In order to edit your novel, you need a process. This simple, five-step process to edit a novel will make your editing so much clearer and more effective.
In my experience, finding an editing process is a real challenge for writers. You don’t need to go out and learn a fancy process in order to write a novel. There are absolutely writing processes out there that can make your writing life easier, but there’s no requirement to go learn them before you start writing.
When most writers get started, they don’t go looking for a process. They just think, “I have an amazing story, and I want to tell it.” And then they sit down with their blank document, they start at the beginning, and they tell the story until they reach the end.
And boom! A first draft! You’ve done it! You’ve written a book!
You celebrate that huge accomplishment (because it is a huge accomplishment!).
And then you look around and think, “Wait. What’s next?”
The Editing Process Is Not Intuitive
The process for writing a first draft can be fairly intuitive—just open a document, start at the top, and write your way to the end.
But the process for editing that draft is not intuitive.
It’s easy for writers to get stuck here, to feel lost and confused. You know your story isn’t perfect, and you may even know some major weaknesses you need to fix.
But how do you actually go about fixing them?
Do you just open your manuscript again, start at the top, and work your way down to the bottom again, doing your best to make it “better” along the way?
What even is “better”? How do you figure out what changes to make?
If you’ve ever felt this way, overwhelmed and confused about how to turn an imperfect first draft into a story readers will love, you’re not alone. You’re in good company with pretty much every writer who’s ever tried to write a book for the first time.
And in this episode, I’m going to give you a simple editing process that works, one you can rely on as you developmentally edit your second draft, or your third draft, or your fifth draft, or any draft where you’re refining the story you’re telling.
The Editing Process I Rely On
This is the process I’m using with my clients right now. In fact, I just did a major overhaul of all the editing packages I’m offering writers in 2024 to bring them all into alignment with this process. If you reach out to work with me one-on-one, this is the process I’ll guide you through.
It’s the most efficient and effective way I have found to edit a novel:
- Without getting overwhelmed,
- Without getting distracted by all the details in your story,
- Without worrying that you’re not actually making the right changes for your story, the ones that will most help you take it to the next level.
This process is designed to give you clarity and confidence as you edit your novel. I mean, let’s be honest, editing a novel can feel so daunting. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could edit with clarity and confidence?
I promise, it’s possible. And I believe this editing process is the easiest and most efficient way to get there. It has five steps, and if you follow these five steps, I’m confident you’ll make your novel so much better.
5 Steps to Developmentally Edit Your Novel
Now, I’m going to break down all five steps, and what you’re going to notice as I do is that I’m talking about each step in really general terms.
The reason why is that there are tons of different ways you can go about each step. I’ve seen these steps repeated in several different writing and editing methodologies, using different tools and specific strategies within each one.
I’m not going to prescribe one set of tools or one specific approach here. Actually, I think the beauty of this is that you can customize it in so many ways to make it work for you.
What I’m going to share is the overall pattern of editing that I have seen repeated across many editing methodologies.
I’ll point out a few different approaches you can use within these steps, but I encourage you to fill in each one of these steps with the tools and strategies that work best for you.
All right, that’s enough preamble. Let’s get into the five steps.
Step 1: Discover Your Story
The first step is to discover your story. And here, we come to our first set of options.
Here are two different ways you can discover your story:
Option one is to write the first draft of your novel. I consider this the discovery draft: you’re simply telling yourself the story. Get it all out onto the page, and now you have a story to work with.
Option two is to create a detailed plan for your novel. That means figuring out your character arcs, your genre, your theme, your plot, and more. It means creating an outline for what you expect your novel will be.
You’re doing all the same discovery work that you could do by writing the first draft of your novel, but in this case, you’re doing it in just a few pages and writing a lot fewer words.
Either way, the goal of this step is to get you to the point where you have a story to work with. Whether that story is in the form of a full manuscript or a detailed outline, scene list, plot summary, or what have you, it doesn’t matter. Just get the story on the page.
And once you have the story on the page, you’re ready for step two:
Step 2: Create an Outline
Create an outline of your story.
Oh hey, look! If you chose option two and discovered your story by creating a detailed plan, you’ve done this already! You already have an outline ready to go.
If you chose option one and began by writing a complete first draft, you get to create your outline now.
There are a number of ways you can do this. In this article, I share three types of scene lists that I’ve used to edit novels.
And since I wrote that article, I’ve discovered even more types of scene lists, more formats you can use to condense your story into an outline.
Right now, in my editing practice, I’m actually playing around with a few different formats, experimenting to see which ones work better at different stages of the editing process, and honestly, which ones I like to use best.
So feel free to explore here and find the scene list format that works best for you.
Regardless of the specific scene list format that you choose, the big idea here is that you want to condense your story from an 80,000-word behemoth—or 100,000 words, or 150,000 words, or however long your manuscript is—into a much, much shorter document where you can see the whole entire story in just a few pages.
It is really hard to hold a hundred thousand words of story in your head at one time. It’s just so much information. It’s too much to think about.
But you can hold three pages of information in your head at once. You can hold five pages, or ten, or twenty. You can read through all those pages in just a few minutes.
And that means you can spot connections between the beginning and the end really quickly. You can see the structure for your entire story on those pages.
It’s not overwhelming. It’s really approachable. It’s manageable. You can manipulate it without getting bogged down in way too much information.
So take your first draft, that giant manuscript where it’s all too easy to get lost amid all the words, and condense it into an outline where you can grasp the entire story all at once.
And once you’ve done that, move on to step three:
Step 3: Edit Your Outline for Story Structure
Edit your outline.
That’s right. Rather than editing your manuscript, first we’re going to edit your outline.
Remember that at this stage, we’re doing developmental editing. That means we’re focused on the big picture of your story.
The main focus of your editing right now will be your story’s structure. Do you have solid story structure in place from the beginning to the end?
And in order to nail your story’s structure, you’ll also need to examine your story’s:
The point of this step is to take your outline and mark it up. Note on it all the changes you want to make in order to make your story’s structure really strong.
As you do this, you’re actually creating your revision plan for your next draft.
When people think of editing, they typically think of someone making changes to their manuscript. You’ve got the manuscript open and you’re tweaking things.
But in my mind, this—this step here, the revision of the outline—is the real work of editing.
This is deep thinking work, the kind of work that makes you sit back and really ponder the core elements of your story, troubleshooting all the problem areas in your mind, imagining solution after solution until you finally think of the exact right fix.
And this is exactly the kind of work that’s difficult to do if you were to simply open your first draft, start at the top, and work your way down, doing your best to make it “better” as you go.
So don’t rush this step. Really use this time to troubleshoot as much as you can, because I promise you, there’s so much you can do to level up your story just by revising your outline.
And when you’ve marked your outline all the way up and you’ve created a plan for all the changes you’re going to make in your next draft, you’re ready for step four:
Step 4: Make Your Manuscript Match Your Outline
Make your manuscript match your outline.
All right, now you get to pull your manuscript back out. And now you can start editing it at the beginning and work your way to the end.
As you do this, you have one goal: to make all the changes to your manuscript that you just planned on your outline.
This might mean deleting scenes, or adding scenes, or moving scenes, or combining scenes, or changing the action or purpose of a scene.
All of this is work, for sure. It takes time and creative energy to work your way through an entire manuscript making changes at this level. It might take you a few weeks or even a few months to execute all those changes.
But notice that word: execution. At this stage, you’re just executing the changes you’ve planned.
You’ve already identified the major problems in your manuscript and you’ve found solutions. You did that hard work of editing back in step three.
When you get to step four, you’re just putting those solutions down on the page. And you can make those changes with clarity and confidence because you know that they’re going to work.
Now, while you are executing a preexisting plan, this is still creative work. You’ll probably discover new insights about your story as you work through this draft.
And that’s great! Welcome that creative process—it’s the natural evolution of story development, and it’s part of what will make this step really fun.
Plus, there’s space for that natural evolution, because after you reach the end of this draft, you’re ready for step five:
Step 5: Repeat Steps 2 Through 4
Repeat steps two, three, and four.
That’s right: when you finish this draft, update your outline to match what your manuscript is doing now.
Then, edit that outline and use it to plan your changes for your next revision.
Then, revise the manuscript to match that outline.
This Process Is Iterative
Why are we doing this all again?
Well, first off, this is a great way to evaluate the changes you’ve made to see whether they’re working. If you update your outline to reflect your second draft and then study its story structure, does the structure still hold together?
And second, it takes time and practice and study to learn the story structure and storytelling principles that underpin all great stories.
If you’re a new writer working on your first novel, you probably won’t solve all your big-picture challenges in your first revision, or even your second. It will probably take several cycles through this manuscript-to-outline-to-manuscript process to catch them all.
This, by the way, is one of the best things about working with a developmental editor. I can spot so many story structure problems in an outline and help you catch them all in one go, significantly shortening this cycle of manuscript-to-outline-to-manuscript passes compared to the number of passes I’ve seen writers do when they’re working on their own.
How Many Rounds of Editing Will This Take?
As you’re probably picking up, there’s no “right number” of manuscript-to-outline-to-manuscript cycles that you need in order to edit your book well.
The number you need is however many it takes you to solve all your high-level story structure problems.
That might take one pass, or it might take two, or it might take five.
Eventually, you will reach a point where you’ve solved all the problems you can solve with the outline, and you get to zoom in. Now, you shift from book-level problems to scene-level problems. You get to go in and refine each scene, making the high points of your story even higher and the low points even lower.
And once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready to zoom in even more: to line editing, and ultimately to copyediting, to book production, to proofreading, and to publishing. And then you get to have a great big party to celebrate that your book is now in readers’ hands.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Before you get there, first, you need a story your readers will love to read. And the way you craft that story is through this five-step process:
- Discover your story
- Create an outline
- Edit your outline for story structure
- Make your manuscript match the outline
- Repeat steps two through four as many times as you need to solve all your big-picture problems
When You Edit Without This Process . . .
If you skip this process and simply open your manuscript and start editing it from page one, here’s what happens:
You’ll see only the issues on page one.
You can easily get sucked into line editing here, focused on getting the words right without strengthening the story. Or you’ll make more substantive changes that you hope strengthen the story, but you’ll struggle to know whether they really work in the context of the whole.
In that approach, you’re figuring out your edits as you go. You’re identifying problems, planning solutions, and executing those solutions all at the same time.
And that is really hard to do for a couple of reasons:
First, because at this stage, the problems that need solving aren’t problems that you can see on one page of your manuscript, or even in one scene or one chapter. They’re much bigger, the kind of problems that require you to take a holistic view of your entire story.
And second, because identifying problems, planning solutions, and executing those solutions are three very challenging tasks, and combining them into one step compounds that challenge.
It’s a lot easier and less overwhelming to separate them out into three separate steps:
- First, you’ll identify the problems.
- Then, you’ll find solutions.
- And only then, once you have a plan, will you execute those solutions on the page.
When You Edit With This Process . . .
When you follow this five-step editing process, when you approach your developmental editing as a series of manuscript-to-outline-to-manuscript cycles, here’s what happens:
You’ll create space to focus on big-picture issues without getting bogged down in the individual lines of your novel and distracted by trying to find the perfect words.
You’ll separate “identifying problems,” “planning solutions,” and “executing changes” into distinct steps. You’ll do the heavy lifting of troubleshooting your story challenges before you ever touch your manuscript.
By the time you get to your manuscript, you’ll simply execute those changes with clarity and confidence.
And while you’ll probably still start editing the manuscript on page one and work your way down to the end, you’ll know as you do that that every line-level change you’ll make will be in line with your big-picture vision for this revision.
The Process That Makes Developmental Editing so Much Easier
Clarity. Confidence. Efficiency. Effectiveness. Free of overwhelm. Free of distractions. Free of information overload. Focused on the most important areas of your novel, the ones that will most improve your story.
I won’t promise that this process will be easy, because major creative projects rarely are.
But I do promise that this process is powerful, and has the potential to transform your manuscript for the better.
Give it a try and see what happens.
And of course, if you get stuck along the way, or you’re ready for some expert eyes to help you spot and solve your story problems, feel free to reach out. Just go to alicesudlow.com/contact and fill out the form to tell me about your book, and we’ll talk about how you and I can work together to edit your novel.
You’ve got this. Happy editing!