After 20 Novels, What Does Your Editing Process Look Like?

| Posted in Editing, Writing |


When I write about my self-publishing journey here, I usually stick more to publishing strategies and marketing topics, but a couple of people have asked me editing questions lately. As I close in on twenty novels (between my name and the new pen name, I should hit that number this Christmas, for my four-year self-publishing anniversary) and almost as many short stories and novellas, I guess it’s fair to say that I’ve developed a system.

My first novel (the first novel that I finished anyway), The Emperor’s Edge, took about seven years from conception to publication (and that didn’t even include looking for an agent/publisher, since I went straight to self-publishing!). Granted, there were years where I didn’t touch it at all in there, but I was definitely finding my way as a writer. I ran it through the SFF Online Writing Workshop twice, several years apart, before “getting serious” and deciding I not only wanted to be a writer, but I wanted it to be the full-time job (yes, quite ambitious for someone who had yet to publish anything). My second novel, Encrypted, also went through the workshop. I wrote that one a little more quickly and had it polished and ready to go in just under a year.

These days, it usually takes me a month to write a first draft (though I’ve done it in as little as two weeks) for a standard-length novel (80-100K). The beastly 220K+ word Republic took two months.

My first round of edits might take about a week for something that involves fact-checking and doing some research (I don’t usually spend a lot of time on either when I’m writing the first draft, because I don’t like to break the flow) or only three days for a simple story that’s set in a made-up world and doesn’t involve much of that.

After I’ve gone over the manuscript once, I send it off to beta readers, who will point out everything from typos to logic errors to confusing action sequences. I’ll usually start working on something else while I’m waiting for them to send the manuscript back. Once it returns, I’ll address their comments again and then either go over the whole story one more time (depending on the degree of the changes I made) or just go over the particular scenes where I made significant changes.

After that, the manuscript is off to my editor, Shelley Holloway, who will check for grammar issues, typos, and anything else confusing that my beta readers might not have pointed out. Again, I’m usually working on something else while she has my manuscript — gotta keep things going if you want to do this full time!

When Shelley is done, she’ll send the manuscript back, and I’ll run through and accept/reject changes and fix any issues she pointed out. We’ll usually go back and forth a couple of times before it’s ready to be turned into an ebook. Once Shelley gets started, it’s usually only about a week or maybe a week and a few days for us to do all of this (she’s doing the heavy lifting at this point). She has numerous clients, though, so I’ll have to book her in advance (sometimes hard when you write quickly) or just accept that there will be a bit of a wait before she can get started. (Again, this is why I always have something else ready to start on.)

The whole process, from Word 1 to finished novel, usually takes a couple of months now, with the slowing-down points being the times when the manuscript is off with beta readers or with my editor (or when I haven’t gotten an order for cover art in early enough, so I’m waiting on that). With one novel (Balanced on the Blade’s Edge), I wrote, edited, and published it in 30 days, but that was more of a bucket-list thing than the norm. Even if I can work that quickly, other people (beta readers, editors, cover artists) have lives (and other clients).

So, there’s an overview, but here are the answers to some more writing/editing-specific questions I’ve received:

A book in a month? A rough draft in two weeks? Don’t you think the quality of the writing suffers if you’re going that fast?

When I first heard about people writing 10,000 words (or more) a day, I thought the same thing, but I also realized that when I was writing my usual 2- to 3,000 words a day (1,000 before this became the day job) that it honestly didn’t take me that long to get those words down and that a big chunk of my day was spent screwing around online or around the house. I knew I could accomplish more and I actually started to feel a little guilty about not getting more done.

So I started to use timers to make myself stay off the internet for chunks of time and to do nothing but write during those slots (I’ve heard of other authors having a dedicated writing computer that isn’t connected to the internet). I realized that if I had everything outlined ahead of time, I too, could have 10,000-word days. That isn’t the norm necessarily, but now I feel pretty lazy if I’m working on a new draft and don’t get at least 5,000 down.

All of this equates to finishing rough drafts in less than a month. Is there any difference in my writing if I type 2,000 words a day versus typing 10,000 words a day? Not at all. It’s simply a matter of spending less of my day goofing off. If anything, I’ve learned that my first drafts tend to be more cohesive and need less editing when I finish them in a few weeks. Writing quickly lets me stay “in the flow” of the story. It’s closer to the way you would actually tell a story, if you were sharing it with a friend, closer to real time, if you will.

Back when it took me much longer, I would spend a lot of time rereading scenes and trying to remember what happened in the opening chapters. This way, the entire story is solid in my head the whole time I’m writing, and there are less gaffs to fix later.

You don’t seem to spend much time on the editing process. I usually have to rewrite X number of times. What’s the secret?

I did some major rewriting of the endings for both The Emperor’s Edge and Encrypted. Hating the original ending is one of the reasons EE took so long to finish (I abandoned it for a few years because I didn’t like the ending and wasn’t sure how to fix it.)

The secret… outlining. I was more of a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants) early on, and I often wrote my characters into situations that I didn’t know how to get them out of. I would get stuck and sometimes lose interest and end up abandoning the manuscript altogether.

I don’t do extensive outlines now, but I always summarize the basic story (a small paragraph per chapter) before I start writing. I’ll often deviate from that outline, but I always know how the story will end, and that lets me more easily find a way to that point.

In the morning, I’ll also do more detailed outlines of scenes I’m going to work on that day, especially if I’m trying to hit 10k words. Those might include some snatches of dialogue, things that wouldn’t tend to be in my overall outline.

Having that roadmap in place let’s me get the story down more quickly when it’s time to write. I already know what’s happening next, so I’m not staring at the screen and trying to figure things out.

Since, before even getting started, I’ve already found my way around potential pitfalls, I don’t usually run into a problem where I have to do a major rewrite when I’m editing. I’m usually tightening up sentences and fixing little issues, but not cutting chapters or changing an ending. (Early on, I was much more likely to have to cut scenes, but I find that rare now.)

I’ll also add here that I’m sure a lot of improvements in efficiency are just a matter of having written numerous novels. I remember how I used to dwell on every sentence when I was sharing chapters on that workshop. Maybe I should use a better verb here. Could this be cut? Is this too much of a run-on sentence? Eventually you internalize the rules and don’t think at all about sentence construction; you’re just telling the story and not letting the words get in the way. I think you tend to second-guess yourself less on the story itself too.

I’ve been told you should put a rough draft away for a while before jumping into editing, but you start right in? Do you think you lose any perspective that way?

I’ve heard that, too, and I used to do it, but I’ve found that when I take a big break (maybe because I got caught up in a new project) that I have a little trouble getting back into the manuscript. I won’t have the story as solidly in my head anymore. Also, because I write a first draft straight through without editing, I’ll often have some things in mind that I know I need to go back and address. I want to get to those before I forget about them.

That said, there’s inevitably a break between my first and second round of edits, since that’s when the beta readers have the manuscript.

When you’re writing your first draft, do you edit as you go?

Almost never. For me, writing the first draft is about getting the story down and that’s it. A rare exception is if I thought of something I wanted to add to the scene I was working on the day before. If so, I might back up to the top of the page and work that in before getting started. But I never go back and tinker majorly with previously written scenes.

I usually suggest that other people don’t either, even new writers. Especially new writers. After you’ve finished the story, you may find that you end up cutting a scene or rewriting your opening chapter, in which case you were just wasting time if you tinkered with it a lot early on. New writers, in particular, tend to find that they started the story a chapter (or maybe chapters) earlier than they needed to, and that their “inciting incident” needs to be moved forward a lot to hook the reader.

Do you have a revisions checklist or do you just wing it? (submitted by )

No checklist. I just read through from start to finish and fix what needs fixing.

I will sometimes have a couple of notes to keep in mind as I go through the manuscript. For example, in Rust & Relics 1, I established that Simon, one of the main characters, has trouble speaking to one of the other characters (because she’s a hottie and he’s in luuuurve). I have a note here, reminding myself to add a few more instances of him fumbling his sentences, because that’s something I forgot about a little as I was writing the first draft of Book 2.

How do you detach yourself from the story to edit, especially considering you usually go into the novels right after finishing it? (submitted by )

How do I step back and look objectively at it? This may just be a personality thing, but I’m rarely so close to a story that I think it’s awesome and fail to see flaws — I feel like I can be fairly analytical from the get-go. I’m also a super picky reader myself (I’m one of those people who got into writing in part because I struggled to find stories that I enjoyed reading), so I’m sensitive to whether a scene is dragging, characters are flat, or there’s not enough conflict to keep things interesting.

Does that mean everyone is going to love my stories, and that they’re perfect? Of course not. Sometimes I recognize flaws that I’m not sure how to fix; sometimes flaws get past me. I just hope the stories are good enough to entertain. (I’m still surprised and delighted when I get fan mail from people who really enjoy the books.)

If you start thinking of your novel as the creation of some sublime piece of art that’s supposed to wow critics and become a part of the Zeitgeist, then you’re probably setting yourself up for a frustrating experience, one in which you revise and revise and maybe never finish. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good” or “Perfect is the enemy of done.” Definitely true with writing novels.

Any tips for story stuff (versus grammar)? (submitted by )

There are lots of books on writing that cover story construction, and those authors are much better teachers than I am, so I don’t know that I have a lot to say here, except that when I’m writing/editing, I try to…

  • Give the characters quirks that make them seem like real people
  • Give the characters compelling problems that they have to overcome
  • Advance the story (have the protagonists working toward resolving conflict) with each scene
  • Up the stakes (make life more difficult for the heroes) whenever possible
  • Add some interesting/unique elements to the world to make it fun to explore
  • Leave out the “boring” parts, insomuch as you can recognize them (if you start skimming while you’re re-reading that’s a sure sign that there’s not enough conflict going on in the scene to keep the story compelling)
  • Work setting tidbits in unobtrusively, i.e. into the action or even dialogue
  • Make sure most of the conflict ties into the overall plot and isn’t just there Oregon-Trail style to perk up a slow scene (Mary has dysentery! Oh, but she recovers, and it turns out it didn’t matter at all.)

What software do you use for writing and editing?

I write in Scrivener. I’m sure I don’t use 90% of the features, but I love that all of my chapters and scenes are labeled and on display over in the menu, so it’s easy to jump around in the story if I need to. I wrote my first two novels in Word, with everything in one big file, and I can’t even imagine doing that now. Ick.

That said, editors and beta readers usually have Word, so I’ll compile the Scrivener document into a Word file before sending it out to people and usually do my final edits in that program.

How many words do you write an hour? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?

It will vary, depending on what I’m working on. Straight-up action scenes tend to come out most quickly for me. With scenes that are heavy on character interaction and dialogue, that will take longer. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write, and I’m more likely to pause and think about how I want a character to say something there. But when I’m plugging along and know what happens next, 2,000 words an hour is fairly common.

An hour is about the maximum that I’ll sit in the chair without a break. When I’m finding it hard to get going, I’ll set a timer and do 30-minute spurts.

I recently set a new words-in-a-day record, though I don’t know if I should count it since it was on a new novella for the pen name project and I haven’t been back to it since that initial burst, but I hit 13,000 words. (And no, I can’t imagine doing the entire 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo in a day).

I wish I could sit and write for hours, but I have carpel tunnel syndrome, repetitive stress injuries, or X other health issue that makes it hard…

Been there, done that. I was a wreck at 25 and had so many things wrong with me I was wondering if I would live to see 30. Even the computer stuff was hard because my hands hurt so much. Most of The Emperor’s Edge was written with voice recognition software.

More than ten years later… I rarely get sick and not much bothers me. I’ve done 10,000 words while sitting on the couch with my laptop. Ergonomics? Not a bad idea, but I don’t usually bother. Treadmill desk? Are you kidding me? (I do get exercise via hiking and playing tennis, but you won’t catch me doing many things that aren’t a fun break from writing.)

For me, Step 1 was identifying food allergies (gluten and dairy). Step 2 was cutting way back on sugar and things that metabolize into sugar in the body (carbs, essentially). Step 3 was realizing the low-fat diet advice was oh-so-flawed and adding healthy fats into my diet.

Recommended reading: Grain Brain, Why We Get Fat, The Big Fat Surprise.

I can’t promise that the right dietary change will fix all of everyone’s ailments, but it has made an amazing difference for me.

All right, this post has gone on and on, and wandered off topic more than once. There’s a novel waiting to be edited, so I’ll stop here. Any questions? Comments? Please leave a note below!

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Comments (27)

I just finished a big project. I always have trouble getting back into the groove of writing after… like today. lol

I havent’ gotten to your speed yet, but find I can write a book much faster than I used to. Although I write a slower first draft than you, but usually have less to do on the back end… except this last time. My editor didn’t like a character and I could see her point. Replacing said character required rewriting about 10 chapters. I did it and edited the other book, formatted, uploaded, and published w/in a month. Then I enjoyed a beer.

Now it starts over… 🙂 I need to get as disciplined as you so I can get to 5K a day… or better.

Hey, you’re getting a lot of novels out. You must be doing a lot right! 🙂

Thanks for another great and informative post Lindsay.

Sounds like you are eating close to a Paleo diet. I starting doing that 4 years ago and feel like I am in my teens again. Haven’t gotten sick, tons of energy, and life just got easier.

Yup, it started as just eliminating the foods I didn’t tolerate well, but I feel so much better when I keep the carbs down, too, and that’s tough to do when eating grains and legumes, so it was kind of a natural progression. 🙂

Very interesting insight into your process. I’m still working on upping my daily word count and will definitely keep some of your tips in mind.
Regards low fat…I’ve recently read all those books and have stopped worrying about fat at all. Amazing how wrong “experts” can be for so long and how tenaciously they hold on to their views despite evidence to the contrary.

Thanks for commenting, Robert!

Yeah, our brains are something like 60% fat. It’s kind of an important macronutrient. 😀 Lots of interesting research right now on how medium chain triglycerides (such as are found in coconut oil) improve cognitive function.

I finished a 61k novel within three weeks because I did about 8,000 words a day, only having to slow down because I’d have a lot of work hours sometimes sprung onto me. But I also did a hardcore outline before going into the book. It’s a “secret” I learned from a writing mentor I had a few years ago. She was the reason my first published book didn’t need so much content editing when it was picked up by my current publisher. The second book in the trilogy, on the other hand, is a different story, but it was also 30,000 words longer than the first. I also had the beginning written for years, but I never had the middle or ending written until after my first book was published. I outlined the middle and ending when I got back to it, but I had to do a lot of copy editing after its initial rejection by my publisher in order to get everything on track. It’s difficult to finish the rest of a novel you didn’t really finish in the first place. It’s especially difficult when that middle and ending can’t exactly be a rough draft but I had to make revisions when I got back to the book.

In any case, I finished that 61k rough draft and immediately decided to hand it off to my friend-now-turned-content editor (who is still my friend). Guess what? She didn’t find a whole lot wrong with it content wise, and even though I’ve been away from it for weeks to concentrate on content edits for the second book, I can’t think of any content issues with it, either–just copy editing stuff.

Glad the novel came out well!

I resisted the outlining thing for a long time (aww, I can keep things in my head… don’t need that!), but I definitely think it improves efficiency.

I’m still in awe of the guy who wrote 50,000 words in one day. That is equal parts crazy and awesome.

Haha, I know. It’s hard for me to imagine even wanting to try.

Thanks for the informative article, Lindsay!

I just finished a novel, and I think it took me about 8-9 months or so to finish the draft of just under 100k words. Working a full-time job, with a wife and kids, I was pretty happy to get it out that quick (I also worked on other projects during that time).

I am absolutely shocked at how fast you can get a novel out, even after edits and cover art. Pretty amazing.

Curious if anyone has found any luck with beta readers that are just that: readers. I mean, yes, we’re all readers here, but we’re also writers. I think we tend to read things with a more clinical eye, but is that what a beta read should do?

Congratulations on finishing your draft, Wilson! Different authors tend to want different things from beta readers. I like someone who pokes at the logic flaws and says if something is boring them or doesn’t make sense. It’s much better to hear these things before the novel is published (and you can fix the issues) than from reviewers later.

I know 90% of my writing problem is spending too much time NOT writing. It’s definitely a matter of priorities. People have to accept that if they can’t dedicate enough hours to just writing, they aren’t going to make the word counts of those who do. The decision then becomes one of either changing one’s lifestyle, or producing less writing.

The other thing I want to emphasize, which you did touch on Lindsay, is the more practice you have at something, the better you get at it. Period. It would be very odd that an author with 20 novels under her belt wouldn’t be able to write faster than a writer still working on her first one.

Even so, Lindsay, you are still more prolific than probably 90% of working novelists. Yes, I just chose that percent because it sounds good, but I’m still sure it’s accurate. Give yourself some credit, woman. Writing fast AND well is a talent of which you should be proud. 🙂

Thank you, Elissa! Yes, I’m sure you get more efficient as you go along, especially if you’re writing a little bit each day. Once you get in the habit of finishing things (which was not always the case for me!), it becomes exactly that, a habit. I hope you’re still enjoying your writing and plugging away when you have time. 🙂

Excellent post, Lindsay. Thanks for sharing. Reading about your editing process, I’m wondering about my own now.

As I take a step back from my own workflow, I’m probably spending far too much time on draft after draft than actually churning out new material. After publishing my first novel with nearly no process whatsoever and just winging it (sort of; there was still some order what I was doing), I had come up for myself a 10-draft system, where in the first draft, I would spew out the novel as quickly as I can. I’ve been able to churn out a 200,000 word draft in about 2 months, and that’s while having a day job. With each draft, I will look at different elements (character development, etc.), then on to the copy editing and proofreading, beta readers, print and read, import it to an e-reader, etc, until I can come up with a (hopefully) cohesive enough draft that I can send to my editor.

I also can’t just stop after completing a draft right away. Maybe I’ll take a break for a couple of days. Almost right away, I will get back into it. This is because I also have trouble getting back into the swing of things when taking too much of a break. I’ve also heard about putting your draft away for a while, like a month, but man, that’s just way too much for me.

I’m also a huge advocate of outlining. My current work in progress has a 97-page summary of what happens in each chapter. I definitely spend more time on the summary than writing the entire first draft. I would go through it several times before I’m (sort of) happy with it.

I’ve had a few of those 10,000 word days. I even had one of those days followed up by a 20,000 word day the following day. It was a 30,000 day weekend. And, no, there were not too many editing issues when I got back to that part of the manuscript. Outlining definitely helped me with that, along with the fact that I felt good that one weekend physically, and my home office was off limits for much of the weekend. Everything had fallen into place. The typing hands were extra nimble. Maybe the planets were aligned just right, too. That must have helped, heheh….

Wow! A lot of info to process. I appreciate you sharing all this. The writing and editing thing is still something I’m trying to work out a system for and I’m sure this will help. I really need to try and find a way to write more in a day, especially if I plan to publish every month the way I am. I’ve been a write by the seat of the pants person too, but I’m going to give the outline writing a try. I’ve tried it in the past, but it didn’t work out well. I think I was trying to be too specific in the outline, though.

I’m also grateful that you shared the stuff about your health issues. I’m dealing with my own at the moment, and I know I have a sensitivity to gluten, but it’s hard for me to stay away from bread. I love it (especially pizza) and the gluten free options don’t work for me because I also have a sensitivity to guar gum and xantham gum, which is used in all gluten free products. So my only other option is to cut out bread products completely.

Anyway, I’ll have to check out those sites you recommended. I need to get my health back in check. I miss being fit and healthy. It’s so bad at the moment I won’t even use a current photo of myself online. I look like the walking dead. Now if I wrote about Zombies, that might work, but yeah…no.

Take care and thanks again,


Renee, I just found (and purchased) a gluten-free cookbook that might appeal to you.

Great post, Lindsay. I’ve recently tried to up my daily word count to 3,000+ and it’s really just a change in attitude and commitment. In fact, it’s scary what you can do if you simply refuse to settle.

I always find something useful and/or inspiring on your blog. 🙂 Thanks.

Lindsay, I LOVED this look into your writing process! I’m so sorry to hear about your past health issues, and am so glad you’re feeling better. I actually found a lot of things we do similarly, as well as things I could do better (i.e., your way). 😉

Thanks for the post. My problem isn’t making myself write, it’s making myself stop. Believe me, this has its problems. I did find that researching throughout my writing journey determined the path of my story, even with a preexisting outline.
Great info!

A great post and fascinating insight. Very inspirational. Encrypted is probably my favourite of your novels. I was drawn by the title and fell for the characters. I hadn’t realised it was only novel no.2.

THANK YOU for this post. I always wondered how you did it and since I want to be a full-time writer also I am inspired by your story.

This is really interesting! I’m always intrigued to know how prolific indie authors get books out so quickly without sacrificing quality, as I’m hoping to start doing the same. Now I’m on my 15th first draft and I outline in advance, I can write a book in 1-2 months and have it come out fairly clean, then have it edited/revised within a few weeks after feedback from betas. But I always feel like I’m cheating (or working my poor betas too hard! :P). Glad to hear it isn’t only me! I’m seriously impressed, though – 20 books is a fantastic achievement! I recently finished the Emperor’s Edge series and loved it, and I’m looking forward to exploring your other books, too. 🙂

Thanks, Emma! I’ve had to branch out and add a second set of beta readers (might have to look for a third!) so I don’t over work them. We’ll see if my poor editor can keep up when I add in the pen name novels. 😀

Thanks for sharing your experience! It’s really interesting and helpful to read things that new writers might do are completely normal when inexperienced, and then how to get past those issues!

Hi. How do you connect with Beta readers?

Hi Rosa,

Some of my beta readers (the originals!) are people I met through writing workshops. You can look for workshops in your area, or check for online ones too. Some people go to classes and conferences focused on writing too.

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