March 3, 2011

A Perfectionist’s Guide to Editing: 4 Stages

Red funnel

Yes, I’m still under deadline, but an interesting issue came up in the comments on my last post about perfectionism.  Perfectionists tend to be nitpicky, no surprise there.  But there’s a time when that trait is very helpful, and a time when we need to ignore the compulsion to tweak.  How do we tell the difference?

Others have written about how to revise or edit a story.  Those stages are great to understand.  Really great.  As in, I-wish-I-understood-them-a-couple-years-ago-and-saved-myself-a-lot-of-time great, but such is the learning curve.  Now I want to look at those stages and what they mean for perfectionists.

Prologue to the Revision Process: Finish the Story

Before we even start on the revision process, we need to finish the story.  Many people give advice to not edit previous chapters before finishing the draft of the whole thing.  Usually, the thinking goes like this: If we start editing before we’re finished, there’s a greater chance we’ll never finish the story and much of that editing time will be wasted further down the road.

I think that’s great advice.  Why spend time tweaking a paragraph that might be deleted once you start the real editing?  However, I *cough* don’t always follow this advice.  And yes, I’ve managed to finish multiple stories regardless because I’m stubborn that way.

My compromise is to re-read only the previous chapter or scene before I start my writing day.  I justify this “rule-breaking” by saying it helps me get back into the story’s voice, characters’ heads, etc.  During this pass, I try to change things only if they really irritate me.  Then I start drafting the new stuff.

The 4 Stages of Revision

Assuming we have a completed story (manuscript, screenplay, etc.), now we can move on to improving it.

Stage 1: Revising

Revising is very different from editing and the sooner we understand this, the better.  Revising means taking a look at the big picture.  In some ways, we’re starting from scratch by deciding what we want to accomplish with the story/scene/character arcs.

Think of it this way:  Revising = Redoing.  We might have to redo whole scenes, arcs, or character background.   This step is especially important if we’re pantsers and not plotters.

  • Is the story arc solid?
  • Does our story start in the right place?
  • Are all the scenes necessary?
  • Do the scenes have multiple reasons for being in the story (character development and plot point, etc.)?
  • Does each scene have an arc (emotional and story-wise)?
  • Do the scenes start and stop at the right points for that arc?
  • Is the Goal/Motivation/Conflict clear for every scene and character?
  • Do all the main and major secondary characters have arcs?
  • Are the characters’ motivations appropriate and deep enough?
  • Are the characters likable and sympathetic?
  • Is there tension on every page?
  • Is the pacing slow in any spots?

This is not the place to let our inner perfectionist out.  This stage involves cutting chunks of backstory, description, boring chit-chat dialogue, and paragraphs of throat-clearing at the beginnings of the story and scenes.

At this stage, we might “re-imagine” entire scenes to get the important plot point across in a different way.  We might move chunks of scenes around to strengthen an emotional arc.  We might change the setting, or even which characters appear in the scene.

Word choice does not matter here. What matters here is getting the structure of the story right.  Think form, not format.

Stage 2: Editing

Only after the structure of the story is solid do we narrow our focus to the words themselves.

  • Are our sentences and paragraphs clear?
  • Are the sentences tight without wordiness or being over-written?
  • Do we have a consistent tone and voice?
  • Is the point-of-view solid (no head-hopping)?
  • Do the characters’ motivations or emotions need to be fleshed out on the page?
  • Do we need to add or change things to make the characters more likable or sympathetic?
  • Do the writing and tone create the right reactions and emotions in the reader?
  • Is everything “shown” that should be shown and “told” that should be told?
  • Are there any places to add subtext or foreshadowing?
  • Is it too preachy?
  • Are there any places with too much/too little subtlety?
  • Is the reader able to “see” the story from our writing?
  • Is the dialogue realistic?
  • Do we say the same thing multiple ways or times?
  • Is the word count right for the target market?

Word choice and other nitpicky things do matter here if they affect clarity. This stage is about ensuring our story makes sense in the smaller picture.  This is the if-we-got-hit-by-a-bus-tomorrow-our-story-could-be-published-anyway stage.  It’s not perfect yet, but all the elements of story/plot/character are on the page.

Stage 3: Polishing

Now we can worry about word choice.  Yay!  (I don’t actually enjoy word choice nitpickiness, but at least I don’t have to tell that inner perfectionist to shut up anymore once I reach this stage.)  Our focus has narrowed to the point that we shouldn’t be changing anything bigger than paragraphs anymore.

  • Are the paragraph breaks in the right places for ideas to hang together?
  • Is the grammar clean?
  • Are transitions between scenes and settings smooth?
  • Are there unclear pronouns or dialogue attribution?
  • Are there unnecessary adjectives or adverbs?
  • Is every sentence, paragraph, and scene as tight as it can be?
  • Are dialogue attributions properly punctuated as beats or tags?
  • Do we misuse any homonyms (there/their/they’re, its/it’s, rain/reign/rein, etc.) or similar words (everyday vs. every day, awhile vs. a while, then vs. than, further vs. farther, etc.)?
  • Do we misuse any unfamiliar words (do we love our thesaurus too much)?
  • Do we overuse any words (do your characters nod or smile too much)?
  • Can we delete any filler words (that, only, just, very, still, etc.)?

Word choice does matter here. Now is the time to let that nitpicky perfectionist go to town on making every sentence as perfect as can be.

Stage 4: Tweaking

Hah.  Trick answer.  There is no Stage 4.  When we’ve finished the list above, we need to stop.

As I mentioned in my last post, the tweaking will never end because a word choice that sounds perfect today won’t seem quite right tomorrow.  That doesn’t mean the word is wrong.

After completing this process once, we’ve made the story as good as we can make it.  Now it’s time to bring in critique partners and beta readers.  Have them concentrate on some of the issues from the sections above.

Maybe you’ll have your beta readers focus on the Stage 1 stuff and your critique partners focus on Stages 2 and 3.  However you decide to tackle the project, you’ll probably do a second round through these stages as you address the issues they find.

Some people might think going through this process twice sounds like a lot.  And maybe they’re plotters who already know the purpose of each scene and the goal/motivation/conflict for each character.  Others might think only two times sounds like a big improvement over their current endless passes.

The point is that the better we know which stage we’re in, the less likely we’re going to waste time editing things that don’t matter.  I had to learn this the hard way, as my first a-bigger-number-than-I-want-to-admit passes were all Stage 3 level.  *ahem*  Learn from my mistake, and hopefully this will save you from that problem.

Once you’ve gone through the process twice, you should submit.  Does that mean it’s good enough for publication?  Not necessarily.  But it’s as good as you can make it at this point in your learning curve.  And you might learn something from the submission process that you can apply the next time around.

What do you think of this breakdown?  Does this help keep you focused on what to look for—and what not to look for—during your editing passes?  Can you think of other things that should be on those lists?  Do you disagree with this approach?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Natasha Larry
Natasha Larry

Great article!


Timely post for me. 🙂

As a writer I tend to agree with you, but as a non-perfectionist, I’d never think of the process this systematically. Geez Jami, you’re giving me one of those headaches again. 😉

So, what does that mean? I think it means that as a perfectionist you need to structure your revision process so there’s a clear end it. As a non-perfectionist? (you’re going to hate me saying this) I count on pure instinct to let me know when I’m done. Of course, even at this stage you’re really never be done because if your story is accepted – there’s bound to be revisions required – perfectionist or not.


Angela Scott

I’ve heard it said that even books that are in print and on shelves still could be edited and revised more. But at some point we have to stop and say enough. We can go crazy with the editing process (believe me, my little perfectionist goes nuts sometimes and I have to pull her back).

I lvoed your post. Very good points and things to think about. I do tend to *cough* edit a little as I go for the same reason you mentioned above–to get back into the characters mindset. For me it helps.

I appreciate all the work that went into your post. New follower here 🙂

Yves Brown McClain

Wow…what a great post and good info I could use for my work. I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist and this helps when knowing when to pull back. Thanks again 🙂


So. Freaking. Helpful.

I’ve always hated the editing process because it seems so unstructured – mostly because I’ve never been taught how to approach it. When faced with a blank screen, I know how to fill in a scene. I can develop a character. But sitting back and looking at the thing as a whole and as a bunch of small parts? Terrifying.

This is a really useful way to approach that process. Thank you (as always).


Great break down. I enjoyed reading this article.

Jessica Anne

So helpful, as usual. I love having things broken down into stages. It really helps me focus. Bookmarking this. Thanks!

Lisa Gail Green

Great breakdown! Very thorough. Though *grins* I tend to mix up certain stages.. He he he. I shouldn’t. But there you go. 😀

Laura Pauling

I love it! Bookmarking it.

Jill Kemerer

Oh Jami, your process is the same as mine, and I wish I could say my first attempts at revising were as thorough! It took me a lot of trial and error to come up with this process, but I’m so glad I did. Good luck!

Adventures in Children's Publishing


Seriously, this is the best post I’ve ever seen on this topic. It’s fantastic. A true gift. I’m going to be sharing this with as many writers as I can blog and tweet to!


Debra Brown

Hi, great article! I bookmarked it with the tag: Read This Again!
Thanks for sharing your understanding of this. Much appreciated.

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

Ditto to many of the comments above, excellent post, timely and love the bullet structure. I wish I could rely on instinct, but well, instinct always tells me there is more that can be improved. That nasty little perfectionist imp is an insistent friend/curse-of-existence 🙂
Bookmarking this post to save me in the future (by bashing the imp in the head with it). Thanks again!

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Wow Jami, awesome post. As you know I’m new to the novel community and per my last comment on your perfectionist post I am not a perfectionist. However, this list applies just as much to me as to perfectionists. While perfectionists can’t see the forest for the trees, sometimes I’m so far above the forest I can’t see the trees. This is an AMAZING structure for both sides of the fence to follow. It makes “you guys” look at the big picture, and it gives those of us that want to just “get ‘er done” a slow down mechanism so we don’t gloss over things that are very important to the story. Judging from the comments on this post, I’m not alone in thinking this is a really really, did I say really, great post. Thanks Jami.



this is a wonderful guide. I am going to keep it forever and use it when I get through with my #2- that I just started.

You’ve been SO much help, and I appreciate you very, very much!
Have a great day! 🙂

PW Creighton

Very well said. When I completed my first MS I thought it was done aside from some edits. Until I wanted to change something to make the story stronger. Then it became a domino effect. In the end if I had taken it as stages I could have saved myself oodles of time (yes oodles). Great post from the cave.

Tahlia Newland

Thanks. Hhat a great post. You’ve got it all girl. Hit the nails on the head. Helps me to see that I’m definitely tweeking – still? Again!


Looks like you nailed the editing process here, thank you for yet another great post. Gonna try this. I just need to remember to skip stage 4, I tend to forget to remember to . . OK I’m hitting SUBMIT now. lol


[…] going back to last week’s perfection posts (here and here), I’m now second-guessing myself.  Did I really do everything I could?  Did I develop that […]

Charles Warren

Thanks for the informative post. I’m in stage 1 now and your lists for each stage will be helpful. I appreciate your taking the time and thoughtfulness to put this post together.

Jennifer K Oliver

Thank you so much for sharing this post! It has to be one of the best breakdowns of the revision process I’ve seen, and I’m adding it to my bookmarks for future reference. 🙂

Maryanne Fantalis

As a perfectionist, I am right there with you. It took me such a long time to come up with an effective method of revising and editing, and I had many readers and editors who helped me. I have never been able to describe the process this succinctly and completely. Brava! I am going to mark this for future reference! 🙂


[…] people are much better at going about this systematically, and I want to learn from people like Jami, Natalie, and Suzannah. It seems like they have such great “systems” for revising, […]


[…] reminded me of Jami Gold’s post on editing for perfectionists. Personally, I’d like to remain […]

Sharon Morse

Great advice! A lot of times I catch myself trying to do all the steps at once. Then I get overwhelmed and yell at the computer screen. 😉

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