Editing in Layers—and a Giveaway

Jan ChristensenJan Christensen grew up in New Jersey and now resides in Texas. She’s had three novels published: Sara’s Search, Revelations, and Organized to Death. And over fifty short stories have appeared in various places over the last dozen years, two of which were nominated for a Derringer Award.  She mainly enjoys writing mysteries, but every so often steps out of that comfort zone and goes for something else, including non-fiction articles. She has a column about reading in the ezine, Mysterical-e, and blogs regularly at her website.  Learn more at: www.janchristensen.com

Leave a comment below and you might win a copy of Organized to Death

When I began writing, I didn’t give much thought to how I would edit after I wrote the words, “The End.” And editing wasn’t too difficult at first because I started out writing lots and lots of short stories. They don’t take an enormous amount of time to edit, obviously, because, well, they’re shorter. Now that I’ve completed seven novels, and am in the process of writing two more, I realized I needed to get a better handle on the editing process. What I’ve done in the past is read the novel over and over again, changing things as I go, making notes about what I need to go back and fix because of missing it before or because of new writing. I would do this six to eight times, and when I finally said, “Enough,” I was pretty sick of the whole thing.

I’ve heard some writers say they enjoy editing, however. Maybe they had a good process all along. Or maybe they’re just wired differently from those of us who have more trouble with it. I do think beginning writers might want to think about the second stage of writing before they begin. Because it’s a huge job for a novel.

I’m not saying writing itself is easy. But after I got into the habit of doing it almost every day and learned to produce almost on demand, figuring out how to slough through a scene even when I thought the writing was dreck, I find it more enjoyable than editing.

Sara's SearchEditing has its perks. It’s fun to read over some work you haven’t seen in a while and find you like it. There’s the feeling of accomplishment because you wrote a whole story or novel from beginning, through the often difficult middle, all the way to the end. I have learned to turn off my internal editor most of the time and just let the words flow from brain to fingers onto the screen, settling into that place people love to call flow. Also known as using your right brain.

Then comes the day when you have to use your left brain for the edit. And there are probably as many ways to do it as there are writers. Since I have an older manuscript I want to get out this year that will need a lot of work, editing has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I’m been going over notes I’ve made and through books I’ve marked about editing. Below are some ideas.

First look at each major scene and ask yourself (make a checklist if you think it will help to have beside you as you edit):

  1. Is the scene really needed?
  2. Is the beginning compelling?
  3. Is the scene in the correct spot in your timeline? What day of the week is it, and what’s the weather like? You may not explicitly state any of that, but you need to know so everything flows correctly.
  4. What mood are you aiming for in this scene? Did you accomplish it?
  5. What’s the POV character’s goal—it is clear for the reader?
  6. What stands in her way (conflict)? Did you show her inner turmoil?
  7. Is there anything else in the scene that could happen to make it better—more conflict, more depth, better overall writing?
  8. Are you clearly showing how the POV and others in the scene are feeling by their words and actions?
  9. Have you evoked the senses in this scene—sight (just the use of one color can help here), sound, smell, taste and touch?
  10. Is there too much stage direction, or not enough to be clear where the characters are placed in the scene?
  11. Are your descriptions unusual and just the right length?
  12. What change took place in this scene? Could be as major as a death, or as minor as your main character having a change of heart.
  13. Is there a piece of magic or a gem at least in the scene as a whole, but better, one on each page?
  14. Has any fact struck you as possibly wrong or off? Now’s the time to double-check.
  15. For all except the final scene in the story is there an unanswered question, a disaster, or a cliff-hanger ending?

If you carefully go over each scene, you’ve now completed the major part of a good edit. Next you have to get from overall chunks down to the Revelationsindividual paragraphs, sentences, and word choices.

  1. Is each paragraph clear?
  2. Is each sentence written correctly, and does it flow, sounding right to your ear?
  3. Is each word used and spelled correctly?

Next use your checklist to search for overused words. Every writer has their own list. There are a couple of helpful programs on-line that will check for how many of the same words you used in a scene, or if you get the paid version, a whole manuscript. Autocrit is a good one, as is Pro Writing Aid.

Some writers take the time to read the whole thing out loud. This would be the final go-through. Reading out loud has the advantage of slowing you down so you can catch small errors you missed. It also has the huge advantage of showing you where something sounds clunky or doesn’t flow right. Pay attention if you stumble. If you do, probably your reader will, as well.

There are, of course, many more ways to edit.

Some ideas:

  1. Go through the whole story or novel with one or two objectives in mind to look for in each scene. In other words, go through and check all beginnings and endings of chapters to see if you can make them better. Then go through to check for conflict and pacing. Next you might look at characterization only. After that you could look at the timeline, look for plot holes, double-check your facts. And so on.
  2. If your first draft is sketchy, fill in the parts you left out, then do a thorough edit scene-by-scene or point-by-point as described above.
  3. As you become more experienced and do some of the scene-by-scene steps automatically as you write—you always start with something interesting or surprising and end each chapter with a bang, for example–you could skip that particular step. If you get into the habit of mentioning an emotion on every page, or using another sense besides sight every two pages or more often, you might not have to pay particular attention to that. You can also be sure that at the beginning of each scene you have a clear goal in mind for the main character in that scene.

One trick I use since I don’t outline is to make one after each scene. Before I stop for the day, I write a few sentences to remind me what the scene is about. Here is a good way to think about it as a whole and perhaps quickly make some changes to strengthen it before moving forward. Also, if you have to take a rather long break, this outline will help you remember the important points without having to read through the whole manuscript. The other advantage is that it will help you with your synopsis or description when finished with everything else.

Organized to DeathSome things to include in your outline (I made a Word table for mine. You could also use an Excel graph or just put all this info in a paragraph for each scene in a regular file):

  1. Chapter and scene number.
  2. Date, time, location
  3. POV character
  4. Setting
  5. What happens

You might include some of the checkpoints on your editing list. For example, you may notice that the scene has enough sensory details, that the POV character’s goal is clear, and that you have checked the spelling of a place name. I don’t recommend trying to tinker very much before going to the next scene in order to be able to check off those points at this stage, however. It may happen that you bag the whole scene after you type The End, and all that work would be wasted.

Editing is a daunting process, but so is writing a whole novel in the first place. If you arrived at “The End,” take a deep breath, or several, and dive in. You might be surprised as you lose yourself again in the world you created. And isn’t making your manuscript the very best it can be  your goal? I thought so.


If you’d like a copy of Jan’s editing checklist and table, it’s free for

the asking—just contact her at jan@janchristensen.com .


Leave a comment below and you’ll be entered in the drawing for a

copy of Organized to Death, your choice of print or Kindle. The

winning name will be drawn on the evening of Thursday, January 10th.


35 thoughts on “Editing in Layers—and a Giveaway

    • Dear Lynette,

      Congratulations, you’ve won a copy of Organized to Death by Jan Christensen! Would you prefer print or Kindle? If print, I’ll need your mailing address.

      Thank you for visiting Buried Under Books 😉

      Regards, Lelia

      Lelia Taylor Creatures ‘n Crooks / Buried Under Books https://cncbooksblog.wordpress.com/

      On Tue, Jan 8, 2013 at 11:25 AM, Buried Under Books


  1. Lelia, thanks so much for hosting me here. I love your blog!

    Lynn, thanks for thinking ORGANIZED sounds good. That’s the first step in getting people interested! LOL

    Chester, great to “see” you here. I see you’re still writing still publishing. Keep up the good work. I hope the post helps you edit your next project.

    Carol, thanks for stopping by and commenting.


  2. Llk10retired, that list took a lot of years of writing and editing to come up with what I found to be the most important things to look for. Having a checklist helps a lot, I think. Thanks for commenting.

    Another Carol–glad you stopped by. Hope the ideas here help.

    Tuesday, I hope the checklist helps. I’ll send it off as soon as I get your email. I haven’t even checked email yet today–doing other, more important stuff first, like showing up here.


  3. Thanks for all the helpful (more than) hints. I can edit my writing better than household items (where I struggle). Thanks for the contest. Judy


  4. jagjhd, Thanks for entering. Since the novel you entered the contest to win is the beginning of a series about a professional organizer, I blog about organization and time management every Monday, which you might find helpful for “editing” your household items. http://www.janchristensen.com/blog

    Wonderful to see you here, third Carol. And thanks for the nice words about ORGANIZED TO DEATH.


  5. The one thing you didn’t mention above is to make sure your descriptors agree. For instance, in one place you may say two dimes and a nickel and in the next place you may refer to it as a quarter. That will really bother some readers like me and my father!


    • Good point, Ellen. The thing with that problem is that the author herself will probably miss some, many, one of those mistake. How would you search for such mistakes? This is where at least one other pair of eyes is needed, preferably a professional editor among them. I know several readers who don’t notice when they’ve used the same word several times in one paragraph when they could change them up. But I’ll notice. Then they look at my piece, and they find I did the same thing (although some of us do it a lot more than others.) Again, we need someone else to find those words. Thanks for commenting.


  6. I’ve known Jan a long time ,and I have her first book Sara’s Search. I would love to get another one of her books.She does an awesome job in writing. I can’t to read her books.


  7. I liked your thought about making notes about your scene when you’ve finished it–character, time, date and so forth. When I first started writing I couldn’t imagine getting confused about that sort of thing, but it’s actually very easy to do especially when I decide I need to finish a scene later in the book to help me solidify an earlier happening in my mind. Lots of great advice!


    • Claudine, I have a really hard time with timelines, and putting everything in a table helps me keep track so much easier than trying to find places inside the manuscript to double check the details. I also keep a table with characters’ full names (I often end up misspelling a name if I don’t double check it) and some description, occupation, and so forth. I simply throw all this stuff, plus research, in a file I label with the book title and the word “notes” after it. I keep it open when I’m writing so I can quickly fill in details about characters or look something up I’ve already researched.


    • Thanks so much for having me, Lelia. Writing the article helped me clarify what I need to do in my edits, so I’m very glad I did this. And I really enjoyed all the wonderful comments. Can’t wait to find out who won a copy of Organized to Death!


  8. Nice check list! I used to hate editing, but I’ve come to enjoy the process more as it takes the pressure off getting the first draft “perfect” (and places it more on getting it DONE).

    For my process, I typically make an Excel spreadsheet for my book. Among others, I have a sheet for the outline, a sheet for characters’ names, descriptions and roles, & a sheet for a scene chart that covers setting, POV, POV character’s goal in the scene, conflict, source of tension, notes on how this impacts future scenes and notes for editing. After the first draft and any changes I know I want to make as soon as I’m done, I make sure the major milestones of the story are in the right place. Then I read through and fill in the scene chart. This helps make sure the story has a good shape overall and the individual scenes don’t drag. This is the high-level stuff–now it’s ready to show to betas. (More on my scene chart in the link with my name.)

    Once those are in place, I take a look at the execution of the scenes themselves, checking for enough visceral responses/too much “head time”/senses/choreography–all the stuff at the level of voice, character, flow. Then I take it to critique group.

    Once my critique group has helped me to refine my characters and actions, I go through the really word-level stuff, individual phrases, page by page (in random order so I don’t get sucked in). Then I’m done. Hooray!

    Thanks for sharing your process! I think we end up covering all the same things, though maybe not in the same order. 😉


    • Jordan, I just got a notice about your comment, so I apologize for not replying to your nice words much sooner. I’ve noticed that most authors have a specific way to edit a novel after they’ve done a few, but many of us hit the same spots as others do to be sure it’s as good as it can be. Thanks for sharing your process here.


    • Thanks for commenting, Anita. I hope the suggestions do help. (A little secret–I can’t bring myself to read my work out loud–it’s almost as if I have stage fright. LOL But good point about never writing a 500-word tome.)


  9. Great post and great list, Jan! I need a copy. There are so many things to think about, it’s hard to remember them all. You’ve done a lot of work that we can all benefit from. Very generous of you. 🙂


  10. Great stuff, Jan. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to help other writers, not only those just beginning, but also those of us who have been at it for a while. A round of applause to you. I’m going to copy your post and keep it handy. Thanks for doing this.


  11. Jan, this is a great list of things to keep in mind while working on our “masterpieces.” Do you mind if I share your suggestions with my local writing group in New Hampshire? ~Thanks! cat


    • Cat, I don’t mind at all your sharing the suggestions with your writing group. If you print the article out, though, please indicate both Buried Under Books with the URL, and my name, indicating I own the copyright with my website URL. Glad you like it, and hope your group does, as well.


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