Fiction editing: lessons from chapter one

I’ve been editing my academic work for years.  I’ve edited approximately a million papers, a masters thesis, dissertation pieces, and countless student submissions.  I’m good at it.

I figured I would be good at fiction editing, too.


Well, to be self-compassionate, I wouldn’t say I’m straight up bad at fiction editing.  But I would definitely say that I was being coy with myself when I set my expectations, and that chapter one has provided the rudest of awakenings.

Awakenings provide lessons, though.  So, in the spirit of education, here’s what I’ve learned so far about editing…

Lesson One: Your characters will be strangers


If this is your first big piece of fiction (and maybe even if it’s your third or fourth) you’re going to look back at your first chapter and wonder what the hell is even going on with these characters you thought you knew so well.

A reminder: You do.  You do know them.  But you didn’t know them when you wrote your first chapter in, let’s say, 2011, in a moment of creative desperation between yet another round of historiography papers.

So, buck up, fill in the character shells, fix the hair colors, cut the people who don’t belong anymore, and necromance the shit out of all the dead dialogue.  Your characters are worth it.

Lesson Two: Things will not go as quickly as you want

All the sites I researched said that a good editor averages about six pages an hour.  Based on my academic work, I put myself into this “good editor” category.  I figured I would be about half way done with the book by now.


After about a week of editing, I am just now finishing chapter two.

Again, maybe if this is your fourth book and you’re some kind of wizard, you’ll only have to fix a bit of grammar and brush up on tone.  But if it’s your first book, you can expect to fix any and all of the following in your first chapter:

Characters: As mentioned above, your characters will need to be filled out and reconfigured, so that they look and talk like themselves.

Foreshadowing: Your plot will have likely changed so much, the events you foreshadowed no longer take place.  Make sure that your foreshadowing is both accurate and light.

Exposition: You almost certainly info-dumped.  I info-dumped for about ten pages, disguising it all in god awful dialogue.  Reading it again was like watching a terrible magician throw his rabbit into the stage pit and try to pass it off as a disappearing act.  Cut everything you can, and put whatever’s left into an actual scene that suits your characters.

Setting: For some reason, I thought that starting my book in an ordinary room in an ordinary school on an ordinary day was a great idea.  It was not a great idea.  If you’ve done something similar, add some sparkle into your book now that you have the confidence to do it properly.  Start with action.

Hook: Your hook is likely going to read like a racehorse that trips right outside of the gate–eager.  so so eager. and embarrassing as hell.  Take a step back and write a hook that fits with the overall tone of the book, as you now know it, creating a sustainable tension.

Garble: I don’t really know what else to call it–all the extra words, looks, motions, descriptions, and stuff.  It all has to go, like weeding a garden to make room for flowers. Yes, even if the weeds are pretty.

Lesson three: Don’t be scared to change things

I spent the first evening of editing sort of paralyzed in giddy fear.  I knew that I had written what was on the page, and that, therefore, I was allowed to change it.  But watching all the words disappear from the word document terrified me.

Would I have enough left?  Would it be good enough?  What did it mean that I had written so much stuff that had to go? Had I wasted my time? Was I wasting my time now, with rewriting?

Who am I kidding with this, am I even an author?


Calm down.

This is not an existential crisis, this is editing.

Change what needs to be changed, trust your intuition, and move on.  Your speed will drastically improve.

Lesson four: Have fun

With all of the fixes you have to make, all the problems spinning around you, all the grimace-worthy prose on the page, it’s hard to remember that you should be having fun with this process.

Not only that, you should be proud of the work you’re doing.  Because, dammit,  you wrote a book.


There it is.  Right there.  And you’re making it better.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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