Is There a Right Way to Write?

Is there a right way to write? Should you write your first draft, then edit or edit as you write?

That’s a debate that’s been going on almost as long as there have been more than two writers living at the same time. I don’t expect to resolve the issue here. Indeed, I don’t expect to resolve it at all. Those who have settled into their routines swear by them and will probably never change them.

This post is for the writer who may still be new enough to the business to be looking for their best routine. I’ll describe the three major categories, then share a primary advantage and a primary disadvantage to each.

The rest will be up to you!

By the way, this is not a discussion on the virtues of pre-planning or writing by the seat of your pants. All three of these methods work for Planners, Pantsers, and Tweeners.

Is There a Right Way to WriteWrite and Edit Each Day

You write and edit in the same process. After writing each scene or chapter, you go back over it, making it the best it can be before moving on to the next. You may write in the morning and review in the afternoon or write one day and review the next, but it is likely you’ll give the writing time to “cool off” before you go back and edit.

Primary Advantage

The first draft written this way is generally more polished—not to say well-polished—than a first draft written any other way.

Primary Disadvantages

It takes longer to write a first draft.

It’s easy to get hung up on a chapter or to obsess so much that forward progress is slowed or lost altogether.

Write the First Draft, Then Edit

You write the entire first draft first and give no thought at all to editing. This is the creative phase and is not to be interrupted. You probably don’t even reread the previous day’s work before launching into fresh writing.

Write fast and, if possible, with no thought beyond getting words on paper.

Primary Advantage

The first draft is generally finished more quickly than if you edit as you write. It’s possible to write a complete first draft in 30 to 90 days. There’s nothing like the rush of enthusiasm—or relief—that comes with reaching this milestone. Those who have successfully completed NaNoWriMo know exactly what I mean.

Primary Disadvantage

The finished first draft can be a mare’s nest of plotting and character development problems—as many who have successfully completed NaNoWriMo also know! Writing the first draft is faster, but editing is slower and may involve a lot of rewriting.

Somewhere in the Middle

You salt your writing with a little editing. Perhaps you begin the writing day by reading the previous day’s work.

The difference between this method and the first method is that you’re not doing heavy editing. For example, when I begin writing each day, I review what I wrote the previous day to warm up my writing muscles and to get back into the story. If I find misspelled words, I correct them. If there’s a better word choice, I’ll change that, too.

But I don’t make major editing changes. This is just a warm up exercise, like stretching before a run.

Primary Advantage

This method is a great way to overcome the obstacle of writing the first word every day. By the time you get to new writing, you’ve already written a word or two!

Primary Disadvantage

Reviewing the previous day’s work may derail any fresh ideas for the day.


These are not the only three options. They are, in fact, only three points on a continuum that begins at one end, with writing and editing at the same time, and runs all the way to the other end, keeping writing and editing separate. You may find your best writing routine to be somewhere between two of these points.

Or you may find yourself using different methods at different stages of the writing process or for different stories!

However you write, finishing first drafts is all a matter of focusing on the task at hand without completely ignoring the other half of the equation.

Recommended Reading on Cutting Excess Words

Whether you’re already published, about to begin the submission process with your first novel, or are still grinding out the words, you should be interested in word count.

Namely, in keeping unnecessary words to a minimum.

But how to do that?

Some time ago, Rachelle Gardner published an excellent post on that subject. In that post, she shares eight basic steps for trimming word count and tightening up your writing. Her list includes reducing back story and unnecessary adverbs (“ly” words).

What are the others? I don’t want to steal Rachelle’s thunder so will instead direct you to the full article, How to Cut Thousands of Words Without Shedding a Tear. The article is part three of a 3-part series on Strategies for Writers, so take a minute or two and give the other two articles a read, too.

Rachelle is an agent, editor, and literary coach, so she knows what she’s talking about. By the way, her blog is also well worth reading and subscribing to whether you plan on publishing independently, traditionally, or somewhere in between.

Making the Most of a Story Critique

A Guest Post by Tal Valante

2015-06-08 EditThe first critique I got for my first novel is memorable. That is to say, I don’t remember a word of it, but I do remember feeling like a combination of being punched in the gut, hollowed out, and going up in flames, all while people insulted the newborn baby in my arms.

Come to think about it, my second critique felt the same way.

Today, at over dozens of critiques from a wide variety of professional editors, I’ve grown quite a thick skin. Here’s what I would have said to myself that long time ago.

2016-05-02 Making the Most of a Story Critique

Start Small

For your first few critiques, don’t engage a roomful of professional editors and agents (as in a convention round-table critique). Unless you have extra-thick skin, that’s a sure recipe for a crash and burn.

Choose a professional editor who has your trust and respect but doesn’t terrify you. Start out over email. It’s one thing to receive a written critique, it’s quite another to receive it face to face where you have to master your expression and body language (and, occasionally, tears).

On the other hand, don’t start so small that your critique giver isn’t a professional editor. From unprofessional editors or agents, expect to receive varied and often contradicting feedback, based on their personal preferences more than on a solid understanding of the art and market.

Cool Off

2015-05-27 book pagesWhen you first get your critique, you’re likely to have a gut reaction to it. Ignore it. Overcome it. Read the critique once and then put it aside, for days or even weeks, until you’re no longer obsessed with it. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t read, consider, or so-help-you-the-heavens start working on the critique while your emotions run hot.

Once you can read the critique without feeling shortness of breath or proneness to cursing, you can start working on it.

Go on Record

After you’ve cooled off, take note as you sort through the critique. Next to each critique point, mark down how you feel about it: does it chime with you? Are you unsure about it? Do you instinctively object? Do you object for a solid reason?

These marks will help you when the time comes to consider each remark and how you should treat it.

Sort and Evaluate

2015-11-11a paper pile buried under paperwork stacks pagesEven a good critique is not the Bible. You can choose what to take from it, and you can leave the rest untouched. Trust your own writing instincts.

Go over your notes and decide which critique points you want to follow up on. Skip the ones you objected to for a solid reason. The only thing to watch out for is your ego. If you object to a critique point just because it’s a critique (e.g., “My writing is perfectly fine and he’s wrong about everything”), think twice about it. Also, go back to step 2 and cool off some more.

Identify and Improve

Once you know which points you want to act on, start working on them methodically, one by one. Highlight in your work all the text that refers to a certain point. Then think how you can alter that text, add to it, or remove some of it in order to best achieve the result you want.

Be judicial in your editing. For small comments on your text, don’t go rewriting half your novel. For deeper issues, don’t go proof-editing. Match the nature of the required change to the nature of the critique comment.

And in all the changes that you make, make sure you’re true to yourself and your voice.

Embrace the critiquing process. Repeat to yourself: “I love critiques. I eat critiques for breakfast. Critiques help me make my writing great.”

And above all, stay calm and keep writing!

About the author:

Tal ValanteTal Valante is a writer, an editor, and the founder of Re:Fiction, the center for fiction writers of all types. If you need a professional, free critique of your work, apply to Re:Fiction’s editing scholarships, and take your writing to the next level.

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About Her Website: 

Tal Valante, ReFictionRe:Fiction is all about helping fiction writers shine at their craft by providing inspiration, articles about writing skills and the author’s lifestyle, and free editing scholarships. Do you write fiction? Explore our resources to get better, get published, and get read!

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Services for Authors: Editors

2015-06-01 Dog in HatWelcome to the second post in our series, Services for Authors.

If you’re an indie author, no doubt you’ve heard a lot of experienced self-publishers recommend that you have your work professionally edited before you send it off into the world. Today, we’re interviewing Catherine Jones Payne of Quill Pen Editorial Services. She and her team specialize in helping indie authors make their books publication-ready.

Catherine, welcome to Indie Plot Twist. Why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little about Quill Pen Editorial Services?


Thanks so much for the opportunity, Danielle! Books have always been my passion. I hold a BA in English literature, and I’ve edited professionally since college. In the summer of 2013, I launched Quill Pen to offer complete editing services to indie novelists. Since then we’ve launched a blog to educate and encourage writers, partnered with a cover artist and a typesetter to expand our line of services, and developed a coaching program to help writers finish their first drafts. We most often start our work with clients on their second or third drafts, but we can take a writer all the way from his or her initial idea to the finished, professional product.

Let’s start with the basics. Why should indie authors consider hiring an editor before they self-publish their books?

First, great books are not produced in a vacuum. All traditionally published authors use editors, often provided by the publishing house, to help them chisel the gem out of the rough draft. Even the most talented authors I’ve been privileged to work with send me imperfect manuscripts laden with plot holes, underdeveloped characters, awkward dialogue, a glut of adverbs–the list of common mistakes goes on.

Today, indie authors compete with hundreds of writers for a readership, and reviewers can be less than kind to unedited or poorly-edited books (and believe me, reviewers can tell when a book hasn’t been edited!). An excess of one-star reviews negatively impacts sales.

But more than that, I think indie authors owe it to themselves. If a story burns within you–if you have to tell it–that story deserves to be carefully refined until it becomes the best version of itself so that you can tell that story effectively. If you want to write a book that connects with readers, a team of editors (and beta readers) will help you see your own blind spots.

There are different levels of editing, and different editors split them up differently – but they largely progress from large-scale edits to small-scale edits. Can you describe how you define the different levels of editing?

2015-06-08 EditAt Quill Pen, we take books through four levels of editing: developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading.

Developmental editing involves large-scale changes. At this stage, we look for issues in plot, characterization, dialogue, themes, pacing, consistency, and setting. The manuscript will typically be read three or four times, at least once by a second editor, and revisions can require substantial rewriting on the part of the writer. These changes are the most important, significant changes the author will make to the manuscript.

Line editing focuses on smoothing out the prose so that the text reads smoothly. Here, we target awkward phrasing, ornate dialogue tags, 85% of adverbs, and anything else that would jerk a reader out of the fictional world. We try to eliminate as many typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes as we can, but that isn’t the primary focus yet. The line editor can be one of the developmental editors. Typically the edits are tracked in Microsoft Word, and the writer inspects and approves each change individually.

Copy editing takes place once the text is in its final form, and it eliminates technical errors–typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar, inconsistencies in capitalization, and more.

Proofreading, the final step in the process, occurs once the book has been typeset–or mostly typeset, at any rate. The proofreader won’t actually track any changes, as she’s typically working with a PDF or a hard copy instead of a Word document, but will notate any errors that are found so that they can be fixed before the book goes to print. If the book has been edited properly, the proofreader should find very few errors.

Do you feel the demand for freelance editors has been on the rise? Why? And who are most interested in your services – traditionally published authors or independent authors?

It’s an exciting time to be in editing! In response to the popularity of ebooks and more affordable print-on-demand technology, independent publishing has become more popular than ever. With the click of a few buttons and a relatively low up-front cost, aspiring writers can become professional authors without having to go through the lengthy traditional agent-publisher process, and by and large they realize that they need editors if they’re going to make a serious go at becoming a professional author.

So yes, freelance editors find themselves in more demand than ever, even while editors at publishing houses are cut back—-their projects often outsourced to freelancers.

In our firm, we most often work with independent writers, though a small minority of our clients are seeking publishing contracts. Typically, a writer who wants complete editing services is pursuing independent publishing, while those who just want a developmental and a line edit may still be interested in a traditional contract.

The author-editor relationship is obviously going to be pretty intimate. What is your advice for finding the perfect editor? Do you feel genre matters?

2015-06-08 Business MeetingYou want to make sure you’re working with someone with whom you can build rapport and trust. Look for someone you can develop a good working relationship with, who exudes positivity, but takes a no-nonsense approach to making your book better. Hire an editor that other writers speak highly of, and always, always, always check references before you finalize the deal.

Also, make sure that you’re working with someone who is willing to put expectations in writing in a formal contract. If an editor expresses unwillingness to sign a contract, detailing the responsibilities of both editor and writer, that’s a major red flag.

Genre is a secondary consideration but can be important. As a general rule of thumb, the larger-scale the edit, the more genre matters. So, it might not matter that a copy editor usually does science fiction when you’re looking for someone for your romance novel, but in a developmental editor, you might want someone who specializes in romance.

An editor should be up-front if your manuscript isn’t in their primary area of expertise, but that doesn’t mean they can’t branch out into a new field. I specialize in YA fantasy and edgy Christian fiction, but I’ve had a lot of fun working on a self-help book recently.

Common advice is to contact your desired editor early, since many are booked far into the future. I notice on your website that you promise a quick turn-around. But what is your ideal advance notice on a new project?

Flexibility proves to be an advantage of working with an established editorial firm rather than creating your own team of individual freelance editors. I’m typically booked out two months in advance, though I can sometimes work new clients in quickly because author slots have to be held tentatively–revisions sometimes take writers longer than they expect.

However, I work with a fabulous, talented team of editors, and I can almost always get a new writer’s manuscript in to a member of my team within a week. So, for a firm like Quill Pen, if you have a specific editor in mind, try to send in a quote request two or three months in advance, but if you’re comfortable with the firm looking at your project and selecting an editor for you based on editor expertise, interest, and availability, you can get away with sending it in a week or two early.

Some indie authors are remarkably prolific – some turning out a new manuscript every 30 to 90 days, and yes, they have an editor! What is your advice for finding an editor who is willing to keep up with that kind of output, and working smoothly together on such a fast schedule?

2015-06-08 WriterThis is another circumstance for which working with an established team is helpful, so that the managing editor can coordinate the rapid movement of your project through the four stages of editing. Not to mention that, should one of your editors have a crisis, your project doesn’t come to a grinding standstill while you vet a replacement. Instead, the managing editor can just pick another suitable editor from her supply of pre-approved candidates, and the show goes on.

But the most important thing to remember if you’re turning out manuscripts that quickly is to communicate with your editors. Give them dates by which you’ll have the manuscripts and revisions to them, and discipline yourself to stick to those dates. As a rule, editors like prolific authors–it’s good business, as long as those authors are on predictable schedules, so that the editor can plan for them.

How do editors charge for their services? And what kind of price range should authors anticipate across the industry for a good edit?

Fee details vary a lot from editor to editor. Some prefer to work by the hour while others lean toward flat-rate contracts. Often, they require a hefty deposit–fifty percent is typical–before work on the manuscript begins, especially for new clients. At Quill Pen, we use a flat-rate pricing system that is paid out in several installments over the course of the editing process. For example, if you wanted developmental, line, and copy edits, you might pay 20% before work begins, 30% upon completion of the developmental edit, 35% upon completion of the line edit, and
the remaining 15% upon completion of the copy edit.

For a book of 80,000 words, expect to pay between $1500 and $4000 depending on how polished the manuscript is. Choose an editor like you might choose a tattoo artist. Yes, there may be someone willing to do it more cheaply, but if you release a poorly-edited book in the internet age, it can be difficult to re-establish a credible reputation and you can be permanently marked by bad reviews. A number of my regular clients started out with cheaper editors and quickly realized reputation, quality, and dependability were more important factors than price.

What is your advice for authors on a small budget? How can they get a well-turned-out manuscript while being savvy about their bank accounts?

Use beta readers! I cannot overemphasize the importance of quality beta readers if you’re trying to keep costs down. They can help you fix a lot of a novel’s issues before it gets to the editorial stage, and the more polished a novel is, the less expensive the edit will be. Look for beta readers among people you don’t know or don’t know well. Your mom and your best friend will love your book regardless of that one plot arc that doesn’t make sense, and you need betas who are willing to be brutal.

When you’re discussing your services with a new author, what misconceptions do you find you have to correct? What expectations should they have instead?

2015-06-08 ManuscriptOften, a new client will approach me requesting “copy editing” for their manuscript when it hasn’t ever been evaluated by a professional editor. Most of the time, a copy edit would be a waste of money at that stage.

Sometimes, a client will approach me for an initial edit hoping to release their novel within a month or two, which is unrealistic if they want to publish a high-quality novel.

We try to start our clients out with an evaluation, in which we read the novel and prepare 5-7 pages for the author detailing what works, what doesn’t, and what the book will need before it’s publishable. (This is typically Phase One of the developmental edit.) While new clients often aren’t convinced they need the evaluation, they’re consistently relieved that they opted for it. “I’m so glad I didn’t publish the book with all those problems in it” has become a common refrain among those who thought they just needed copy editing.

What are some good ways for an author to find an editor? (Besides clicking through to your website, of course!)

Word-of-mouth. Talk to your friends in your writing group. Come up with a list of three or four indie writers you admire, and email them to ask who edits their novels. Once you have the names of at least three editors you’d like to speak with, send them each an email detailing your project and asking for a quote. Before you hire anyone, get references and check them. I’m convinced that 90% of editor horror stories could be avoided by checking references.

What are authors’ chief concerns about letting someone take the red pen to their manuscript? How do you answer those concerns?

The pen is mightier than the sword as shown with a writing utensil and a dagger

Some writers feel concerned that an editor might wreak havoc on their voice or push them into changes to the manuscript they don’t feel comfortable with, especially if they’ve had negative experiences with an editor in the past. I find that this fear is typically put to rest once the writer receives the first round of feedback because a good editor partners with a writer to further the writer’s vision for the novel and always preserves the writer’s voice.

Thanks so much for joining us, Catherine. Do you have any final advice or topics I didn’t cover?

Thanks so much for having me. The first thing I’d say to writers is “Finish the draft.” Most aspiring writers never become authors because they spend too much time dreaming and not enough time writing. They start dozens of first drafts and never finish. The hardest hurdle you will overcome is finishing that first draft. Once you’ve done that, you’re invincible.

The second is a refrain that I often repeat on our social media and blog: “Your book is beautiful.” The story burning inside you is lovely because you are lovely, and it is a part of you. Don’t let the naysayers and the critics bring you down. Yes–it still needs some editing because it deserves to be carefully refined until it’s the best version of itself. But it has value and beauty. See it through–you’ll be so glad you did.

Other & Upcoming Posts in This Series

About Our Guest

2015-06-08 Catherine Jones PayneCatherine Jones Payne is a Texas-based editor with three years of professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Wheaton College. She has edited ten published books, including Katie Cross’s bestselling fantasy novel Miss Mabel’s School for Girls, and is particularly seeking fiction that creatively explores meaningful themes in the areas of gender, beauty, and religion. In addition, she is experienced with non-fiction, blogs, and writing aimed at a professional audience. Her passions include rigorous editing, polished prose, and exceptional literature. When she isn’t editing, she can be found reading, drinking Twinings tea, writing her novel, or playing racquetball.

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