Have you received developmental feedback on your novel? Here’s the process I recommend to turn the feedback you receive into actionable edits.
I’ve been doing a lot of manuscripts evaluations lately.
And what that means is that writers send me a completed manuscript.
Sometimes it’s a first draft. Sometimes it’s a tenth draft. It’s just the point where they’ve finished a draft, and they’re ready for feedback.
And I read the whole manuscript.
And then I think through the biggest strengths and the biggest weaknesses in this manuscript right now. I ask myself the question: what are the biggest things that this writer should focus on in their next draft?
And how can they take the manuscript they have now and write a really excellent next draft of that manuscript?
A manuscript evaluation is a great way to get holistic feedback on what’s working well, and where the major problems are in an entire story.
And when I have thought through all my feedback, and when I’ve made notes on the biggest challenges in that manuscript, and when I have had a call with the writer to talk through their ideas and my feedback, and when I have gathered my resources to send them to the writer, the last thing that I do is create a step by step process for what that writer should do next.
I give them a process to take all that feedback that they’ve just received and use it to edit an amazing next draft.
No Process = Editing Overwhelm
Honestly, I think that step by step process is one of the most important things I can give them. Because editing a book can be really overwhelming.
If you’ve ever tried to edit a novel, you know just how quickly you can go from feeling like, “Oh, I’ve got this brilliant idea that’s going to work so well when I add it to my novel” to “Oh no, this is a lot.”
Your book might be 80,000 words or 150,000 words. And it’s so easy to look at all that and get overwhelmed and wonder, how are you going to go through that whole entire manuscript and make changes that are going to work?
So much of my job as an editor is to cut through the overwhelm that writers feel when they’re editing their manuscripts and help them find a clear way through.
And that’s what the Your Next Draft podcast is really about: helping you to find a clear way through your manuscript even when you’re editing it on your own.
And so I thought it would be great to share with you the process that I give writers at the end of that manuscript evaluation.
Turn Personalized Feedback Into Actionable Edits
Now I will give you a heads up: when I am giving writers a process at the end of their manuscript evaluation, it’s highly customized.
I’m usually calling out for the writer, “These specific areas are the areas you need to focus on. This is the process I recommend to think through those areas and turn them into actionable edits. And once you’ve done that, here’s what you’re going to do next to apply that to your book.”
Obviously, I’m not going to be able to give you that kind of personalized feedback here.
But what I can do is give you the overall concepts of the kinds of things to do when you receive feedback from an editor.
While every manuscript evaluation is specific and unique, the next steps I give writers follow a pattern. And in this episode, I’m going to share that patten with you.
This is a pattern of integrating feedback that you can use anytime you get feedback on your writing. You can use this process when you get feedback from an editor, or from a writing group, or from alpha or beta readers.
If you’ve received feedback, especially high-level, structural, big picture developmental feedback on your novel, this is the process I recommend to help you turn that big-picture feedback into actionable edits so you can edit your next draft with confidence.
One Process Among Many
I also want to acknowledge here that this is not the one and only process that you can use to edit your next draft once you receive feedback on your book.
This is the process that I use. It’s a process I use with my clients. It’s a process that I’ve seen be very successful.
But it’s not the only one.
And I think that one of the beauties of writing and editing many books is that over the course of many books, you’re going to develop a process that works for you. You’ll develop your own system, your own way of thinking through feedback.
And you’ll be able to repeat that book after book because you know what you’re doing in your editing process.
Recently on the podcast, I had author JD Edwin come share her editing process. You can hear her talk about her process here.
And one of the reasons why I wanted to bring JD Edwin onto the podcast is because she’s done this. She has created her own editing process that works for her.
I’ve edited three of her books, and she and I are working on her fourth right now. And I really don’t walk her through the process of editing her books.
I read her manuscript and identify the big-picture areas to focus on. She takes the feedback. She runs with it, working it through her personal editing process.
And then she brings me a completed next draft that incorporates everything we talked about, along with new questions to ask me about the new challenges that have come up now that the book is one draft farther along.
So she’s an example of how over time, you can develop the process that works for you.
But keep in mind that when I had her on the podcast, we were celebrating the publication of her fourth book, so she’s had a few times to practice that editing process. When she gets feedback, she knows what to do with it.
If you aren’t sure what to do after you get feedback, that’s okay. That’s totally normal.
So here today I’m going to share with you the process that I use and that I walk my clients through when I’m giving them feedback in a manuscript evaluation.
The 3-Step Process When You Receive Feedback
This is a three-step process to take developmental feedback on your whole manuscript and turn it into actionable edits.
Now, before I share these three steps, I will mention that I actually have a ten-step guide to edit your book which you can download for free.
That guide is great if you’re doing a self-edit, where you don’t have outside feedback to work with. It’s also really useful if you do have feedback from an editor or critique partners, but you need clear steps to walk you through your developmental edit.
You can get that guide by filling out the form below:
But in this episode, I’m going to share just three steps. After all, our goal is to cut through the overwhelm, right? And ten steps is a lot, but three steps are very manageable.
So let’s dive into the three-step process to turn developmental feedback on your novel into actionable edits.
1. Read the feedback.
The first thing to do when you receive feedback is to read through it all . . . and then take a break.
Just take a little break to sit with your feedback for a little bit. Don’t jump in right away and start making changes. That’s too soon.
Why? Because getting feedback is a lot.
It’s a big emotional experience. It’s a big mental experience. It will give you a bunch of ideas, and it will also make your head spin.
It might even shake your confidence in your book for a little while. It might make you wonder whether there’s anything salvageable here, whether your book is worth writing, or whether you have what it takes.
When I’m giving feedback, my goal is never to discourage you or make you feel bad about your writing, your book, or your abilities. A good editor is in your corner, working with you to help you make your book the best it can be.
But that doesn’t mean that getting feedback is always easy or always feels good, even when you know that your editor is kind and on your side rooting for you.
You might have to remind yourself that your book is so good and so worth writing, even though you’ve just received a lot of feedback that acknowledges a lot of problems.
So take some time to sit with the feedback and just kind of let it process in your mind.
That might be a day. It might be a couple days. It might be a week—however long it takes you to just really let that feedback kind of marinate a little bit.
2. Think through high-level concerns.
And then once you’ve done that, I want you to look for high level concerns that your editor or whomever is giving you feedback pointed out to you.
Now these are going to be things in the realm of characterization, in the realm of story structure, in the realm of genre, in the realm of point of view, or the theme or the point or the big idea of your book, any kind of core missing plot points or plot points that aren’t working yet.
It’s all those kinds of very high level concerns that are not so much about specific lines, or specific word choices or specific things your characters did or said, but are really these high level concepts about how your book works, the foundations of your story.
I want you to identify the major areas of feedback that you’ve received.
Now, when I’m sharing this editing process with writers in my manuscript evaluations, this is where I get really personal. I tell a writer, these are the one or three or five things that we talked about that I want you to think about specifically.
So if your editor has done that for you, or if your feedback partners have done that for you, then think about those specific things.
But if you’ve received a lot of feedback but you haven’t been given that specific clear direction, then look for a handful of major themes, major areas of concern that are coming up a lot throughout that feedback.
Or, go back to the person who gave you the feedback and ask them to tell you what their major, overall concerns are!
And once you have a small number of big-picture concerns to address, think through those things.
Think about those big questions that your editor is asking you.
Honestly, I’d say this is the true work of editing. This is the heart of it, the most important part: taking those big ideas that your feedback brings up, thinking through them and how they work for your story, and imagining what changes you can make to your story to make them work better.
The part where you’re writing words on the page is just transcription of the ideas that are already in your head.
The real editing work is happening here, when you’re imagining and envisioning and planning what those changes could be.
Pro Tip: Remember, ANYTHING can be changed
While you are in this step, the space where you’re thinking big-picture about the fundamental structure of your story, I want you to go back and revisit 3 Simple Steps to Edit Absolutely Anything in Your Novel.
There, I talk about how fluid and malleable your story is.
At this point in your story, you can change literally anything. And the more willing you are to hold the words you’ve already written with a very loose grip, the better you’ll be able to make changes that will dramatically improve your manuscript.
When you’re in this process, don’t get hung up on the specific things that happen in your story. Don’t get hung up on specific things or characters do or say.
Challenge yourself to think really broadly, to open yourself to the possibility to change anything. Now that the concept of your story is on the page, how can you reimagine it completely into something that works better?
And when you’ve sat with those big-picture concerns and envisioned what kinds of changes you’re going to make in your next draft, you’re ready for step three.
3. Make a scene list.
Make a scene list.
Now, back in May and June, I did a whole series on scene lists. I went into a lot of depth about what scene lists are, how to make them, and how to use them. So I highly recommend going back to that series and reviewing all the scene list strategies I shared there:
- 4 Ways to Use a Scene List, Your Indispensable Editing Tool
- 2 Simple Strategies to Format Your Scene List
- 3 Ways to Create a Scene List That Makes Your Editing Process (Almost) Easy
But right now, for this three-step editing process, here’s what I recommend you do:
First, make a scene list that reflects what your story looks like right now, before you make any changes.
Then, revise that scene list the way that you’re going to revise your book. Plan the changes that you’re going to make to your story right there on your scene list.
3 Reasons to Edit Your Scene List First
There are a lot of reasons why it’s helpful to plan your next draft on your scene list before you start making changes to the manuscript. I went over many of them in that series on scene lists, but here are a few of my favorites.
1. Faster and easier
First off, it’s a lot easier to make changes in a small space than it is to make changes over the course of tens of thousands of words or hundreds of thousands of words.
If you start off by planning your book on three or five or seven pages, it’s a lot easier than trying to dive right into your story and move scenes around and make changes to the whole manuscript.
2. Stay focused on the big picture
Another reason why planning on a scene list is so useful is because it really forces you to stay away from the nitty nitty gritty of what’s happening within each scene.
It keeps you focused on the big picture. Remember, your goal is to think about your story structure overall, not to get precious about specific details within particular scenes.
3. Sandbox to test changes
And a third reason planning on a scene list is so helpful is because you can test your changes super easily.
You can create multiple scene lists if you want. You can edit your book in a number of different ways really quickly without ever having to write tens of thousands of words.
If you can’t tell, I’m a huge fan of not spending time and energy writing tens of thousands of words that you end up not using. There’s no way to eliminate that entirely, but you can be way more intentional about what you do write by testing your ideas on your scene list before you start writing them.
What Kind of Scene List Should You Use?
Now, if you listened to my scene list series, then you know that there are a bunch of different ways you can make a scene list.
I shared three approaches:
- First, you could write a really short note about what happens in each scene, just enough to jog your memory.
- Second, you could write a sentence or two that intentionally summarizes the most important actions that happen in each scene and why the scene matters to the story.
- And third, you could write a paragraph or two for each scene where you’re just telling yourself the story in a shorter form—basically, writing chapter summaries in a paragraph or two.
You might be wondering which one of those ways is the right way to plan your edits for your next draft. Which one of these scene lists should you make in order to plan your edits?
And the answer, quite frankly, is any of them.
Personally, when I’m editing a novel, I typically use the first and second types, the short notes and the sentence-long summaries.
But if you listened to JD Edwin’s episode on her editing process, you heard her talk about plot treatments, which is really very similar to the third kind of scene list, the paragraph kind.
And we do a lot of editing right there in her plot treatments. She plans out all her changes in her plot treatment before she writes her next draft.
Which is all to say, the best type of scene list for you to use is the one that works best for you.
Just pick the one that feels most helpful and accessible for you, create a scene list that reflects your manuscript as it stands right now, and then edit the scene list to plan your changes for your next draft.
Once You’ve Planned, Then Edit
And that’s it, the three-step editing process.
Once you’ve worked your way through these three steps, you’re ready to dive into your manuscript and start editing.
I recommend starting at the beginning of your manuscript and working your way down. Go through your story scene by scene and make the changes that you planned on your scene list.
That might mean deleting a scene, adding a scene, combining scenes, changing an existing scene to fit a specific purpose within the story—whatever it looks like to make your manuscript match the scene list you’ve created.
Bonus Step: Edit Your Scene Structure
Now, there is one more thing that I tell clients when I’m working with them through this process. It’s kind of the sneaky step four in this three-step process.
Here’s the thing:
The three steps I just shared are very big picture. You’re absorbing the feedback you’ve received, thinking through a handful of major concerns and how you’ll address them, and then creating a scene list that reflects your new structure for your story.
This is the work of developmental editing. It’s very structural, making sure the foundations of the story as a whole are set.
This allows you to holistically troubleshoot issues in your plot and your character development and your genre and your theme.
All of these things are very, very big picture.
When you open your manuscript and start making changes, you’re automatically zooming in. You’re going from that really big picture view to something a little closer.
You’re not just looking at a one-sentence summary of a scene on a scene list. You’re looking at every action and decision and line of dialogue and piece of description on the page in that scene.
As you do that, you’re integrating those big picture elements, bringing your manuscript into alignment with your updated scene list.
But you’re also literally editing scenes, making changes on the line by line level. And while you’re doing this, you can start zooming in a little bit to look at the structure within those scenes, too.
Because the first goal of your developmental edit is to make sure that your story as a whole works. But the next goal is to make sure that your scenes work, too. Your scenes need solid structure just as much as your entire story needs solid structure.
So when you get down to the point where you’re editing scenes, I also recommend focusing on your scene structure and making sure that your scenes have all of the elements that they need in order to work really well.
Earlier this year, I did a series on scenes: what they are, how they work, and how to edit them. In fact, I have a really in-depth two-part episode on the way I edit scenes to make them really, really excellent.
If you’re interested in digging into how to edit scenes, I recommend checking out that series:
- What Is a Scene? The Ultimate Guide to Write and Edit Amazing Scenes
- 5 Essential Questions to Fix Boring Scenes
- How to Edit a Scene of a Novel, Part 1
- How to Edit a Scene of a Novel, Part 2
You can use the process you’ll learn in those episodes to edit your scene structure as you work your way through your manuscript.
But remember, this in-depth scene structure revision is bonus step four. Your primary goal in this revision is to integrate all the structural changes you’re making to your story as a whole. You’re making sure that the overall structure of your book works.
If trying to integrate the overall structural changes while revising scenes for scene structure as well gets tricky, don’t worry.
You can always break it apart into two drafts: revise the overall structure first, making sure that the foundations of your story—the character development, story structure, genre, theme, and point of view—are all working really well.
Then come back in your next draft to refine your scene structure and make sure that all your scenes really work, too.
Your Turn to Integrate Feedback
So there you go. This is the process that I give my one-on-one clients when I finish a manuscript evaluation.
Obviously, this is without all the personalization that comes from me reading your manuscript and identifying its greatest strengths and weaknesses.
I can’t tell you what specific weaknesses you should focus on in step two. Though I will add, if you want more tips on how to edit the big-picture elements like characters, plot, point of view, and theme, go download the full ten-step editing process I mentioned. Grab it by filling out the form below:
And if you’ve shared your manuscript with an editor, or with critique partners, or alpha or beta readers, their feedback might point you towards the most important areas to shore up in your manuscript.
And when you get that feedback, this is the process I recommend to apply it to your manuscript:
Start off by just absorbing that feedback as a whole. Read their notes and comments.
And take a couple days away from your manuscript if you need to, to both process the things that they told you and remind yourself that you’re writing a really great book and your story is worth telling.
Next, once you’ve absorbed the feedback, identify a handful of big-picture areas that they’re recommending you address.
Are there specific weaknesses in your plot? Character development? Point of view? Theme?
Think through the major areas of concern they’ve pointed out. Think through any solutions they’ve offered. Think through any new ideas that come up for you.
Troubleshoot those areas in your mind and start imagining how you’ll address them.
And third, plan out your changes on your scene list.
Start by making a scene list that reflects your manuscript as it is now. Then, revise your scene list to reflect the changes that you’re planning to make in your manuscript. Test out your ideas in the scene list before you ever write a word in your manuscript.
And finally, once you’ve got that new scene list in hand, work your way through your book scene by scene to make the changes that you’ve planned out on your scene list.
When you’re doing that, you can also start integrating your scene level edits using the scene editing process that I’ve shared in other articles.
But remember that your primary goal is to implement the structural changes to your book as a whole. So if trying to refine your scene structure and refine your story structure at the same time gets overwhelming, always default to making the big picture story structure changes first, and save refining things within the scenes for the next draft.
Your Editor Is on Your Side
And there you have it: the process I recommend for integrating the feedback you receive from an editor. I hope that this helps make the prospect of getting feedback from an editor and editing your next draft feel a lot less overwhelming.
I know it can be a lot to get feedback from an editor. I hear that from clients a lot—that it’s just intimidating to get so much information about your book.
Know that editors are in your corner. Editors want to see your book be the best that it can be.
I want to see all my writers write their best possible book. I love helping them figure out how to make their stories even better, to help them identify what story it is they want to tell and then tell it in their best possible way.
And also, even when you know that your editor is really in your corner and really rooting for you and really wanting the best for your book . . . it can just be a lot to get a lot of feedback.
So I hope that this takes a little bit of the overwhelm out of the process, a little bit of the intimidation of the process, and helps you create a plan that works for you, for how you’re going to edit your next draft based on the feedback that you get.
I’m cheering you on.
And I know that everyone who gives you feedback in good faith is doing so because they want the best for you and your story.
I hope that you are surrounded by people who will give you that kind of feedback.
And I wish all the best for you as you take this process, make it your own and edit your next draft.