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Editing at Your Own Pace

Writing is usually a fairly solitary experience, except maybe when your cats walk across the keyboard and add their contribution. But the publication process can be different, especially if you want to stand out among other authors and deliver a professional manuscript that can compete with the many thousands sent to publishers and agents every year, along with all the novels by indie authors and those already on the shelves.

For many writers, a major part of that professionalization is working with an editor. It’s also a major cost, and not only in cash terms but in time too. You typically send your manuscript to an editor when you’ve taken the narrative as far as you can on your own. The editor might take about a month to go through your text, and then send you back revision suggestions that require you to go through all 80,000 words or so all over again. And that’s where the real time cost can come in.

But, what many authors don’t realize is that it’s possible to spread that time – and the cost. Many editors offer the possibility to work on your book in sections, maybe 10,000 words at a time. That doesn’t necessarily only suit your expenses but also your writing routine.

For example, a staggered process really helps some of the authors I work with who have chronic illnesses and who can’t spend prolonged periods working on their text. Breaking their books down into blocks means they can revise at their own pace while still feeling like they’re making progress. They can then send the next section in their own time, often at moments when they’re in a less productive phase, but with the knowledge that I’m busy with their work, and they can pick up again when they’re ready once more.

Pros and cons

Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. I’ll get to those in a moment. First, let’s look at what I mean by editing in this instance.

There are, of course, different types of editing [1]. In this case, I’m talking about a developmental edit – the most in-depth type of edit, where the editor goes through the entire manuscript, correcting grammatical errors, typos, fact checking, suggesting revisions to improve flow, syntax, perspective and tone, and then analyzing the important aspects of the novel, such as story structure, character development, plot, pacing, presentation and marketability, among others. This is, of course, the most expensive and time consuming type of edit. And it’s the one where the author will have the most to do afterward.

Clearly, the main disadvantage of working in blocks of a few thousand words at a time is that the editor cannot give you feedback on the whole story until that final part comes along. So, how does the editor know if the story is heading in the right direction in those early sections, or if the characters are developing as they should to get to that end?

The answer, of course, is that the editor doesn’t know in those early stages. But neither does the reader, and so the feedback the editor gives after working on each block is more like how the reader would see the story progress too. If the editor finds something that doesn’t quite click, doesn’t ring true, seems out of character for what we know of the protagonist so far, then readers will pick up on that too.


This is the kind of feedback you’d get from any edit anyway. The other disadvantage here, however, is that some of the feedback can then come with caveats, such as: ‘At the moment, it doesn’t look like you need that café scene in chapter 12 where we’re introduced to Charles, but if Charles becomes a more significant character later, then you probably need to keep this.’

On the face of it, there’s not much you can do with feedback like that, except that you (the author) know whether or not Charles comes back into the story later and can probably judge whether this scene was necessary or not.

The point then, as with all editing, is to get the author to consider certain choices, to decide if this direction really is the right way to go or whether there might be other, better, options.

And, once the editor has worked on the final section, the last round of feedback will contain the more definite revision suggestions for the whole story.

One major advantage of editing in blocks is that the author can revise the rest of your text based on the earlier feedback. This can mean cutting Charles completely from the story after deciding you really don’t need him at all, even in those later chapters. Or it could be cutting back on speech tags (he said, she said), crutch words (those favorite words every author turns to, and overuses, without being aware of it) or character fidgeting (she turned, he blinked) when they don’t need to.

If you can already revise your next 10K words before sending them to the editor, you’re then sending an even more polished version of your work. This doesn’t mean the editor has less work but means that your polished work gets the chance to have another shine.

It’s a way of working that suits some people, but obviously not everyone. The point is to make the editing process work for you, in the way that suits you best.

Would you consider having your work edited in blocks like this? Can you see other advantages or disadvantages? Have you tried this way of working, and how did it go for you?

About Jim Dempsey [2]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [3]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [4] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [5]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [6] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [7].