4 Ways to Use a Scene List, Your Indispensable Editing Tool


One of my favorite editing tools is simple: a scene list.

A scene list is fantastic because it’s simple and flexible. It can be as complicated or as bare-bones as you want to make it. And yet it’s SO powerful and useful throughout the developmental editing process.

I genuinely can’t remember whether I have ever edited a novel without creating a scene list—that’s how important it is.

So in this article, I’m going to give you a crash course on scene lists.

In fact, this article is actually the first of a two-part series.

Today, I’ll share four reasons why scene lists are so incredibly useful during the developmental editing process.

Then, in next week’s article, I’ll give you all the practical, actionable, how-to steps to actually create your own scene list. I know that’s what Your Next Draft listeners love! And it’s all coming for you next week.

But before we dive into this week’s discussion of why scene lists are such useful tools, I have a story to tell you.

My First Scene List

My first-ever professional editing job was as a Writing Center Consultant in my college writing center. I spent four years working as a consultant in the writing center at Elon University. Which meant that for a few hours each week, I’d sit in Belk Library waiting for students to come in for support on their writing assignments.

When a student came to the writing center, I’d sit down with them for about half an hour. They’d bring a paper they’d written for a class, and my job was to give them feedback on their writing and help them make a plan for revisions.

So they’d sit down and pull out their paper. I’d ask them to read it out loud so we could look at it together. And then, once they finished, they’d turn to me, waiting for me to tell them what I thought.

I vividly remember the first client I ever worked with in the Writing Center. I’d spent a couple weeks shadowing experienced consultants, so I knew what I was supposed to do. But this was the first time I was working one-on-one with a client myself.

So she walks in. She pulls out her paper. She reads it out loud. She finishes, puts it down, and looks at me.

And my mind goes completely blank.

I couldn’t remember a thing she’d just read. I had no idea what her paper was about, much less what she needed to do to make it better. I had absolutely no clue what to tell her.

And I just sat there absolutely terrified that I was about to be found out. She’d know that I was new and completely inexperienced and had nothing helpful to tell her. For a moment, I remember just sitting there staring at her. There was this long, horrifying pause where I silently panicked.

And then she said, “I’m so sorry. Do you mind if I go to the bathroom? I’ll be right back.” Of course, I said sure, no problem, and she got up and left.

And while she was gone, I turned to the experienced consultants behind me to panic out loud. They reassured me that I did have thoughts in my head and I could do this. So I turned back to her paper, I picked it up and skimmed through it again, and I pulled out a notepad and made notes on the major strengths and weaknesses for us to address.

And by the time she came back a few minutes later, I was calm, prepared, and able to lead us through a really useful editing session.

The Scene List: My Must-Have Tool in the Writing Center

I learned a lot from that first editing consultation. But one of the biggest things I learned was this:

Creating a scene list is absolutely invaluable.

From then on, every single time I worked with a client in the Writing Center, I’d have my notepad in hand and create an outline of their paper as they read.

If I didn’t create the outline, my brain wouldn’t focus enough on their reading for me to remember the arc of the paper. Plus, when I had an outline, I could give targeted feedback at specific points within their paper.

That lesson has lasted throughout my entire editing career. I had that first writing center session in the fall of 2010. And while it would be a few more years before I’d get to make the jump from student papers to novels, I cannot think of a single book I’ve edited where I did not make an outline of the book as I read.

This is essential. It is a critical part of my process as an editor. It’s so, so helpful. So I’m really excited to share with you how I create a scene list and how you can get the most out of this editing tool, too.

By the way, remember how that student asked to go to the bathroom in the middle of our Writing Center session?

I worked in the Writing Center for four years, and that never happened again. That was the only session that was ever interrupted.

I don’t know what was going on, whether she could sense my panic or God intervened or what, but the one and only time I needed to pause a session and figure out what I was doing, my client asked for a bathroom break.

That’s not really a tip for making a scene list, but it is one of my favorite parts of the story. So there you go—my first-ever professional editing experience, complete with God-ordained bathroom break.

All right, let’s talk scene lists, for real this time!

4 Reasons to Use a Scene List During Developmental Editing

Why create a scene list for a novel? How does a scene list help you? And what are you actually going to do with this thing once you create it?

When I was working in the Writing Center, the first thing I needed a scene list to do was to keep me from panicking. And to be honest, “helping you be less overwhelmed” is always a good reason to create a scene list.

But there are four advantages of creating a scene list while you’re doing a developmental edit on a novel that I want to point out to you.

1. A scene list forces you to zoom out.

Rather than focusing on all the little details happening within a scene, a scene list distills everything down to the core events, the most important elements of your story.

This is critical for the developmental editing process. Your first task in your developmental edit is to establish your story’s structure. And that means evaluating your story as a whole to see how all the threads of plot and character are working from start to finish.

You can’t see how the story structure is working overall if you’re stuck focusing on how believable the dialogue is in this one line in chapter seven.

A scene list allows you to shift your focus from the details to the high-level story arc so that you can edit the story arc first and then zoom in to get the details right.

2. A scene list condenses thousands of words into a handful of pages.

Novels are long. A typical novel is roughly 80,000 words. A long novel could be 120,000 words or more. Even a short novel of just 40,000 or 50,000 words is a lot of story to hold in your head at one time.

And yet that’s your task when you’re doing a developmental edit: to hold the whole story in your head at one time.

When you create a scene list, you condense tens of thousands of words into a short outline, something you can read from start to finish in just a few minutes. Do you know how powerful it is to be able to examine the whole entire story in just a few minutes?

With a scene list in hand, you can see how changes you make in scene four might affect scene fifty-four. You can reference how different plots begin and resolve. You can pinpoint whether the right actions are happening at the right moments within your story.

It’s easy to navigate because it’s short. And when the full-length manuscript could take you eight hours or more to read, this is a huge advantage.

3. A scene list challenges you to identify the purpose of every scene.

When you create a scene list, you’re essentially summarizing what happens in each scene in just a few words.

I’ll share a few different ways you can do this with varying levels of detail in the second article of this two-part series. But no matter which approach you choose, the goal is the same: summarize the point of the scene, the thing it contributes to the story as a whole.

Which means, of course, that you have to figure out what the point of each scene is.

Why is this scene in your novel? What does it add to the story? How does it move the story forward? Why do we need to read it?

As you might guess, this is a really challenging task. But it is also really illuminating. After all, if you don’t know why a scene matters to your story, why will your readers have any more of a clue?

And if you can’t think of a reason why a scene matters . . . well, now you have a pretty good idea of something you might cut.

4. A scene list is a sandbox where you can test your revision ideas before you write them.

So much of the developmental editing process happens before you ever make a single change to the actual text of your novel.

If you’ve listened to a few episodes of the Your Next Draft podcast, you might have heard me say that in order to edit your manuscript effectively, you need to know:

  • What works
  • What doesn’t work
  • And how to fix what doesn’t work.

That’s my general summary of developmental editing. But I’ll take it a step further here. In order to edit effectively, you need to know:

  • What you have created in your most recent draft
  • What you’re trying to create—in other words, your vision for your book
  • And what specific changes you will make in order to turn what currently exists into what you’re envisioning.

Your scene list is the outline of what you have created in your most recent draft.

After you create your scene list, and before you start making changes to your next draft, I encourage you to spend intentional time clarifying your vision for your book.

Do the exercises I talk about on Your Next Draft. Complete the worksheets. Ask yourself, what about this story is important to you? Why do you want to tell it? What do you want to communicate to your readers?

And then, once you have a clear vision for what you want your book to be, return to your scene list. And use your scene list as the experiment: the place where you plan out your changes and test them to see whether they work.

In your scene list, you can write exactly what scenes you need to add. You can strike out the scenes you need to cut. You can mark where you’ll move scenes from one point in the story to another.

You can edit your scene list with all the revision ideas you have for your next draft. All those changes will take you just a few minutes (or a few hours, if you factor in all the deep thought time it takes to figure out what to change).

Then, once you’ve made all those edits to your scene list, you can evaluate it again to see how well it aligns with your vision for your book. Do those changes work? Do they create the story arc you’re trying to craft?

And if the answer is no, they don’t work, or there are still holes you need to address, you can do it again! You can refine your scene list as much as you like and test all your ideas there before you ever write a word in your manuscript.

The beauty of this process is that it’s:

  • Fast. Making changes in your manuscript, especially ones that require writing thousands of words of new material, takes a lot of time. In a scene list, you can make all the changes you like in just a few minutes.
  • Forgiving. Don’t like a change? Change it back, or try a different idea!
  • Repeatable. You can play around with dozens of ideas in your scene list, then choose just the best to turn into actual changes in your manuscript.

And when you’ve finished exploring possibilities and found your ideal structure for your manuscript, your new scene list becomes your clear plan for your next draft. There’s no guessing what you’ll need to do when you step into the manuscript and start making changes. Your map is in hand, and your scene list will guide you from start to finish.

Your Editing Secret Weapon

So there you have it: four reasons why a scene list is one of the most powerful editing tools you can use during your developmental editing process.

One thing I hear from writers consistently is that it is really, really difficult to condense your story down from that beautiful manuscript you worked so hard to create to something that’s much, much smaller.

Writing a premise is scary. Writing a synopsis is scary. Anything that forces you to tell your story in a brief manner is really tough. So writing a scene list might not sound that appealing right off the bat.

The good news is, the strategies I’ll give you in the next article aren’t that difficult to use, and they give you a lot of flexibility to choose how much detail you do or don’t want to include in your scene list.

But the better news is, when you create a scene list, you have an amazing editing tool that will give you so much clarity and direction throughout the rest of your editing process. This is so worth it. It’s so useful once you create it.

All the how-to is coming in the next episode of Your Next Draft, where I’ll show you three different ways you can create a scene list for your novel. So I don’t have any homework for you to do right now.

But if you want to be extra prepared for that episode, I recommend checking out What Is a Scene? The Ultimate Guide to Write and Edit Amazing Scenes.

After all, in order to make a list of all the scenes in your novel, first, you’ll need to know what a scene is!

And get excited for part two of our scene list series. I’ll see you here next week, same time, same place. Until then, happy editing!

Find Out How to Edit Your Novel

Editing your book doesn't have to be overwhelming. Enter your email, and I'll send you my free, 10-step guide to editing a book.

Awesome! Now go check your email for your guide!