How Much Does a Book Change From First Draft to Final Copy?

No writer that I know has ever written a perfect book on the first attempt. Most writers finish the first draft with the full expectation that they will self-edit and get feedback from others. Even if a writer somehow manages to produce a “perfect” first draft, once we get a book contract, there’s very little chance the book will escape a publisher’s in-house rewriting and editing process.

Yes, change is inevitable. But how much change can the average writer expect?

Heather Sunseri recently asked me: How much did The Preacher’s Bride change from the first draft to the final copy?

Although every writer’s editing experience will vary, I’m guessing my experience with The Preacher’s Bride is fairly typical.


After I finished writing the first draft of The Preacher’s Bride, I took approximately twelve weeks to self-edit. My self-editing process has evolved more over time, but I’ve mostly used Three Simple Stages of Self-Editing: First substantive edits (big picture changes), then line edits (scene and paragraph changes), and finally, copy edits (smaller detail changes).

Of course the three types of edits will overlap at times, but starting with the big issues and working my way to small problems, helps me stay focused. I can usually cut and change upward of 5000 words during this stage.

Outside Editing

Once I completed my self-editing, The Preacher’s Bride had the input of a several other outside critiques including a beta reader, freelance editor, and three judges (from a contest entry which consisted of the first 15 pages). During this stage of the process, I probably cut or changed close to 5,000 words. It was at this point I completely rewrote the opening chapter into the current version (and Chapter 1 is now available to preview on my Books Page).

It was after these edits, that my book finaled in a nationwide contest for unpublished authors and garnered the attention of my agent. She felt my story was solid enough to send on to a publisher without her edits, and she was able to attain a 3 book deal with Bethany House.

In-House Editing

A team of editors at my publishing house read The Preacher’s Bride and came up with a list of things they thought needed to be changed. Many of these changes had to do with story elements they didn’t feel fit their Bethany House readership. Here are a few of rewrites I made at that point:

• I had to re-do the ending of the book. Originally, I had my main character John stay in prison (to replicate what had happened in real life). But I had to have a Happily-Ever-After and so needed to come up with a believable way to get him home by the end of the book.

• I had to add in a new character arc for my hero. At first I had John struggling intensely with the grief of dead wife. But this made him a bit whiny and negative. So I toned down his grief and had to revamp his arc into a struggle with work being more important than his family.

• I had to clarify some of the historical conflict and make sure I wasn’t overwhelming the readers with the Anglican versus Puritan issues.

• I had to take out a subplot thread regarding John’s past and how he ended up with the scars on his back. My editors thought my first reason was too contrived and so I had to figure out another way for him to get his scars that was more believable and fit the story.

I could literally fill pages with all the in-house changes I had to do. Some were more major than others, and in the end I likely changed up to 15,000 more words between two rounds of substantive edits. Then the book went on to receive in-house copy and line edits as well.

In all, from first draft to final copy, the story slowly and pain-stakingly evolved into what it is today. At least a full quarter of the story is completely different from the first draft, if not more. Some of the changes were chopped out in large sections, but most were chipped out in bits here and there.

How did it feel having to make so many changes? Of course some of the changes were easy, especially the early ones. But there were others that I found much more difficult to want to make, particularly some of my publisher’s requests. At the time, I wondered if I was “compromising” my story and making it into someone else’s.

Now in hindsight, especially in light of what readers are beginning to say about the book, I can see the wisdom in ALL the changes my editors asked to make. The story is giving readers a satisfying reading experience, which in turn makes me very, very satisfied.

We would all do well to have the attitude, “I’ll do whatever it takes to make my story better.” And we can do that by staying humble, teachable, and hardworking.

What about you? How much of your story has changed over time from your first draft? And how much are you willing to change and where do you set the limit?


  1. GREAT post today Jody. Love the last line. So very true.

    My books haven't gone through an in-house editorial experience yet and they already change a ton from first draft to last draft. I plow through my first draft though, so I expect to have lots of rewriting and revising to do.

  2. I am pre-published as of now. (I like that term better than just not published.)So I haven't experienced those kind of edits yet, but I did NaNoWriMo for the first time last year.

    The idea is to get the first draft on paper then worry about edits and revisions. Someone suggested keeping your first draft and making all edits in a separate document so you could see the vast difference. It was quite eye opening.

    My basic story stayed the same as did the ending, but a few minor characters lost their cameos and several scenes underwent major overhauls. Plus, I found two gaping plot holes!

    Interesting post today!

  3. I'm not published yet, but I know that from my own editing, I don't think my novel even has the same story line as the first draft did! :o)

  4. Great post. I'm not published yet, but I definitely know the perils of editing. After 5 drafts, my WIP doesn't even look anything like the 1st draft.

  5. Thanks for sharing this process--I've always been curious about the editorial experience with a publishing house.

  6. If you don't mind a piggy-back question on Heather's...where DID you set the limits on changes? And what changes were you NOT willing to make, that your publisher/editors wanted you to make?

    ~ Betsy

  7. Very interesting to hear what changed in The Preacher's Bride, Jody. Thanks for sharing!

    I recently had an agent key in on a couple words in my m/s that made it sound like chick lit. Those were easy fixes to make, and I didn't feel like they compromised my story at all. I figure they're the industry experts, and it sounds like in your case, they were right on in their suggestions.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience. I have a picture book ms that I doubt has more than 10 original words from the first draft. And that's even before the publishing house input! It's comforting to know that all writers face the same challenges in "cutting our stories out of the marble."

  9. Jody, I just read The Preacher's Bride this weekend and LOVED IT. It's not often I can put a book down and just say "Wow, that was amazing". Your writing and skill is obvious and rich and I enjoyed every single minute of reading. I even mentioned it on my blog today :)

    And great post today, as usual. I can't wait to see more from you and to see where your career is headed.

  10. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make my story better.”

    “I’ll do whatever it takes to make my story better.”

    “I’ll do whatever it takes to make my story better.”

    ~ Wendy

  11. Thanks, Jody; it's so helpful to hear these things. As an unpublished author, the only contact I have had with editors is at conferences, but every time I have received a critique from an editor, I have taken their advice. It hasn't always been easy, but each time it has made my manuscripts stronger and I am truly grateful for their comments.

  12. The most recent story I just submitted, changed from about 107,000 words to 54,000. I switched it from a mystery to a heart-rendering contemporary romance. Then I went and changed the main character from the one guy to the other guy, which made me add about 20,000 words, so I probably ended up deleting 80,000total. It's become one of those pieces I can't give up on now...I've put waaaaay too much work into it.

    Hey, I finished your story this weekend. Loved it. Discovering it was about a real couple at the end made it even more powerful. Thank you so much.

  13. Thank you so much as always for providing this insider look into the publishing process. I've changed many parts of my story so many times, I would hardly recognize the first chapter if I went back and looked at it now.

  14. Hi Jody. I haven't experienced a publisher's input yet, or had to make changes based on an editor's suggestions, but I did edit down a 325K novel to 128K, over a series of drafts, and of course a lot of material had to be sacrificed. Some of it was easy to let go. Some of it was hard, and even now as that novel is being shopped around by my agent, I mourn a couple of scenes and catch myself thinking... maybe I can slip them back in later and no one will notice! ;)

  15. A humble, teachable heart will help an author go a long way.

    I'm not published in fiction yet, but my WIPs go through many changes before I'm satisfied enough to send it to the next level.

    Great post, Jody. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Sounds like lots of changes but all good ones that made the story better. I'm glad for the happily ever after ending you allowed. :O)

  17. I always enjoy learning about some of the 'background' to any movie or book.... so I enjoyed you sharing some of the process of your own book's journey.

  18. Thanks for answering my question, Jody! And what an awesome and inspiring answer. I like to think I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make my story the best it can be. But I'll admit. It gets harder and harder the longer I've worked on the same story.

    Thanks again!

  19. Beautiful post, Jody! I think keeping the idea in your head that you want to make the story the best story that it can be really helps when considering story changes that people are suggesting or even ones that you might come up with yourself. And keeping in mind that a story is a growing and changing being.

  20. I bet this was so hard for you, Jody. But I love your humble, teachable attitude. May it be mine when I have to go through this process with my books!

    BTW, the new ending is one of my favorite elements of your story--I love the clever twist! Thanks for being open on that one--it added so much delight to the ending. Big, satisfied sigh.


  21. I'm smack in the middle of the substantive edits now, Jody, and it is really hard for me. I'm using all my editors advice but I do add or delete aspects of the book that I think are important. If then my editor thinks it still has to go or something has to change it will. This is definetly at learning process but a writer could really hurt themselves without a teachable spirit. You are a good example for each of us. Thank you for sharing.

  22. I found this post extremely interesting, Jody. I'm glad Heather asked the question! I had no idea so many changes had occurred, but I agree that in the end the story was very satisfying, and to me, that's how you hook readers and turn them into fans. Lifelong fans.

    I love your attitude about doing whatever it takes to improve our writing. We must remain humble, teachable, and hardworking. Wise words indeed.

  23. Betsy asked: If you don't mind a piggy-back question on Heather's...where DID you set the limits on changes? And what changes were you NOT willing to make, that your publisher/editors wanted you to make?

    My Answer: Great question, Betsy! I think that I have been willing to change *almost* everything they've believed needed changing. Since I'm the novice, I've really trusted their judgement. And as I said, in hindsight, I can see that they've been right. I had a hard time wanting to change the ending particularly. But now I'm glad that I did.

    Now that's not to say I blindly went with EVERYTHING. I had a LOT of dialog with my editors during the course of the editing process, and we came to compromises on a number of issues--areas where I was able to offer new ideas.

  24. Since I've read your wonderful book, this blog post was fascinating to me. When we read a book, we sometimes forget that this finished, polished beauty went through many changes.

    Even though it ended differently than the real life story, I liked the way you mentioned that in your author's note.

    This makes me feel slightly better that my first drafts are not perfect!

  25. This is really great AND helpful. It's so fun to see how books evolve and change with time. For me, I had to write my first draft very quickly (less than two months) so I relied on my sister and a close friend to do line edits and copy edits. Once I turned in the manuscript, I made some significant changes. My editor had me:

    1. Redo chapter 1 to make it more "positive" (I'm not a big fan of pregnancy so I guess I sounded a bit bitter)

    2. Add 3 small chapter sections about sex and 3 about relationships (Ack... I wasn't sold on this but my editor thought it was important)

    3. Move my chapter 7 up to chapter 3 and move all of the other chapters back.

  26. Jody, your blog post is pretty much perfect timing for me. I'm submitting my ms to Rachelle and Beacon Hill on Wednesday. The only problem is...I WISH you were a nonfiction writer so I could pick your brain a little more.

    Thankfully, erin answered a few of my questions.

    I look forward to purchasing your book, once I get this manuscript-monkey off my back.

    Congrats to you!

    ...and we share another writer-friend: Keli Gwynn!

  27. I loved this post. In talking to another friend, her agent wanted her to include another POV. She was reluctant at first, but now that she's done it, is totally happy.

    Thanks for the insight.

  28. Thank you for this, Jody! I really appreciate you talking about your journey!

  29. I'm always interested in how other people approach particular i'm interested in the in-house editing - how much you had to change and how that made you feel. Thank you so much for being so open about it. Not many writers talk about these aspects.

  30. Thank you for this great information. It tells me that I need to always get used to change in a book.

  31. I've wondered about this - even thought about it while reading your book. I appreciate the info.
    Thanks and blessings,

  32. Thanks for sharing this. I've done agent-requested revisions and editor ones (w/o a sale), and it's so true about how even the changes that don't feel right at first end up working out for the best...either because the editor was right and/or because through revising you make it work for you too.

  33. Your posts are always so enlightening. So I shouldn't feel bad that I brought a character back to life after an editor told me I had too many dead bodies? I was feeling guilty. like he should have stayed dead. But he is grateful, I guess. Back to edits ...

  34. Thanks for sharing the process.

    I can only imagine how much different my book is going to look if/when it's finally published.

  35. I'm still working through the self-edit stage, and I think I've changed about 50% of the novel over the last 6 weeks.

    I believe the most encouraging thing you said was that looking back over the changes that your editors asked for, you believe those changes made the book better. I really hope to have that much faith in an editor someday.

  36. Great info! I just got the book deal, so I'm not sure the exact revisions my editor will want--though she said they would be minor. But I did do two major rounds of revision with my agent before she submitted it. The first one cutting 20k words (and since I was right at my word count originally), I had to REPLACE 20k words--which I did over a a highly-caffeinated two weeks. Then in the second round we decided to tone down the focus on my suspense element and focus more on the romance part, so it was another pretty significant change.

    But after all the work, I was SO much happier with the book--so totally worth all the work. Writing is a team effort! :)

  37. What an honest, in-depth post. Thank you.

    I'm willing to do substantial rewrites and revisions, but only if they don't conflict with my own personal beliefs. I couldn't write my characters to act without faith or integrity--it's just not something I'd be willing to do.

  38. Hi Jody -

    Thank you for giving us a detailed look at the editorial process. I loved the Preacher's Bride, and it's scheduled for a recommendation on my blog.

    For me, it's great to digest these realities a little at a time rather than having the five-course meal put in front of me in one sitting.

    Susan :)

  39. I write picture books, none published yet. The first one I finished took about four months to write the first draft. Nearly fourteen revisions later, it's almost finished. I'm waiting for my crit group to say, "Yes! That's IT!" I do wonder what an in-house editor might want to change. But that may be a very long time from now. I take most suggestions to change because they make a lot of sense to me. But a few things I want to keep. Thanks for sharing your journey. Always intriguing.

  40. I'm nearing the end of my sixth draft of the YA novel I'm working on. It has improved light years from the first draft, which I completed exactly a year ago. I hope it will soon be ready to go on submission!

  41. Have heard WONDERFUL things about your book and look forward to THE READ.

    Am now doing a review of the final galley proof, TAKE TWO.

    The first time this has happened.

    For some reason, the third baby does not want to be birthed.

    Blessings, Jody,

  42. Thanks for that, Jody. I'm changing my story for the umpteenth time now *sigh*. It seems like and endless process, doesn't it? But I'm so determined to see it published that I'll just have to drag myself through it. It's nice to see how honest you are about the process after you got an editor. I can expect to have to change the story to her/his wishes. It's nice to be prepared for that.

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