Now that you have taken a break, it's time to begin the most difficult phase of writing: editing. Before you get into the nitty-gritty of editing for grammar and spelling, and even for content, we have to revisit an old friend: word count.


It's okay, go ahead and scream if you like

Yeah, I heard that groan. How many times do we have to revisit this, you're likely asking yourself. Well, given the fact that we have time and time again should clue you in to how important it is to have an outline. You know, color-coded and everything.

In general, most fiction novels are 85,000 words long on average. Remember your specific range depends on type of fiction, and you were aiming for the middle of that range. But what if your first draft is woefully short or overly-long? Since we're assuming this is your first novel you can't get away with a George R.R. Martin-sized monster. Ever notice how in your favorite series the first few books are so much shorter? That's because new authors have to keep it tight. Once you sell a few million, that's when your editor lets you go nuts. And keep in mind those longer ones usually aren't as good as the first on to find out why.

Let's start first with those of you who fell woefully short of your goal of total word count. Revisit what it should be and be aware you're only short if you're within 1,000 of your minimum.  For example, let us say you wrote a category romance. It should be between 55,000 and 75,000 words when completely finished. So if you wrote 56,000 or less words, you need to add some.

Why 1,000 over the minimum? Because in editing you want to take out more than you add. The sad truth of editing is it should be more cuts than adds. Think of it like cutting wood: it's easy to plane it, but damn hard to make it thicker, hence the old adage "measure twice, cut once." If you've been following along you've measured twice.

Watch Emo Phillips' scene in the film UHF for a full explanation of the simile


Being short now however is not a failing. You just have to add some to trim it down later, like gluing two pieces of wood together so you can plane it later. Now, the first step is to make sure your outline matches your story. So pull out that color-coded outline now and make sure it matches up to what you actually wrote. In the writing process things can change, but it's important to have a matching outline for many reasons.

Okay, now that they match what you need to do is look at all the major external conflicts that are marked. Write down the page number where they occur as well as the word count at that point. Yes, this is a lot of work, but I did warn you editing was a pain in the ass, so suck it up.

Now that they are marked, tell me, is it pretty even? These should occur about every 20 pages, on average. What's that, they don't? BINGO! That's a common problem. Major external conflict points are ideal places to end a chapter and begin a new one. Ever read one of those books where one chapter is 23 pages and the next two are 5? In retrospect those were pretty shitty books, weren't they? You didn't see Dickens pulling that shit. So you're going to have to fix it. If those points don't line up with chapter breaks YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG. Major external conflict is what brings us those 'oh my god!" moments that make perfect mini-cliffhangers. Even if there is a ton of space between two major external conflicts a major internal conflict can suffice. So any chapter longer than 25 pages should get broken up by a major internal conflict.

Look at your outline and see how you can pad more minor internal and external conflict along with dialog into the smaller chapters. Once you add enough those shorter chapters edge up closer to the average and the better your pacing is. Bonus: now you have new material to add that will get your word count where it needs to be.

But what if you're short and your chapters do average 20 pages? Well, my friend, you need more chapters. Let's revisit the Hero Cycle: 12 steps to a plot. How many steps did you use? If you're short, likely you used 9 or less. Well then, which ones did you skip? Probably the first few, which you told in flashback. Guess what? You have to add them!

Add the missing steps to your outline. What's that? Your hero has all 12 steps but you're still short? Well, what about the villain? He needs 12 steps too, damn it! You skipped some here, so add them! Plot it out on your outline, return to your manuscript and add it.

If you skipped the beginning steps because you wanted an in media res start, fine. But those steps should be referenced in passing or short flashback somewhere. Make it a long flashback now, show us what happened, don;t just have the hero or villain tell us. No one said your novel had to be linear, so this can come in in the middle. If you're short you need to add more external conflict, more internal conflict, or more steps to either the hero's or villain's 12 step path. This will fix any problem of being short.


Now what if you went over? Using the category romance range of 55,000-75,000 anything over 75,500 must be trimmed now. If you're 500 or more words over the upper range, it's time to get brutal. We simply do the opposite as above.

Go back to your color-coded outline. Write the page numbers of each major external conflict and note chapter endings. They should coincide. If they don't, again, you fucked up bud, time to go fix it. Now the first step is to see how long your chapters are. If any are over 25 pages long shorten them. Look at minor internal and eternal conflicts contained in that chapter on your outline. Pick however many you need to delete to shorten the chapter but keep the plot sensical. 

What if the chapters are all less than 25 pages long but it's too long? Well, you have too many chapters. This is gonna be a hard one. Rather than start but cutting a chapter, go right to your protagonist and antagonist's journeys. Of the 12 steps, how many do each have? If they both have 12, try cutting your antagonist down to 9. Gloss over the 3 you cut or discuss them in flashbacks.

Still too long? Well, bring your hero down to 9 in the same manner. Still too long? Well, now we have to ixnay a chapter. This will not be easy, my friend.

Sit down with your outline. look for any chapter break noted by a major internal conflict instead of a major external one. Take the chapter before and the one after and mash them together into one. To keep it at 25 pages or less you're going to need to remove half the minor internal and external conflicts of both chapters. Do this on your outline first to make sure it makes sense. If it does, go and delete them from the manuscript. Do this for any chapters ending with a major internal conflict and not external.

Perhaps you have a break denoted by minor external conflict. Mash those chapters together as instructed above until you get under 500 words over the upper limit of your range.

Is all this work making you depressed and driving you to drink? Congratulations, you're officially an author


By using your color-coded outline, making sure chapters are broken up by major external conflict, you will ensure a tight pace of your book and a healthy word count. This is why most authors don't denote chapter while writing. Usually at this first stage of editing is where you decide the chapter breaks.It makes this process easier to wait until editing to do so. However, you can see we've been working under the assumption you already put in your chapter headings. Every first-time author does. Next time you'll know better.

By following these steps your writing will be tight and well-paced. Your next step will be editing for content, and now that you have made the manuscript tight it's going to be much easier. The good news is that if you did as I directed and aimed for the middle of your range you can pretty much skip this step. Still, in every case, use your color-coded outline to make sure the chapter breaks are at major external conflicts, and fix it if they are not. 

As a final note, if you find major external conflict in the middle of a chapter, just make sure the chapter break doesn't come after that at major internal conflict. If so, you're going to have to delete or add minor internal and external conflict to make sure your chapters are ending where they should be. The best news is that by doing all this work the next step is going to be very easy for those of you who were over or under. For those of you who listened to me and aimed for the middle of the range, your next step will be where the heavy lifting comes in. Good luck!