My Rolling Edit Process


Jordan Dane

I expect to get a few push backs on this post. Many writers use the “draft” process of editing their book after they get it written. They push to get a first draft done before they edit in several more drafts, but for me, I’ve never been able to do this. There’s a compulsive part of my nature that can’t let my own imperfections remain on the page until the end. If I know my book is riddled with my idiosyncrasies, it would haunt me too much, but that’s just me.

I do what I call “rolling edits” because I want to stay close to the action and character motivation at hand. I still get my daily word count in, but I read and reread my daily new material until I have nothing more to edit. In other words, if I write a chapter on one day, I edit it as I continue to move forward until I consider moving on.

Here’s my edit process:

1.) DELETE WITH A VENGEANCE – My first pass is always to delete and tighten each sentence. To help this process, I usually read aloud. Anything I stumble over gets a redo. I have a tendency to use compound sentences, so I make sure not to have dangling participles or long sentences that are hard to follow. I have a two comma rule. Any sentence that needs more than two commas, should probably be broken apart.

2.) LOOK FOR REPETITION (MORE DELETES) – I look for overused words, redundant wording, repeated phrases or “crutch” words that I fall back on too often. This can change from book to book and each author will have their own verbal handicaps.

3.) ADD EMOTIONAL LAYERING – Every scene has an emotional component to it. I push to add more emotion, even if it seems over the top. In fiction, this works because stories are about triggering emotions that the reader can relate to. If the scene is action packed, I’m looking for those delectable word choices to support the action or short viscerally descriptive sentences that will make the thrill palpable to the reader.

4.) REVISE THE DIALOGUE – I read the scene dialogue (without the narratives) to see if I can imagine the characters in my head and hear their voices. If there is humor in the scene, I work to punch it up or improve the timing (usually by deleting). If there is menace in the exchange, I ramp up the threat.

5.) EDIT THE BODY LANGUAGE – I often add body language in each scene as if I am watching a movie, but books aren’t that visual and I can sometimes overdo certain “crutch” reactions, like too many shrugs or nods. Again this is another opportunity to delete usually and it’s worth having a step to look for this.

6.) SPOT CHECK CHARACTER MOTIVATION – Do the characters’ reactions ring true? What if one of them reacted differently, how would that change my scene. I test my character motivation while I am “in” the scene to make sure it feels authentic. As I go through the book and stay close to each character’s story arc, I want the ability to “feel” a different outcome or twist as it is occurring, rather than waiting until the end to realize I like a different turn to happen and have to rewrite major sections.

7.) LAYER IN SETTING – I like to make sure my setting enhances each scene to infuse the action with a setting that is almost like another character. I love writing stories with a strong sense of world building, to make the reader feel as if they can walk the same streets that my characters do, with all their senses.

8.) REMEMBER THE INTIMACY – If my characters have a spark of attraction (that can have it’s own story arc), there is nothing more titillating than mounting intimacy. A glance, a first touch, can be drawn out so the reader feels everything. This can be construed as #3 (adding emotional layering), but for me, a growing romance should carry its own importance. If you can strip out the romance of a story, and the book no longer makes sense, then you have the right balance. This means that the romance is integral. The lovers are “punished” for wanting to be together and they get into more trouble because of it.

As I’ve mentioned, I keep writing my daily word goals, but continue to edit prior scenes (usually a chapter or two previously written) until I’m content to move on. Because I’m old school, I kill a lot of trees by printing out my edit pages and making notes in the margins. Every night I read what I’ve written before I go to bed. My reward is to get my own work done first before I treat myself to reading someone else’s book. The next morning, I make the changes.

By the time I get to the end, my novel is fully edited by me. I usually make one or two more passes through, to read it as a reader might. But most of the major edits are done. When I’m done, I’m done.

I set my daily word count, depending on the contractual due date. The usual range can be 2500-5000 words per day. My advice to other writers, on setting word count goals, is to take into account your priorities and set realistic goals. Even if you can only squeeze in a page a day, that is still progress and you will eventually get done.

1.) How many of you do something similar? Anything you would add to my list?

2.) If you edit in drafts, what tips do you have to make this draft process more effective?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

40 thoughts on “My Rolling Edit Process

  1. I write a first draft straight through with a goal of five pages a day. Then I go back for about three rounds. The first one is for heavy line editing. The second one is a read for smoothness, repetitions, and inconsistencies. And after an interval away so I can gain a fresh perspective, I’ll often do a third reading to catch anything I’ve missed.

    • You make 3 draft rounds sound easy, Nancy. I know it’s not, but my tendency toward OCD would never allow me to do my edits in drafts.

  2. One of the reasons I struggle with Nanowrimo is because I just can’t switchoff my internal editor. I have to edit as I go. LOL then I have to go through and edit again. Seven years later, I’m still editing and tightening. Striving for perfection is one thing, but I think this borders on OCD 🙁

  3. I edit as I go along as well. I guess I’m anal, but I can’t stand to leave a weak scene behind.

    For me, this is especially so at the beginning, partly because I use Third Person Multiple…I like to get each character’s voice just right. So, for example, in my WIP, A MILLION CLOSED EYES, I’m using 3 POVs to tell the entire story, and each of the first 3 chapters is a different POV. The editing process helps me to refine their voices so that when I’m writing subsequent scenes from their POVs, the writing goes more smoothly.

    Then I don’t write the scenes in order. I write the scenes that I can’t get out of my mind next, e.g., just wrote the 20th scene because the muse wouldn’t let me not write it (two wonderful twists in that scene).

    And the scene that’s on my mind now? The last one, of course, so I will write it next.

    To each his own, so long as it gets done!

    • I can relate to your process, Sheryl. I like your motto: leave no weak scene behind.

      I’ve also jumped ahead to write certain key scenes but that’s not my usual schtick. Whatever works though.

  4. I edit as I go, then I do drafts. Then I edit some more. Then I talk myself into letting it go. And edit some more. I’m not sure if I would call that a process so much as a mess, but it all works out by the end.

  5. I read through each day’s writing on the following day, before I continue writing. That means I edit out the glaring mistakes, and smooth the language, but don’t lose the writing intensity. But that editing is just a finger in the water. After draft one is finished, I put that aside for at least a month to marinade. Then once I have done at least one re-write, I turn to my alpha-readers and their comments are the basis for the final drafts where I apply all the editing that I’ve missed. Wondering now whether your approach is in fact less convoluted – and quicker.

    • If you have tight deadlines, that can make your “marinade” tougher, Roland, although I think there’s merit in distancing yourself after your final draft.

      It can also be a challenge to coordinate getting beta readers comments back. It’s handy to have those GO TO betas who read fast and provide invaluable insight.

      My rolling process makes sense for me. I tend to stay heavily into the book as I go and am pretty much done by the end. With my final read through, I can see where “setting it aside” could give me a fresh perspective (maybe while it’s being read by betas), but once I’m done, my mind is ready for another project.

  6. I am like you and like the rolling edit method. I think that I will make your list part of my routine, though, so that I have a more complete check list as I go through my scenes again. Thanks, Jordan!

  7. I start each writing day by reading and editing the chapters I completed the day before. I find this helps me jump back into the story. And also, I can’t help myself. Knowing there might be (and usually are) glaring errors and writing tics drives me nuts.

    • I get nutters with those same things, Sue. Grrr. This method is more driven by me being picky and unable to focus until I feel comfortable moving on. The best part is what you mentioned, being able to jump back or stay in the story. You go, girl.

  8. Jordan, don’t let Jim Bell know I said this (mum’s the word), but I don’t write to a word count. But I still get the work done.
    Sort of like you, I revise as I go, reading and revising the preceding scene, or sometimes the whole chapter, before starting the next one. There have been occasions when I’ve done 10K words, then said, “This isn’t working,” so I start over and change the premise, the characters, whatever I come up with to fix the problem. And on the final couple of edits, I do all the touch-ups you mention–for example, I have a tendency to forget to describe the characters (but, after all, I know what they look like).
    Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Jordan, don’t let Doc Mabry know I said this (mum’s the word) but I eat red meat with plenty of fat in it.

    But with the writing, I cut the fat from the day before and then move on. I finish a draft and let it cool for at least 3 weeks. Then I print a hard copy and read it through as if I were a consumer holding a new book by a suave, good-looking author. I take minimal notes, mostly to mark areas to look at later, just wanting to get the overall feel of the story and characters. Big picture stuff.

    Then I revise that draft and that’s the one my first editor, Mrs. B, gets. More revisions after that, then beta readers….then a pro editor.

    And definitely that weekly quota, retired physicians to the contrary notwithstanding.

    • Ha! I see you have something else in common with the good doctor. You have lovely beta readers.

      I’m glad you clarified your process, Jim. I like many of yout elements, including the steak. Thank you.

  10. Jordan, great list. Very helpful. I’ve printed it out.

    I use a similar process, and like to think this is another way of writing the scene, even if I’m using the “draft process.” I’m not smart enough to get all those components you listed into the scene the first time I write it.

    And, as a not-yet-retired physician, I have a weekly (not daily) word quota. And I eat red meat. I do trim the fat.

    Thanks for a great post.

  11. I tend to write very fast when I’m in the zone. However, I’ve usually hand written most of the deep emotional conflicts within a relationship (I write romantic comedy and a paranormal futuristic thriller series) before I even begin to type the work. I can have two or even three full A4 notebooks on the story filled by this point. I also use index cards with character descriptions of hair/eye color, any personal ‘tics’, foibles etc. (Comes in handy when writing a lengthy series). So really I’ve handwritten the first draft with inserts etc., before I sit down to type. I’m a touch typist (100 wpm) and can hammer out word count up to 8K a day when I’m on a roll. My system is to review the work done yesterday focusing on dialogue and scene structure. Before I begin I have a very clear idea what I need to convey in the particular scene(s) I’m writing. And I keep a close eye on the series ARC, too. When I want to keep going but my internal critic is having a nervous breakdown over construction of a sentence I place a #tag at that point in the work and make a note, a simple step that stops my internal critic in its tracks. #tags are easy to find during editing. My revision process is to go through the ‘final’ work at least three times looking at specific areas, namely bump up the valid emotional intensity/conflicts, ensure character dialogue/scene/sequel structure is tight. Then I’ll do a grammar/spellcheck. I then leave the work for maybe a month or more or less while I write the next book in the series (scene outlines/dialogue/character notes already written by hand) and let my subconscious mull over the storyline and series. I write in two genres, soon to be three, and at the moment have about twenty-eight notepads filled with notes and world building etc. Plus two full index card boxes filled with a variety of VIP material. Inspiration can strike me at any time so I travel with little notebooks and pens even when working in the garden. My H finds it all fascinating when my ear detaches from my head to listen in to conversations in restaurants or cafes. When I’m in full flow I have a daily word count of a minimum of two thousand words, but I always exceed it. And I always do a word count during editing, too, to make me feel as if I’m achieving something. Don’t know if I’m lucky or not but I’m one of those very rare writers who need to ‘add’ words rather than cut because of the way I write. I only send the completed work out to my editors when I feel it’s ‘done’. However, I do talk to them (I have one for each genre) on the phone on a regular basis. After sixteen books I know what will pass muster and the work they receive they say is ‘pretty clean’. Once I’ve worked on revisions, which can be a short or lengthy process depending on the story, and fixed all issues, the book then goes to betas. The final stage is readying it for publication including formatting – at this point it goes to two professional proof readers. When it comes back from them, I and two betas read the book on Ereading devices – Kindle, iPad, Nook, Kobo. Once we’ve fixed any niggles it’s again spell/grammar checked to ensure no errors have been introduced during fixing said niggles. It’s published. This process might sound pretty lengthy but it works for me and it works for my readers. After the eBook’s launched with no reports of niggles, that’s when we create the POD books.

    • You definitely have a thorough and detailed process, CC. It’s working for you.

      In my YAs, I tend to be more of an eavesdropper (or stalker). Love to watch teens interact in a group. Better than any research book.

      I like your #tag idea for those stubborn niggles.

      Thank you. Good luck with your series.

  12. I like the idea of editing as you go. This reminds me of Dean Wesley Smith’s technique of cycling — which he defines as going back and reading what he has just written to get back in the flow to continue writing. When he does this he ‘fixes’ anything he sees wrong and adds (or subtracts) to his words. He says he often does this every page or two. He is not organized in what he looks for the way you are, and combines your steps. Intuitively I feel that this would be a good way to write. When you finish the book and going over the last scene, you would be done with the book and off to the next one.

  13. Couldn’t agree more about reading aloud. That’s really the only way to be sure. The eye missing things on the screen, your brain sometimes reads the sentence you meant instead of the one you wrote. But reading aloud you just can’t miss them. My wife and I started reading my MS two nights ago, after both of us and my agent had been over it dozens of times. And – boom! – mistakes have jumped out, three cases where the words were all spelled right but it was just wrong, and I’d have been embarrassed if anyone else had seen them.

    • I find typos on published works from big houses. I make note on my kindle sometimes. Even with plenty of resources and a committee of copy editors, stuff still happens. That’s why I can’t read my books when they’re released. I’d hate to find a typo. Ugh.

  14. Well done here (and I’m not talking about the meat we eat, which is suddenly at the center of this discussion… my wife tells me it’s always about the food for me, so I guess I can relate). I tend to be like you, Jordan, I pound on polish on a scene before I move on, and then come back to the scene in the next few days because it always reads differently as time passes. Because I’m an avid story planner, the scene is written from ground zero in context to the bigger picture, which allows a “mission-driven” sensibility to the scene itself, knowing it’s context (relative to structural placement) and what it needs to accomplish expositionally (I love that word, but I guess I made it up because there’s always that annoying little red line underneath it; I keep it anyhow). That really facilitates an “in the moment” edit, making it shine knowing it’s done its job functionally.

  15. Jordan,
    Thanks for the post.
    I do light editing during the first draft. I get each chapter the best I can then I bring it to my writers group. After their notes, I rewrite the scene. But I don’t kill myself to get it absolutely right because I know, like Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be back.” If I’m not satisfied, I’ll leave myself a note in bold so that on the next draft I’ll be sure to look for ways to better the scene. Since I’m a pantser, I don’t know where I’m always going so I give myself the leeway of not knowing at that moment with the knowledge I can/will add wants needed on the next draft.
    – Stephen

  16. {{checking in after a long absence, from the northern Michigan woods. Am here to help my sister move and get settled and we couldn’t get the friggin cable/internet people here to get us properly connected until yesterday. Which was actually kinda nice…but back to reality}}

    Jordan, I feel like you are channeling me! I, too, can’t write straight through. I have tried….lord, how I have tried…but I can’t do it. I like your description of “rolling edit.” That works for me!

    Thanks. I feel better.

    • Omg, I feel more legitimate after your endorsement, Kris. I know Kathryn is a rolling edit person too.

      I’m envious of your northern Michigan hideaway. Even if you’re there to help sis move, it’s a beautiful location, the upper Yooper. I’m moving too. Kindred spirits

  17. Your process sounds very much like mine. I print each scene (hard copy gives a different perspective) and read it in bed, making notes on the obvious things to fix: unclear speaker, repeated words, sloppy transitions, etc. Then, when it’s time to work the next day, I have a running start, and if I’ve spotted questions or errors in continuity, I have to go back and fix them right then, not after I’ve hit ‘the end.’ I tried NaNo for the first (and last) time this year. I HAVE to edit as I go.

    • Hey there, Terry. Good to hear from you. I couldn’t do Nano as intended. I like the idea of total focus on grinding wordcount, but I’d have to squeeze in my rolling edit process. Mea culpa.

  18. Ms Dane, I’m certain there is an Irish blessing for you who are so afflicted by whatever spirit insists that you get the pages right before we can go on.

    I am afflicted by the same spirit–and it is difficult to permit myself to indulge in the same day editing that goes on in my head when the plethora of so many (presume that means all, every single one of them) teachers, fellow writers, and wannabes who follow the dictate of GET THE STORY ON THE PAGE AND mooooooovvvvv ON.

    I have difficulty doing that. Because I cannot stand to see that my character simply sneezed or expectorated. I have to see that “He sneezed it all over her, right in the middle of dessert, right before he could get the bandanna out of vest pocket.”

    I admit it. I freeze. I cannot go on. I HAVE TO GET IT RIGHT BEFORE I CAN moooooooove ON.

    Only then can I know that Foster-Harris probably smiled, there in Rebel heaven. (He used to tell us that he was the last rebel, and when he got to Rebel heaven, he was going to tell them to nail the gate shut–there weren’t any more comin’.)

    Well, there might be two more headed that way one day. You and I. That is, if the key to gettin’ into rebel heaven is to not go on with the story–until you get it right. You know, Faith and begorrah may simply mean, “Don’t moooooove on until you get it right.”

    • But then again, Jim, we could both be bloody bonkers. That’s a distinct possibility. Thank you for the chuckle…and the commiseration.

  19. I do both. I do the rolling edit before I start the new writing but I also go back and do several drafts.I think both approaches have their merits.

    • Yes, I believe whatever process you have, that makes you strive for the best you can be, is a good one. I’m inspired by all the comments. Thank you, Annie.

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