Why Skimping on Macro Editing Could Cost You Readers

Macro edits are critically important. (Also known as rewrites, developmental edits, substantive edits, or content edits.) This type of edit is the first a writer should make in the three stages of editing. (Read more about the three stages of editing here or here.)

I like to refer to the macro edit stage as rewriting. I think the term sufficiently sums up the entire process, which involves analyzing the big picture elements of our stories and rewriting, adding, or deleting major parts in order to make the story more appealing to readers.

Last week, my publisher sent me macro edits for my book, A Noble Groom, releasing next spring. When I saw my editor’s email pop up in my inbox, I froze.

Even though I’d been expecting the rewrite notes, I was still overcome with fear. What would I find when I opened the document? Where had I fallen short with the story?

My editor wouldn’t be sending me pages of praise. Flattery wouldn’t help me. Only the complete, honest truth about what needed improvement would benefit my story.

Ultimately I knew that. But still, that knowledge has never made the initial rewrite experience any easier. It’s always hard to take criticism of a story you’ve carefully researched, crafted, and labored over for months.

It took me a couple of hours to work up the courage to open the email from Luke, my editor. I’m grateful he began his notes with a few words of praise and encouragement along with this sentence: "Thanks so much in advance for your hard work and willingness to revisit the manuscript, to do what you can to improve the story as much as possible for the sake of your loyal readers." (Emphasis mine)

That sentence was an incredible reminder that I’m striving to make my STORY the best it can be for the sake of my loyal readers. Readers care most about the STORY. And the macro level stage of editing is where we carefully analyze all of those story elements that can make or break a book.

For this particular book (A Noble Groom), FOUR talented Bethany House editors had read through the manuscript, made notes, and then decided which areas most needed my attention. The notes were about 6 pages long and consisted of things like:

*The hero needs to have a stronger character arc. There needs to be more at stake for him.
*The emotional (friendship) part of the hero/heroine relationship needs to be deepened.
*The villain’s threats need to be spaced more consistently.
*The ‘ticking clock’ needs to be more of a factor than it is.

Those are just a snippet of the things that all of the editors pointed out. As you can see, they’re larger story elements and won’t be easy to fix. The edits will require many weeks of chopping, pasting, adding and deleting. That’s why the term rewriting is so appropriate, because essentially that’s what I’m doing.

No matter how many times I get a set of rewrites, they always knock me off my feet. In fact, I’ve been known to have major melt-downs, to decide I’m not cut out to be a writer, then assuage my depression by eating large quantities of chocolate.

Fortunately, this time, I put on my big girl panties much faster than in the past. A further email from my editor helped lift me up. Luke said this:

I’ve learned over the years that for even the best of writers out there, almost all of their first (rough) drafts have serious issues which need to be dealt with, head-on, unflinching. In that way, writing and especially rewriting—the persistent back and forth, applying a lot of patience and love—is much like the art of sculpting. It’s physical, mental, emotional, spiritual . . . as you carve, chisel, shape, sand and polish what you’ve created into something good and beautiful and truthful.”

Beautiful analogy, isn’t it?

The point is this: Without the macro-edit, I could spiff up my story, get rid of adverbs, tighten my dialog, and make sure I’ve included sensory details, etc., etc., etc. (all the things that come with line and copy edits). But what good would all of that do if I’ve neglected to shape the story itself.

If we skip the macro edits, then we’re neglecting the sculpting part of the process, the chipping away, the molding, the plying. If we move directly to the line and copy editing stages, then we’re polishing a lump of clay.

We win over our readers by a well-told story. So don’t skimp on the macro-edits. Get the big-picture feedback (particularly from people who are qualified to give it). Sculpt the story into a lovely work of art before polishing it with the other edits.

How about you? How important have macro edits been in your editing process? Are you taking enough time to shape your story before starting the polishing?


  1. Ugh, it's never easy for me to take something I've worked so hard on once already and go back to it again. But the more I write and revise, the more I get used to the idea that no novel will be perfect--or even remotely close to perfect--when I turn it in to a publisher.

    Still, I can't help but dream otherwise. :-)

  2. I hear you, Naomi! It's SO hard to have to reshape something you've already carefully constructed! I've always dreamed that the more I grow in my writing skills, the less rewriting I'll have to do.

    But I'm beginning to realize that just won't happen. So I'm relinquishing my dream of turning in a first draft that will wow my editors! And now that I'm giving up that dream, I'm finding more peace in the rewriting process!

  3. I have kept count of how many times I have read through my WIP, and umm, I'm now at 172 times. I have kept the story the same but have done writing yoga with everything else. Bending, twisting, turning upside down and sweating my way through it. I have given it over to a few well chosen sets of eyes and let them go at it. (The WIP is about a wealthy white woman who goes through all kinds of bad stuff and then falls for a Native American man in the late 1800's.)

    One friend is a lawyer who does NOT normally read historical romance, one is a Native American missionary who has eyes that will let me know if I've messed up culturally, and several are editing whizzes. Through it all, the story has stayed the same. I'm proud of that, that I stayed true to the story and let the characters tell it. The polishing is almost done, the crit team has pointed out what needs work and I have done the work.

    The most unexpected, therefore the highest, praise came from a non-Christian friend who has NEVER read Christian fiction...she is a highly experienced writer herself, with all kinds of professional credits...and she told me to query it because the story was awesome, the writing was tight, everything flowed, the hero and heroine's faith shone through and the writing was top notch. I nearly passed out. For a non-believer to have gotten the faith message in my work??? Isn't that what it's all about?

  4. I so needed this today :) I've been thinking about my revisions for a couple weeks now, trying to plan it all out in my head, see the big issues so they can be repaired first. And it's TOUGH. Am I making the right decision? Will this plot point work? Should I do this or that? I have great beta readers and an awesome crit partner to talk things over with, but the tough part for me is trusting that I'm taking the story where it needs to go. Anyway...I'm starting macro edits today. Thanks for this post, Jody!

  5. Jennifer, Congrats on such great reports on your novel!! That's got to be such a great feeling! It's amazing how many times we end up reading our own novels isn't it? By the time my books go to print, I swear to myself that I'll never read them again! :-)

    Charissa, I feel your dread on the macro edits! Wishing you all the best as you dive into the editing!! I'll be right there with you. I'll be working on my rewrites in earnest over the next few weeks too!

  6. Jody--I hear you. I hate the macro edit more than any other aspect of the editing process. You've finally finished the novel, you feel you've done your best at producing a great story, and now here somebody is telling you to change this, do that, tear the work apart and re-do it. But after I finish pouting and pigging out on chocolate (yes, even men do that), I realize that every suggestion has merit, and it comes from an editor with a great track record. So I get to work, and doggoned if all the changes don't improve the final product.
    Truly, it takes a village--or, in this case, it takes an editorial team. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Jody,
    I always appreciate how you give us such a personal glimpse into your writing life -- and encourage us as writers.
    I want to be a better writer -- to "up my game" with each book. And yet I dream that each book I turn in is perfect.
    Such a pipe dream.
    Sounds like you have wonderful editors invested in your writing career. And it also is evident that you are determined to be the best writer you can be -- and are willing to let others help you.

  8. Ah, this is so GOOD! You're so right - so many of us want to skip the hard work of rewriting.'s hard work.

    And you nailed the whole fear thing on the head. I've only received one revision letter so far. For my debut novel. I should be receiving my second soon, and every time I see an email from my editor, my stomach clenches. Merely because I know I'm going to have some very hard work ahead of me and I'll have to battle that initial reaction of, "I can't do this!"

  9. I appreciate your transparency and humility when you share on your blog - it's so refreshing and approachable.

    I finished my first draft and I was so proud of myself! Then...I re-read it. Eeek. It needs a lot of work. I second guessed my calling and my abilities when I read it, but I'm determined to rewrite the heck out of it! I was so encouraged by your post - to find that even seasoned writers feel the same about their first drafts and that the rewriting is just as hard for a published author as unpublished - maybe even harder because you have four editors with high expectations waiting to see what you can do with their suggestions.

  10. I'm on the third rewrite of my WIP. Funny how I thought it was brilliant when I first wrote it. Then I started to see the flaws...and most of those were pointed out by others. So important to get feedback on your work...but that can be sooooo scary! I suppose it's good to know that even experienced authors with multiple books out experience the same thing. Perhaps we never get to the point where we fully "nail it" on the first draft simply because we cannot see the major flaws. We're too close to the story. Ah, the value of a good editor...

  11. I've never had to tackle a macro edit (aside from trimming down at 325K manuscript to 128k, years ago), so I don't know if I'll meet it with aplomb or a melt-down. I get to find out later this summer once my debut manuscript is read by my editor. I want that kind of input into my writing, finally, for the first time in twenty years. I anticipate learning a lot about story crafting through the process. I'm sure it will be very hard to do the rewrites, but I want it to be the strongest, most compelling story it can be. Big girl panties indeed!

  12. Yes yes and YES! This is so true. The first rewrites are always so major I spend time questionning my ability to write... but going through that process, and being open to it, is vital, and makes our writing a million times better. Terrific post!

  13. I so agree! Macro edits are HUGE HUGE HUGEly important! I had the joy (term used loosely) of doing my first set of contracted macro edits in December. Due a week before Christmas. YUCK. And the edits were bloody. The word "overhaul" was used. But... they were also spot on. They were things I'd kinda had a gut feelings where problems but until someone spelled out for me "Here is the problem and this is WHY it is a problem" it just didn't register with me to fix them. It's that spot that you're like, "Should I fix this? No... it's probably fine." when you're doing your own edits. Yeah, it's probably NOT fine. :-) My book, while I'm 100% sure not perfect, would have been almost embarrassing to publish unedited. SO SO SO thankful for the editor who inked it up for me!

  14. I was glad to find this post. I've done multiple "macro edits"/rewrites on my WIP, and am planning for one more in June before I start to query. It is good to hear that I'm doing something right by caring about the *story*. Very good to hear indeed, becuase even though I've done this before, starting the journey again is still intimidating.

  15. Oh, and I forgot to say--Luke's notes are AMAZING. What a blessing. :)

  16. I agree, Susan! Luke's notes were TOTALLY reassuring, especially hearing that even the best authors never nail their first drafts. Makes me feel less like a loser! ;-)

  17. I've gone through my first draft, and I'm working on my own version of macro editing. I have SO much to rewrite! Sometimes, I get discouraged because it's so much work. And when I ever get to the stage of publishing, I know there will still be a lot more work! It's all worth it, in the end.

  18. After breathing a much needed sigh of relief after publishing the second book in my trilogy, I am now delving into micro edits with a completed contemporary project I put on hold. Hard work sometimes, but always needed.

  19. Jody, I love how you share your personal reactions. You are so *real*, LOL... I love your honesty in this, Jody!

    After several revisions, I did a complete rewrite on one of my earlier stories. It involved some plot changes but also POV and tense changes. Then I revised several more times until I was sick of working on it. I wish I'd had the experience to know I should have started with the rewrite, but it wasn't until revisions weren't helping that I finally went there. As newer writers I think we get hung up on the minor things, worrying about a hook, brilliant sentences, perfect grammar, etc., and it's not until we learn more about the craft that the importance of bigger things becomes evident.

    As much as editing input may seem like criticism of our initial writing, wanting to make the reading experience as good as possible is reason enough to welcome the suggestions. I like your editor's attitude. :)

  20. P.S. Sorry for what looks like a repetitious first sentence, but the first one disappeared, so I started again, only to have both sentences appear when the comment posted. Weird!!

  21. As a wanna-be novelist, I’ve yet to experience the macro edit. But I imagine that it is akin to having a visitor in the hospital right after you’ve had a baby.

    The visitor glances at the baby, shrugs and offers his two cents.

    “Eh, not bad, could use some more hair on top, lose the angel kiss, even out the skin tone.”

    Are you kidding me? I labored for hours to bring this baby into the world. She’s perfect!

    But then I’d have to wise up, realize that a book and a baby are two different things, and get to it.

    Thanks for sharing. I love your honesty!

  22. Lovely post, as usual. It's really a great experience to be edited by people who care about your story. I am blessed in the same way as you--my editor really edits and are about the story. I hear more and more that books are not getting edited. That has not been my experience at all. Thank goodness!

  23. Macro edits sound really scary:( Thanks for the reminder that's it's so your readers can enjoy the story! So even though I don't want to do them...I guess they need to be done....c'est la vie ;)
    Great post!

  24. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Jody. To know even seasoned authors face fear like this is going to be helpful when facing multiple rewrites, whether before or after getting editor advice.

  25. Jody, you've made my day!

    Not only have you convinced I'm not crazy to think tackling my revision letter is hard work, but you've given me a name for it: macro edits. Thank you!

  26. Thanks for sharing this, Jody. I think I've been rewriting for a year now - it's my first novel so unfortunately I don't have a deadline. My draft had so many holes in it I couldn't read through it. Plus I'm a proofreader, so I quickly get into the weeds and miss the big picture. Nice to know that more experienced authors have to go through these major revisions, too!

  27. Jody, great post! I always enjoy reading what you have to share.

    I think I have the opposite problem. I write a novel in a few months, then spend the next several years macro editing. It's exhausting! But I'm no stranger to ripping my books apart...My last novel is on its 7th rewrite, but I've set it aside for a bit. I realized I needed to work on writing a few new books to get some experience on story building and writing--rather than rewriting. (Because I definitely need practice if my books take that much rewriting!)

    It would definitely be discouraging to get a book to a point where I'm happy with it, then find out it needs more. Lots of chocolate indeed! Good luck with your macro editing!

  28. I agree, this stage is REALLY hard. I've undergone my very first experience with substantive edits and despite the fact that it included a meltdown or two, I knew my editors had so much wisdom and experience under their belts and that the suggested changes really were for the best. The book became stronger and I was amazed by the results of all that hard work. Ok, and now I'm trying not to think about the fact that I get to do it all over again really soon! :)

  29. Wow, Luke worded that so beautifully, it's enough to make most writers dig in and work hard for the sake of the reader. Thanks so much for sharing this. It makes me less fearful of the work ahead. And good luck with your rewrite!

  30. It's something I definitely am glad I thought to do during the editing stages. I knew that there were some serious inconsistencies in my characters and some unexplained factors in the overall plot which needed to be dealt with and a second pair of eyes always helps to identify and pinpoint where the work needs doing most. I'm yet to get a professional pair of eyes onto it, but it is on my list of things to do. :) Thank you for sharing!

  31. I began my first novel in the summer of 2004. Halfway between then and now (summer of 2012) the book did its own macro edit.

    I just woke up one morning and - boom - the book had reshaped itself.

    The first (re)draft then wrote itself. In seven months.

    What an encouraging blog: thank you.

  32. Hah! Yes. Right in the middle of content edits myself.

    Someone once asked what's a good way to get on with your editor. My flip answer was 'Never tell them your initial reaction to the edit letter.' Because mine is usually 'Waaaah! How in hell am I going to do that?' Even when a) I know they are right and b) I had niggles about that bit before I sent it in, and was wanting/asking for their reaction.

    But then, as you say, you just have get your big girl panties on and do it. After my initial kneejerk reaction, I actually LOVE content edits - they always, but always, give me ideas on how to strengthen the story. And that's what a good editor does for you.

  33. Hi Francis,
    I agree about the ideas. After that first temper tantrum, I always see the benefits of the suggested changes. They have always made my story stronger!

  34. I find Macro edits very time consuming and overwhelming, but in some ways I really like them too. I feel like they really help me get to the heart of a story, and I get to spend more time with my characters.

    That said, I haven't been through an editor yet. I'll bet the comments, even when correct, can be really discouraging.

  35. Jody, thank you for this article. I just realized what I'm in the middle of doing: the macro edit. Taking out big swaths of writing, and figuring out where I need to put stuff in - and this, without re-reading the scenes I wrote months ago, which will need to be re-written, anyway. Working on the story arc.

    Love it! What fun!

  36. Thank you for sharing this, Judy. You always have interesting and helpful things to share.

  37. You're so right. Rewriting is murder. It's good you have such a supportive editor. I'm envious. But did he really write " be dealt with, head-on, unflinching"? I know, it's only a micro-error. But he is a professional. Don't pass up the opportunity to tease him about it.

  38. I am a compulsive hoarder of clothes with stories,
    paper for tax audits
    and abandoned novel drafts.

    On my computer, I have saved 105 revisions of my recently published novel, Crazy Bitch: A Portrait of Domestic Violence?. They chronicle the journey and, even now, there are still changes I wish I could make...


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