb is bad, but at this point it is so worth experimenting with expanded passages and removing all shortcuts.

With this stage alone, my 55,000-word novel became a 100,000-word novel with much more life and character development than its predecessor. It’s worth spending weeks, or even months, on just this stage. I find it really helps to tease out some concepts you’d have otherwise missed.

Stage 2: Narrative flow

Okay, so this is a stage which I think is extremely important. Not only does this give structure and reason to your story, but it also makes it feel like a real book.

When I talk about narrative flow, I mean exactly that: how the story progresses, how things are reasoned and explored and why you jump from this chapter to the next when and where you do. Obviously if you are doing a single POV story then your chapter jumps will largely make sense (though it is still worth analysing that), but if you have even one other POV then you can start asking questions about why you ended a chapter here, if it would be better to explore this thing from someone else’s eyes and so on.

Again, refer back to the book map created in stage 1, it’s incredibly useful for this and the next stage. Focus on the plot points, ignore all the character points on it — maybe highlight them in red or put them in a table to keep them seperate. All I worry about here is if the story makes sense. If it doesn’t, I have some extra work to do. Sometimes that work is small like dropping exposition in a different way or changing the order of minor events, but it has also involved writing new chapters, re-jigging the order of main plot points, or even rewriting huge swathes of the book.

Once this stage is done the book will start to look like a nice piece. For mine this did involve rewriting sections and adding an extra chapter or two, which brought my word count up to 110,000 words.

Stage 3: Character flow

Okay, so the book is fleshy, the plot is reasoned and exciting and now your characters need a bit of love. That’s exactly what this is about, and I find it best to make note of attributes your characters have and where things change for them. Again, the book map is an excellent tool for this, and because it is already split into character and narrative flow there is no extra work to do there — just reference it!

When I talk about attributes, I mean everything that makes them them. Players of role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons will probably already be aware of what I mean. Does your character have a lisp or a monobrow? Do they react poorly to ginger people, or do they love Muggles? Do they know what a rubber duck is? These kinds of things, which dictate how they interact with other characters and the world around them, are crucial to this step. Think of characters like Hagrid.

“I’m a what?” gasped Harry.

“A wizard, o’ course,” said Hagrid, sitting back down on the sofa, which groaned and sank even lower, “an’ a thumpin’ good’un I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit. With a mum an’ dad like yours, what else would yeh be?”

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

Rowling is great for examples. You’ve got Hagrid, o’ course, with his bumbling, jolly West country accent and short temper at those who insult Dumbledore. Dobby, Hermione and loads of others are easy to identify from a short passage.

Of course, if you don’t like Harry Potter there are lots of other great examples. Think of Sméagol (Gollum) from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or even Joe from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. There are hundreds of well-crafted characters throughout literary history, and this is the stage in which I focus on bringing mine up and investing in their personalities to give them real life. The more invested people are in a character, the more they’ll be interested in and care about the story. Mostly.

Everything from the twinkle in their eye to the way they stroke their chin, talk to strangers or respond to adversity comes in here. From this my novel gained around 2,000 words, purely of character growth.

Stage 4: Consistency and language

Compared to the other stages, this feels a lot less important, but I don’t believe it to be. I’ve put down books because of the language used or the careless inconsistencies, and I bet I’m not the only one. Nonetheless, I do this as two stages in one because neither distracts me from the other.

Consistency is simple enough to explain, it’s just being sure to keep everything, well… consistent. Everything from the colour of someone’s eyes to the items they carry and the people they hate. Did this character get a leg injury? Why isn’t he limping? When was it healed? How does it look now? These questions are vital here, and I mention them because this is exactly what I missed in The Fomorian King up until this point. You’d think I’d have noticed a miraculously healed leg wound, wouldn’t you?

If you have multiple POV’s in your story, then this is also where to focus on things like the weather, the description of a sound (although it can be good to alter it slightly so it is personalized to each character) and the perception of a character they both know. It can also be a really useful time to highlight the differences between how a character sees themself and how others do — just keep it consistent!

Language is less about using fancy words or avoiding swear words (although I doubt Roald Dahl first drafted James and the fucking massive peach) and more about making the language elevate your work. Simple changes can make a huge difference.

Without any apparent difficulty, the mordhel leader rode unprotected, ignoring the still-intense heat, and the beast upon which he rode was terrifying to behold. Shaped like a horse, it was covered in red glowing scales, as if some serpent skin of steel had been heated to near-melting. Its mane and tail were dancing flames and its eyes were glowing coals. Its breath seemed explosive steam.

A Darkness at Sethanon – Raymond E. Feist

This kind of passage is what I mean. It would have been just as easy to say “The moredhel leader rose above the flames atop a red horse, flying through the air and casting its red shadow across the land” and while that reads well, it’s nowhere near as rich and exciting as the original text.

For this stage and the next I always have a thesaurus close by, or the website open in a second tab. It can be really enjoyable to fall down the rabbit hole of words, especially when you emerge at the other side with a word which is a perfect fit for the passage!

Language and consistency, those two work together, at least for me, and once this point is done I’ll maybe send the draft to one or two close people for feedback. This is where my novel clipped 118,000 words.

Stage 5: Proof

Almost there! I think it’s good to take a break between stage 4 and 5 because neither is a very long stage and the space to free your mind is hugely beneficial. After all, this is just the proof read, you don’t need to worry about plot, structure, pacing, characters or anything else — that’s done.

Quite simply, this is where I’ll check for mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation and anything else which may trip up a reader. Each paragraph is, at this point, taken apart and analysed. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used this word or this semicolon (I’m not a huge fan of them anyway), or maybe I typed “form instead of “from”.

The expansion done in stage 1? Here is where to reverse some of it. Maybe a passage reads better with a shorter, more punctual bit of language. Maybe a thought verb will be better here (don’t tell Chuck), but this is where everything gets pulled apart and stitched together as though Victor Frankenstein himself were going to town on it with ardor, as I’m sure he’d say.

Some writers like to change their font or even print out their work when they proofread. I’ve not found it to help me, but whatever works for you, really! After all, it’s your story and your process, the more true you are to that the better your work will be.

A few points…

There are some other points to make in this, but I’ll keep them brief. Research is an ongoing thing for me, and while some like to do all of it at the start or at the end, I like to do it as I go so I can pull inspiration when and where I need it. Stages 4 and 5 are where I would advise keeping a thesaurus handy, it’s incredibly easy to forget that one word. You know the one; it’s on the tip of your tongue… you could swear you had it a second ago… come on, that one…

Finally, ask the people around you whom you trust the most for honest feedback. It’s nice to hear your work is good, but it’s useful to hear why it’s bad, and I’d be hesitant to take one line feedback to heart, whether it’s good or bad. I enjoy being told I’m wrong, provided I’m either told what is right or given material and sources to read to teach me what I can improve, and I urge everyone to give feedback in this way.

For me there is nothing better than receiving an email that says something like “hey, I liked this chapter, but I don’t think this is right. I’ve found a book/video/link which might help you to find what you’re trying to say.” It’s just helpful and direct and, as a bonus, it doesn’t directly insult me!

This is my method for editing, and I hope there is something in it which may help you with your pieces.

To stay up to date with my blog, which I will try to update regularly, subscribe to my newsletter (check your spam, it sometimes catches my news) and please feel free to leave comments or send me an email with your feedback. All my contact information is on the contact page. And for more information on my projects, including The Heritage Saga from which The Fomorian King is from, head on over to my projects page.

Editing: How I edit my work in five stages

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Published by cbpowellwrites

I'm a writer of science-fiction, fantasy epics, and other speculative fiction works and have a little blog focused on writing and how to become a better writer. Hopefully it is helpful to others, and I'd love to hear more feedback and have more in-depth discussions on all thing creativity. Before turning to writing I worked for a number of years as a chef, following on from my time as a writing and performing guitarist in the South West of England. Perhaps I will upload some music from these days at some point...

6 thoughts on “Editing: How I edit my own work in 5 stages

    1. We all have our own methods, but hopefully there is something in mine which may help others, as I’ve found useful ideas in other writer’s processes! Thank you for reading!


  1. I’m a blogger, not a novelist, but I found this post really interesting – there are certainly elements that relate as much to blog posts as they do novels. Nobody wants a blog post that is “an utter bag of arse”! Thanks for sharing your approach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’ve enjoyed reading through your blog as well.

      I enjoy seeing other people’s approach, I think we grow the most when we learn from others, especially those in different creative fields.


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