When Do You Know It’s The Right Time To Edit?

What seems a straightforward question doesn’t always mean there’s a straightforward answer.
Even when a writer has completed a story, it’s not always clear when he or she should edit. That’s because a lot of writers will simply go back and tinker with various chapters, which means the writing process carries on without any definitive break or proper editing. This is common with new writers. They write, then go back a few chapters and change things, then carry on writing, and then they go back and change things again and so on, in a perpetual cycle, so nothing constructive gets done.
Other writers reach the end, but then immediately start thinking about the unresolved issue in chapter 14. Or there’s a subplot that they forgot to address. Or they should have added something in that all important action scene between the hero and the villain.  Immediately they go back to add and change things. And because they change things in the proceeding chapters, they then find they have to change things in latter chapters in order for the story to fit.
But that isn’t editing. It’s toying with the story and it doesn’t help. These behaviours mean that the writer doesn’t understand when it’s the right time to edit.
The right time is when you’ve finished the story and written the last chapter. But the last chapter doesn’t mean the last chapter where we write ‘The End.’ That’s how it is for the majority of writers who write their novels chronologically, or linear, so the last chapter really means the last one. There are exceptions to this, because some writers write out of sequence, known as non-linear writing. They sometimes know how the story ends (sort of) and write the last chapter first, or they write the middle sections first.
Some writers are scene writers. In other words, they write lots of difference scenes, not all in sequence, and then weave these into the main story to make a full novel. But they still have to write all the other chapters, so when they’re all written, regardless of the sequence, and they write whatever the last chapter might be, then it’s time to edit. They’ve reached the end. That’s it.
That means instead of immediately going back to tinker with things, writers need to leave it, completely, otherwise they won’t be able to separate themselves from the story well enough to form an objective perspective during editing, which is vital to the overall process.
The urge to fix that issue in chapter 14 or the hero needs to kiss the girl on page 40 might be there, but writers have to ignore it. Once the last chapter is written, it means that will be the right time to properly edit, where those issues and flaws and things to add can be completed at the editing stage.
Some writers just can’t distinguish when to stop writing and start editing, even after they’ve finished the last chapter. They have to learn not to go back and don’t tinker with things.
Instead, writers should put the novel aside and leave it for several weeks at least.  Some writers leave it for a month or two, even longer. But at some point they have to step away from it completely. This is just as important as the actual writing process – it’s necessary to allow the mind to refocus and not think about the story, so that when they do return to it, their minds will be refreshed, focused and able to see the story objectively.
After several weeks break from the story, they should do a read through. This is a good exercise because it shows how the story actually reads from a reader’s perspective. It will become apparent just how good the story is – does it make sense or does it jump all over the place and go off at a tangent? Do the characters leap from the page; are they believable? Do the subplots make sense? Are there any? Are there gaping plot holes? Is it just a pile of jumbled rubbish?
Writers don’t notice these things when they’re writing the story. They’re too close to the work, too involved and too absorbed to pay attention. And this is why it’s important to leave the work and come back to it after a long break.
The second read through is where writers make notes and look for flaws, inconsistencies, plot points, errors, characterisation, the correct mix of dialogue, narrative and descriptions and the usual grammar problems etc. This formulates the first edit and redrafting stage, then the second and third and so on.
The right time to edit is when you finish the last chapter (whatever sequence that may be), regardless how incomplete it might feel, or how bad you think it is. The first draft is always incomplete, inconsistent, full of flaws, errors and rubbish scenes etc.  That’s why we edit until it is complete.
The more you write and become experienced, the more you will understand when it’s the right time to edit. Remember that going back and tampering with the story isn’t editing, nor is it finishing your story. There’s a simple process involved:
Write the story>> Complete the end>>Leave It>>Read Through No. 1>>Read Through No. 2  = EDIT.

Next week: Does the sequence of how you write matter?



  1. Just found your advice very instructive. I am a new writer. I have written 70k plus words now and I am struggling to knit my story together. Part of it stems from unresolved issues. By that I am not entirely clear how I want my story to end or how many subplots I want to include. I started editing my earlier chapters but really I have been prevaricating and realise now that I just need to take the bull by the horns and write my final chapter and make a few decisions about the plot. Thanks so much for your timely advice.

    1. Hi Marie,

      Glad you find the site useful. Your dilemmas are not uncommon with new writers, so you're not alone. You're doing the right thing by NOT editing. Get that last chapter done - it doesn't matter if it doesn't make much sense or doesn't quite tie up things, because all that will be ironed out when you read through and edit properly.

      Once you've done it, leave the story for a few weeks. Use that time to write a story plan or a chapter brief - whose story is it? What is the story really about? What will the main character accomplish? What motivates him/her? How will he or she change? What themes help to support the story? How will the subplots help the story? More importantly, how will it end and what will ultimately achieve?

      With some new ideas from this, you'll be more focused and ready to tackle the story when you return to it.

      Hope that helps.


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