Start Big, End Small: A Step-by-Step Process for Editing that will Eliminate Repeated and Wasted Steps

I’m very honored to be featured as a guest blogger in the Monthly Conversations newsletter for authors with R.E. Joyce. If you’re thinking about writing or you’ve already started your journey, there are a lot of great resources here. My post is about something I love doing for other people but not so much for myself—editing. ;)

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And here is my article, reprinted for you with permission:

Start Big, End Small.

A Step-by-Step Process for Revising that will Eliminate Repeated and Wasted Steps

Have you ever carefully edited an entire chapter or section of your manuscript, revising word-by-word for punctuation, spelling, and grammar, only to end up cutting out the entire section? I have, and it's not fun. It feels like a complete waste of time. And it is. But I've tweaked a process that many writers use to avoid wasting time editing sections that will eventually get cut.

I was one of those “writers” who had never finished a story (except for the few short stories required for college assignments). I would start with a great idea and begin writing the first chapters, then fizzle out in the middle and never know where I wanted it to go.

Then I finally figured out that I didn't have to write chronologically. I could skip around and write later chapters before I had the beginning chapters done. That helped tremendously, especially because I could figure out the end before I committed too much time to the beginning.

So I used the motivation of my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to propel me to the finish line of my very first novel!

I celebrated and put away the rough draft for the holidays.

Once I came back to it, I looked blankly at my very rough, rough draft and thought, “Now what?”

I began revising. Except I didn't understand the difference between revising and editing, and I began editing instead. I got all the punctuation right and checked all the spelling errors from the Spellcheck.

Editing your Book - start big, end small.

But eventually I decided to do some rearranging and cutting. Much of the time I had spent in editing was wasted on sections that never made it to the end of the second draft.

If you want to avoid all this wasted time and effort, too, learn from my mistakes. Use this step-by-step revising checklist.

1. Start Big

Read-through #1. On the first pass after you've taken a break from the first draft, think only of big picture areas. Try to train yourself to ignore the little punctuation and grammar mistakes at first. For us recovering perfectionists, this can be very difficult. But it's essential to train your focus on one area at a time.

I have compiled a list of tips from several authors and editors, including Meagan Nicole, Jerry Jenkins, and Joseph M. Williams in Style. During the first Read-through, focus on these big areas:

  • Mark plot holes

  • Mark large time gaps in your story

  • Mark contradicting detail like time, place, or description

  • Mark boring dialogue (doesn’t move story forward)

  • Mark long strings of dialogue with no narrative in between

  • Mark scenes or paragraphs that don’t move the story narrative forward

  • Avoid similar character names (even with first initial)

  • Make a style sheet as you go

  • Make all changes you marked in first read-through

The Style Sheet is important, both for you as you edit, you if you write any related works (a series or a prequel novella), and especially your professional editor. A Style Sheet lists the spellings of all characters' names, places, relationships, time-line issues, and anything else that you may need, depending on your genre. Although this is absolutely essential for fantasy world-building, all genres can benefit from this list of facts.

2. Narrow Your Focus Down

Read-through #2. For your next skimming of your manuscript, you'll want to narrow down your focus to what I call middle-sized issues:

  • Beginnings: Make sure every scene beginning pulls the reader in

  • Endings: Make sure every scene ending stops with a scene resolution while keeping the reader turning pages

  • Transitions: Make sure the ending of one scene flows smoothly into the beginning of the next

  • Check characters to make sure physical description, personality, & dialogue all remain true to the character

  • Check POV to ensure that you don’t change in the middle of a scene (doesn’t apply to third person omniscient)

3. End Small

Read-through #3. This is finally the time you can attack all the little punctuation and spelling errors that may have been driving you crazy. I also have several pages worth of phrases and words to search for and replace or delete. If you want the full list, sign up for writing tips and get my 4-page checklist free. Here are a few examples:

  • Tighten phrases into one word, such as “considering the fact that” becomes “because” or “why.”

  • Delete meaningless words, such as “actually,” “really,” “very,” and “even as.” Most writers have a few words that they use over and over, usually when we can't think of any other word. This is your time to pull out your thesaurus (or open in another tab) and find a more vivid way to say what you want to say. Many times, just cutting these out and not replacing them will trim your writing and make it crisper than you could have imagined. But it takes practice (especially for us verbose writers).

  • Delete doubled words, such as “each and every” “or “various and sundry.” Just one of these words is sufficient.

  • Delete redundant modifiers, such as “completely finish” or “basic fundamentals” or “past history.”

  • Delete prepositions implied by the verb, such as “continue on” or “return back on” or “circle around.” “Continue,” “return,” and “circle” are usually all that's necessary.

  • Change negatives to affirmatives. This one really tripped me up at first but has been one of the most helpful pieces of writing advice. Change “Not different” to “similar” and “not allow” to “prevent.” I failed to realize how often I use the “not” form of a verb. I almost did it right here when I had to change, “I didn't realize...” to “I failed to realize...” Most of the time two words (“not” + a negative word) tightens to one positive word. Plus, it makes the verbs more vivid and changes the focus from what's not happening to what is.

  • Delete most metadiscourse. This is especially necessary in nonfiction, but I found that I use it in dialogue all the time. Words like “sometimes,” “virtually,” “perhaps,” “apparently,” etc., only clog up space and reduce effective communication.

  • Delete parentheses ( ). Parentheticals should be their own sentence or paragraph.

  • Delete -ly adverbs. Try to form more concrete and vivid verbs and nouns.

  • Delete double punctuation. I do this all the time in dialogue, but “?!” is not proper in traditionally published works.

  • Check problem words like “that/which,” “affect/effect,” and others.

  • Delete “up” and “down” as much as possible. They're usually prepositions that are already implied in the verb.

  • So many more!

Conclusion: You can save yourself a lot of time and effort if you start with big picture plot holes, dialogue sections, and scenes first. Then after you have the order done, you can narrow down to middle-sized problems and work within scenes on beginnings, endings, and transitions. Only after all that do you need spend time tightening individual sentences and phrases, finding the right words to work your writing magic.

Remember to pick up your 4-page, detailed editing checklist at .