What It REALLY Means to Make Progress Editing Your Novel


Sometimes, making progress on your editing means celebrating finishing your draft. Sometimes, though, it looks like . . . opening up a new document to start the next draft with a blank page.

How do you know whether you’re actually making progress? Here’s what editing progress looks like—and why it doesn’t look like you might expect.

What to Expect on Your Next Draft in 2024

This is the first episode of 2024, and I’ve got a good one for you today. It’s a topic that’s come up several times with my editing clients lately, and something I’m always thinking about as I edit novels.

But before we get to the good stuff, I first want to let you know about some adjustments that I’ll be making to the podcast this year.

As you know, I’m a developmental editor and a book coach. I help writers take their first or second or tenth drafts of their novels and revise them into manuscripts that they’re proud to query or self-publish.

I do this every day in my work with clients: writers hire me to read their outlines and drafts and give them feedback, and to coach them through the editing process.

And I do this here on the podcast, where I share the strategies I’m using with my one-on-one clients with you so you can edit your novels too.

Both of these tasks are important, and I’ve seen firsthand how they’re both helping writers craft great stories. And of course, both of these tasks take time.

At this particular moment in my editing career, in January of 2024, I’m at a point where I both want and need to be spending more time with my clients. So I’m making some adjustments to make that possible. And one of those adjustments is here, on the podcast.

This year, I’m moving to a biweekly podcasting schedule. Rather than sharing a new episode every week, I’ll have a new episode every other week.

You’ll still get to hear from me. I’ll still be sharing the same actionable editing content designed to help you navigate your own novel editing process.

It’ll just be every other week rather than every week.

Now, along with the podcast, I also send out a weekly email newsletter. Right now, I’m planning to continue sending out that newsletter weekly. And that means that there will be content I put together for the email newsletter that will not be on the podcast.

I’m still working out what that content is going to be. Right now, I’m thinking it’ll probably be super quick, short editing tips—so, like the podcast, but a two-minute read rather than a twenty-minute listen.

That’s subject to change, of course, and it’ll probably evolve over the course of the year. The point, though, is that this year, you’ve got two ways to get my editing resources:

First, this podcast, which is moving to a biweekly schedule.

And second, my email newsletter, which will stay on a weekly schedule.

If you’re not subscribed to my email newsletter, and you’d like to join, enter your email address in the form below:

As a thank you for subscribing, I’ll also send you my most popular editing worksheet, the Scene Analysis Worksheet.

All right, that’s all for today’s housekeeping! Let’s get into the episode.

The Big Question: What Does Editing Progress Actually Look Like?

Today, I want to explore a really big question: what does it actually look like to make progress in your editing? What does editing progress actually look like?

And I want to start off with an analogy.

What We Imagine: A Really Long Road Trip

Imagine you’re going on a road trip. Let’s make it a really long road trip, from New York City to San Francisco, because books take a long time too.

You get in your car in New York City. You start driving. Pretty soon, you cross the state line into New Jersey, and then soon after that, you cross into Pennsylvania.

The road is a little wiggly, so sometimes you’re going more northwest and sometimes you’re going more southwest, but you’re generally going west the whole time. Maybe you stop at a gas station for a few minutes and fill up. But you probably don’t turn around and go back to New York City. Maybe you do if you forgot something absolutely essential, but you probably just keep on keeping on—into Ohio, and then Indiana, and then Illinois.

The trip is going to take you about 45 hours of driving, so you’ll stop a few times along the way to spend the night. You might even decide to pause for a day or two at the high points along the way so you can explore the cities you’re passing through and see the sights. It might take you a week or more to cross from Utah into Nevada and then finally into California.

But all along the way, whether you press forward with as few stops as possible or slow down to enjoy the sights along the way, you’re generally going west. Your route is essentially a straight line, from NYC to San Francisco, without backtracking or changing paths. You start at the starting point and you go until you reach the ending point.

Progress is easy to track: you’re just watching the miles tick down between you and your destination.

3 Stories of Actual Editing Progress

Editing a novel is not like this road trip. Much as I suspect we all wish that it were, it’s not.

Here’s what editing is like. I’ve got three stories for you, all of them representative of what the writers I work with are actually doing in their novels right now.

Editing Story 1: The Recursive Chapter Edits

You send me chapter one of your novel. I read it. I give you feedback.

You revise chapter one based on my feedback and send it to me again. I read it. I give you more feedback.

You revise chapter one again. I read it, and I say, you know what, this is great. I think there are still some changes we could make to it, but it’s doing what it needs to do right now, so let’s move on to chapter two.

So you send me chapter two of your novel. I read it. I give you feedback.

You revise chapter two and send it to me. I read it, and I say, great, let’s go on to chapter three.

You send me chapter three. I read it and give you feedback. You revise. You send it to me.

I say, actually, I see some major adjustments we can make here to strengthen this. Let’s dig in.

We dig in for a couple of rounds of revision on chapter three. Midway through, chapter three starts shedding light on chapter two, and I spot an opportunity to revise chapter two based on what we’ve just discovered.

You go back and revise chapters two and three, and you send them to me. And as I read them, I see connections between them and chapter one. So I send you back to revise chapter one and two and three.

You do all those revisions. I read all three chapters. They work so much better.

And I tell you, fantastic work! This is really working. I think there are still some opportunities we can explore in these chapters in the next draft. But they’re doing what they need to do now, so let’s head on to chapter four.

This is progress.

Editing Story 2: The Outline Revision Revision

You write a draft of your novel. I read it, do my analysis on it, and give you feedback.

You take your draft and my feedback, and you turn them into an outline to plan out your next draft.

You send me the outline. I read it, do more analysis on it, and give you feedback.

We identify a couple of key areas that we need to develop in order for this new plan to really work. We spend a couple weeks exploring those concepts together and building out that weak part of the story to make it really strong.

You take all those ideas back to your outline, revise it, and send it to me. I read it, do more analysis on it, and give you feedback.

You revise the outline again. You send it to me. I read it. I say, “This is awesome. I have some ideas for things I’ll want to watch for in the next draft, but for now, this is everything you need. Go turn this outline into a full draft!”

This is progress.

Editing Story 3: The Page One Rewrite

You write a draft of your novel. You send me the manuscript and I read it.

I make notes on some big-picture areas that we need to develop in order to create a strong foundation for your story.

We get on a call, and we talk those things through. We really dig into why you’re writing this story, what this story is really about, and some big ideas for how you can structure your story so it matches those two things.

You take all those notes and ideas, and you sit with them. You go on a walk and think about them. You do some character development exercises and research some key elements of your story.

You put together a new plan for your next draft. It’s a serious overhaul—you’re cutting a few characters, starting later in the story, and completely changing the ending.

This new plan is way more aligned with your vision for this book. But it’s so different from your previous draft that you decide to start your next draft with a blank page.

You save the previous draft in a folder so you can always go back to it if you need to. Then, you open a new document and begin a page one rewrite.

This is progress.

The Truth About Editing

Because here’s the truth about editing a novel, the thing we miss when we picture editing like a really long road trip:

Editing is recursive.

Back in college, I took a class on how to work in the writing center. It was my first real training ground in how to work with clients to edit writing.

And the professor who taught this class would say this all the time:

Writing is recursive.

Shoutout to Dr. Rosinski, if she ever listens to this podcast. It’s been more than a decade since I took that class, and I still think about this and say it all the time: writing is recursive.

That road trip from New York City to San Francisco? It’s linear. You start at point A and you go in a relatively straight line until you reach point B.

But editing is recursive. It’s cyclical. You write a draft. Then you go back to the beginning to revise it.

You revise the outline, going over and over it from the start to the finish until it works well enough—which is to say, until you’ve solved the set of problems you need to solve at this point in the process.

Then you write the draft, and you create a new outline, and you test that to see how it’s working now and what problems you need to solve next.

You zoom in, from the whole story to the first act, and you revise that until it’s set. Then you use what you’ve learned from the first act to restructure act two, and then act three, and then act four. You discover something critical in the climax as you revise act four, and you go back to act one to set it up.

You zoom in, from the act to the scene. You revise a scene until it works well enough for now. You move forward and revise the next scene, and the next, and the next. You put all those scenes together in a sequence, and as you edit the climax of that sequence, you discover what it is that’s missing in the first scene, that thing that makes it work just “well enough” but not totally nailing it yet.

You go back to the first scene and revise it again, and then you make cascading changes down through the next three scenes.

Where the Road Trip Falls Apart

If you picture your editing process like a road trip, all of these recursive iterations feel like you got all the way to Utah only to turn your car around and drive back to New York to start over.

The days you’ve spent driving across the country feel like wasted time.

Like you made a mistake the minute you left your house, and if you just could have gotten it right then, you’d be in California now rather than wasting gas and time driving back and forth across the country.

Like this is somehow your fault, like you’re doing this wrong, like you’re not a good enough writer to just figure this story out already.

A Better Analogy: A Spiral Staircase

But editing isn’t like a road trip. Here’s a better analogy:

Imagine you’re walking up a spiral staircase. If someone flies a drone up to the top of the staircase to look down, in that video you’ll look like you’re just walking in circles. You keep going back to the same spot, over and over and over, cyclically returning to the beginning and working your way to the end.

But if they look at that spiral staircase from the side, they’ll see the truth: with every cycle, you’re climbing. You’re making incremental but steady progress upwards. And in order to do that, you must keep circling the same area.

There’s no ladder here to take you upwards in a straight line. If you want to reach the top of the tower, your metaphorical publication-ready novel, you have to take the stairs. You have to walk in circles, gradually climbing upwards, continually returning to the same points over and over and yet making steady progress all the while.

Things That Count as Editing Progress

Here are some things that count as making progress in your editing:

  • Going back to revise chapter 2 a fifth time after you revise chapter 3.
  • Going back to revise act 1 because you figured out something important in act 4.
  • Going back to your outline to revise the structure of your story after draft three.
  • Editing that outline, then getting feedback, then editing that outline again before you write the next draft.
  • Opening a new document to rewrite your story starting with a blank page.
  • Putting your pages down for a couple of days so you can think deeply about a sticky problem in your story.
  • Going back to the drawing board and reenvisioning what story you want to tell, who you want to tell it to, and what form it needs to take in order to share that story with that audience.

Things That Do NOT Count as Progress

And here are some things that do not count as making progress in your editing:

  • Quitting.
  • Holding on to words that you know aren’t serving your story simply because it took a lot of work to get them down on the page in the first place and it will feel like you’re moving backwards if you let them go.

The Secret: Be Open to Changes in Any Form

As long as you are open to changes, no matter what form those changes may come in, you’re making progress in your editing. The only way to stop making progress is to stop making changes.

It’s so easy to get discouraged here. It’s so easy to look at your process from the view of that drone overhead and just see the circles you’re making. It’s easy to feel like you’re stagnating, or even moving backwards, when you keep going over the same story—or even the same piece of story—again and again and again.

But this is editing. This is what editing progress looks like.

The trick is to remember that the drone view doesn’t tell the whole story. Look at that spiral staircase from the side and you’ll see how far you’ve really come.

When it’s Time to Call in Help

If this is hard to do, if you feel stuck or overwhelmed or like the only view available to you is the drone view, I encourage you to reach out for support.

This is the kind of space where working with a book coach can be really helpful. A book coach not only gives you feedback on your writing, but also helps you navigate the process.

When I work with writers, yes, I send them back to revise their scenes and their acts and their outlines, and sometimes I even help them decide to tackle a page one rewrite. But I also support them through that process.

And when they feel like they’re moving backwards and wonder whether we’re actually going back to New York, I help them see how much progress they’ve really made and how every recursive cycle on their manuscript is making it better and better and better.

If you’re interested in working with me and getting that kind of feedback combined with support, I’d love to hear about your story and talk about how I can help you. I’m currently booked up, but you can join my waitlist here. Then you’ll be the first to know when I have space available for new clients.

When You’re Ascending the Staircase on Your Own

Or, if you’ve mostly got this and don’t want to hire an editor or book coach right now, but you’ve felt this feeling before, that worry that you’re moving backwards in your book rather than forwards, I recommend that you save this episode. Whenever you feel like you’re going back to New York and you’ll never ever reach California, come back here and listen again.

Make a list of what progress has looked like for you in the past. Remember that as long as you’re open to changes, you’re making progress. The only ways to stop making progress are to hold so tightly to what is that you can’t make space for what could be, or to quit.

Don’t quit.

You’ve got this. I believe in you.

I’m celebrating your progress and cheering you on every step of the way.

Happy editing!

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