3 Factors That Influence How Much Editing a Book Gets

No writer—whether newbie or multi-published—is capable of writing a perfect first draft. Even though we’d like to think our books are made of all sweetness and sugar, we only have to put our manuscript under the scrutiny of a skilled and objective editor or fellow writer to quickly learn that our book has faults—and lots of them.

Recently, Sally Hepworth sent me a few really great questions. She asked: "How much does a book change from first draft to when it hits the shelf? Is it recognizable? Are you embarrassed of your first version?"

While I didn’t keep detailed records of all of the changes in my first two books, I can give estimates. With my debut book, The Preacher’s Bride, about one-fourth of the book was changed in one form or another between my very first draft and what now sits on shelves.

With my second book, The Doctor’s Lady (releasing SEPT. 1st!!), I ended up changing much more than I anticipated. When all was said and done, I probably deleted and rewrote close to one-third of the manuscript—all in bits and pieces here and there.

You’d expect that with each subsequent book the need for editing would diminish rather than increase—and hopefully that will be true over the long haul as we strive to grow in our writing skills. But, ultimately, every author will need some level of editing. The exact amount will depend upon a number of factors:

First, some of the need for editing will depend on a writer’s level of experience. I’m a “young” author and am still discovering what my readers like. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to create likable heroes and heroines and other elements that comprise a satisfying romance. I’m also figuring out my publisher’s expectations. With our first few published books, most of us will have a learning curve. Agents and editors realize that newer authors will need more directing and shaping—which is one of the reasons they can only take on a certain number of debut authors at one time.

Second, every author has a different writing and self-editing process. Some write very precisely during the first draft and won’t need much overhauling of their stories. Others write loosely knowing they’ll have to spend an enormous amount of effort getting the story “right” during the editing phase. I happen to write slowly and carefully with my first drafts and so my own self-editing doesn’t involve any big changes. I also incorporate suggestions from my critique partner—which helps tighten my book, but again, usually doesn’t require major rewriting.

Third, every publishing house offers different levels of editing. Some smaller houses may not have a large or experienced in-house editing staff. Due to the tight economy, bigger publishers might be short-staffed. Once, when I was whining about my edits to my agent, she remarked that while many publishing houses are cutting back on edits mine has actually increased theirs—which says a lot about their dedication to quality fiction. They require about 4 different levels of in-house editing—which is a lot of work!

In summary, I think every book that makes its way to publication (whether traditionally or self-published) should look different than the first draft. If it doesn’t, then it probably didn’t receive enough editing. As I said, nobody can write a perfect first draft. 

Am I embarrassed by my first drafts? Well, let me just say, I’m glad I didn’t rush to self-publish them! I’m grateful for all of the editing, even though it was painful at times. Are my stories edited so much that I wouldn’t recognize them anymore? No. The basic plots and stories are still the same. But the editing takes them from something readers will merely like to something readers can love.

The sign in the picture above sums up the editing process: We can't view having to do a lot of editing as failure. Rather, finding all of the problems within our manuscripts is an opportunity for us to take our books beyond ordinary and make them great.

What about you? Are you surprised by the amount of editing a book needs? How much have your books changed over time? Are they recognizable from your first drafts?

*Photo credit: flickr


  1. Oh boy - I'm working through edits on my debut novel with my publishing house right now and the whole editing process has been intense, but very good! So thankful I have an editor who wants my book to be the best it can be. And I LOVE my editor. Love, love, love her.

    I actually just wrote a post on Monday about my experience with line edits if anyone wants to check it out:

  2. No I'm not surprised at all. Some things we can't see until after the story is completed. Thank God there are do overs before anyone sees it!

  3. Yes, I finished revisions about a month ago, and I was surprised how much the book changed for the better. I thought it was good to begin with. I mean, it WAS good enough to attract an agent and publisher, but now it's better. Part of me can't wait to see what readers will think, and then another part of me is terrified readers won't like it.

    I still have line and copy edits to go through, so we'll see what happens.

    Thanks for the post, Jody!

  4. I'm not surprised and I'm not going through this at a professional level yet. I have received some critiques from my group that surprised me, but also made me go back to make changes that really tightened up the story.

    I finally edited one of my own chapters that had been bugging me ever since I wrote it. Too much time was spent on a one time character with no tie in to my MC. Finally fixed that and I like it so much better now!


  5. My only experience with an editor trandformed my children's play entirely. I was amazed how much input they do and how much better the story is as a result. I don't think it is published yet though *snort*

    Hey, only 15 hrs to go woo hoo!

  6. I was definitely surprised, not only by how much I would have to change but also by the sense of freedom I felt after making the changes. That was really when I realised that, even in a sold book, mistakes can be fixed. It really doesn't have to be perfect at that point, just good enough to get someone's attention.

  7. I'm glad my novels change a good deal from start to finish, at least where I come in as an editor. It will be fun to see them published.

    I hear you on not saving all versions. My computer would be far too overloaded if I did that.

    Thanks for the tweet!
    ~ Wendy
    ~ Wendy

  8. My biggest experience with editing came years ago with a friend who agreed to help me cut my sprawling, overwritten historical by half, without losing any major characters or the story line. She was objective, insightful and ruthless, and taught me how to write tight. It was intense work, but through her example of cutting and reshaping on a macro and micro level, I trimmed a manuscript from 300,000+ words down to its present 126,000. And the story is still the same story.

  9. Jody,

    Wonderful post! The topic of how much editing a book goes through after being accepted by a publisher has been on my mind lately. You answered so many of my questions in your blog post!

    Do agents do much editing on your novel or do they leave that to the editors? I’ve heard they work with you on your proposal but do they do much on your novel?

    Once again wonderful blog post!

  10. Very interesting, Jody! I found it especially interesting to hear how different the editing process can be between publishing houses. I'm all for lots of editors looking over my m/s's someday. I can see how it would be worth it in the end.

    Hope you have a great day! :)

  11. Good morning, everyone! Am enjoying hearing about your manuscripts and the process of change you all have experienced!

    Paul, great quote: "It really doesn't have to be perfect at that point, just good enough to get someone's attention." You nailed it on the head! I agree and I hope that's an encouragement to everyone!

  12. Amanda asked: Do agents do much editing on your novel or do they leave that to the editors? I’ve heard they work with you on your proposal but do they do much on your novel?

    My thoughts: Great question, Amanda! I think that every agent will have different expectations. If an agent is really busy, they might not be able to take on a client whose manuscript needs editing before sending it out to publishers. But if they have the time and see the potential, they might be willing to work with the client to do some editing. My agent, Rachelle, works both ways. I know she's taken on clients whose books she's helped edit first. But I know lately she's indicated that she has less time to do that.

  13. I'm so grateful to my awesome editors. I can think my manuscript is in a good place after a lot of self-editing but they always find ways to make it so much better. How wonderful your editors are devoted to putting out a stellar finished product. I'm happy too that I didn't rush to self-publish because I believe the editing process has really improved my writing. Good luck on your book release!

  14. My verse novel is only 15, 000 words, and yet I went through roughly 8 rounds of edits. Part of this was due to the closing of my first imprint (and the subsequent changing of editors), but the other part, I think, is that with such a limited number of words, it's vital to get them right.

    I'm so glad two wise, talented editors gave so much insight and enthusiasm to my little book.

  15. I'm not embarrassed. I don't want to be, actually, although I think I'll be worried when my book first comes out. This particular story is the first one I ever finished, so you can imagine the types of overhauling it needed to even be a viable book with conflict, arcs, etc. Poor thing.
    While the plot has been strengthened though, the characters are basically who I started with, only refined.

  16. I love hearing about the editing aspect of publication. I always enjoy doing revisions, but I realize my version of a final draft won't be final in an agent's or editor's eyes. Working with an industry professional to make my work even better is something I look forward to. One day....

    Love seeing your countdown clicker saying "000 days". Yay!!

  17. oh yeah, I'm surprised alright. Especially when I send something off to my CP and she has all these suggestions I hate and love at the same time. Hate because it means I have to go back and change stuff but love because I know her suggestions are going to make my book so much better.

  18. I believe what Hemingway said: "First drafts are shit." Mine certainly are because I don't know the story I'm writing yet. I'd say about 70% of my first draft ends up getting re-written. That's been the case with my first two novels and I don't see it changing much.

  19. I love editing!!! My novel changed DRAMATICALLY - including cutting 2 major characters completely. I don't regret it. I think editing depends on the strength of the first draft.

  20. I just finished the final edits on my novel. The finished product is 7 thousand words lighter, around 20 pages shorter, and quite different from the first draft that was written several years ago.

  21. Great info as always. I'm excited about your soon to be released book and can't wait to get my hands on it.

  22. When I first finished editing a manuscript that my agent picked up, I thought that it was done. However (and I thank her for this), she pointed out some bad writing habits that I couldn't spot, such as an overuse of pronouns. This has taught me to be careful in my future writing, and to humbly accept that there will be multiple revisions.

  23. Jody, having just finished reading The Doctor's Lady in printed form, I can attest to the fact that you did a great deal of work on the story to get it where it is today. As you said, there were no sweeping changes, but you tweaked things here, tightened things there, and took time to make your characters compelling. Your hard work during the editing stage paid off. I watched your story go from good to great and great to stellar, and I fully expect to see it go from stellar to bestseller.

    (For those who don't know, I'm Jody's CP and was privileged to read two versions of The Doctor's Lady in manuscript form.)

  24. My first drafts are loosely written, meaning I anticipate having to change over HALF of some of them to even get them readable. It's that daunting feeling of being overwhelmed by the potential changes that keeps me procrastinating them away. How to fix that is the solution I'm looking for.

    Thanks for the guidelines on your edits!

  25. I learned so much about the process through the edits on my book. And now I'm doing some nonfiction editing for my publisher. Maybe it's the English teacher in me, but I'm having a good time!

  26. As a new author, I was surprised and relieved at the amount of work my editor put into my manuscript. She improved my story and writing immeasurably, and even if my book doesn't sell many, I know the editing process has been invaluable to my writing.

  27. What would we do without great editors? All our books would be 900 pages long and full of typos.

    I love my editor. She watches my back.

    I'm so glad I'm not the only one who has had to do rewrites. Thanks for sharing your story :)


  28. Jody - thank you so much for answering my questions. My first manuscript changed about 30% as well (from agent edits), so I am very relieved to hear that yours did too.

    I must say, I usually feel pretty good about my writing ... that is, until I pick up a published book (such as yours) and my confidence falls through the floorboards and plummets down toward the earth's solid inner core. So your post gives me hope!

    I have gone through several rounds of edits with my agent and I know the writing keeps getting better. The question is, will it get good enough? I guess only time will tell.

    (Oh, and last night I ordered my very own copy of The Doctors Wife on Amazon. Looking forward to reading it and feeling very insecure about my writing really soon. Sally :)

  29. I am definitely surprised by the changes my book has gone through. When I re-read my initial 'final' draft, I shudder to remember I once thought that was publishable. I'm about to embark on the beta-reading phase, so it will probably change a fair bit more yet!

  30. It's been great to hear that so many of you have had extensive changes too! Just shows that we really NEED objective feedback to take our books to the next level.

    And Sally! Sorry to give you a complex! ;-) But I'm sure when I pick up your book someday, I'll feel the same way!

  31. "The best writing is rewriting." Or so said E.B. White. And I agree.
    And I also think the best rewriting comes with feedback from others. Or, as I like to say, "The 'eyes' have it."
    The more eyes on a manuscript, the better. That doesn't mean that I agree with every recommendation given. But I do consider it.
    My debut novel went through several significant changes before it's final form. And I definitely think the finished product is stronger than the first draft. (Of course, I can also think of ways to improve it now too. But it's going to print . . .)

  32. I knew there was a lot of editing that happened with a book, but have never experienced it first hand. I recently reviewed some writing I did years ago; I was almost embarrassed. I am glad that we can get better as we go! :)

  33. Thanks for the post. It is encouraging to hear how others do it. I struggle a lot in the edit stage. I do not mind the grammar, sentence structure stuff but have a huge challenge in the big picture edits. I have a lot to learn. It would be very encouraging to see someone one's first(or early) draft and their finished project to see just how the changes occurred.
    Either way, thanks!

    Oddly enough, I just wrote a post today at my blog about finding big errors in the writing of published books. I am not pointing any fingers at writers, editors or the like - just curious if the folks who buy the books and support the authors are more drawn in by writing or by story? Come check it out if you'd like.

  34. Great post. I just finished the proofs on my 17th book. My first draft is drastically different than my final draft. I've edited as much as 75% of complete changes (even keeping the same characters and plot) and touch every page in the editing process. My books are much, much better because of both my own self-editing and my editorial revision notes.

    I've never thought my books were perfect when I was done. :)

  35. This was very helpful. I hadn't seen anyone actually list estimates for how much their book changed in edits. Thank you.

    The first book I finished a draft of looks quite different from what it is now. The main characters are essentially the same, though better developed, the goals, conflicts, and bare bones of the plot is virtually the same, but it has richened over time. I've also added an antagonist that really brought the story together in a way nothing else could have.

    My more recent books have required less editing. But then, I wrote them after more experience and while using many of the tools I'd gained through workshops.

  36. Great topic choice!

    After completing a first draft of a planned series, I presented the idea to an editor who told me the protagonist, as written, was not strong enough to carry a series. I rewrote the story ... five times.

    I learned so much while writing that first novel and the second one won't have the same problems. But it would be impossible for me to write an entire novel, fully fleshed out, and ready for print.

    Some authors can write a fairly clean first draft, but I don't envy them. I enjoy writing the story from beginning to end, then returning to flesh everything out once I have a better handle on the plotline and characters.

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