Attack Your Story so That Your Readers Don't Have To

 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

The past month I've been drowning in edits. I've been working on substantial edits on Love Unexpected, the first of my lighthouse books that will release in December. The edits are due back to my publisher by the end of January.

And then in the midst of the big rewrites on Love Unexpected, I also got the Galleys for my July release, Captured by Love. And those are also due at the end of January.

Once I turn in the two books, I'll need to start editing a book for my new agent, getting it ready for her to send out on submission. And then I have the first draft of another book I have to self-edit before turning it in for the first time to my publisher.


I've been breathing, eating, and sleeping edits with no end in sight. As the pin says, "Writer: Not Crazy; Just in Rewrites."

Any time I get into editing mode, I realize that I'm really more of a first draft girl. I absolutely adore the process of writing the first version of a book. I could write all day and all night and never tire of it.

But editing is another matter altogether. Compared to the free-spirited, creative writing process, editing requires an entirely different mind-set. And for me, editing is laborious, pain-staking, and incredibly time-consuming.

It's like taking a fine-toothed comb through every page, every paragraph, every line of an entire novel. Such a task takes hours, days, even weeks of concentrated, focused energy. It's draining.

And quite frankly, it's also nerve-wracking. At the back of my mind I think, "I have to get everything right this time. No more fooling around. This is serious business."

Because the fact is, if we don't get things right during the editing phase, we risk disappointing our readers.

In some ways that fear is a good motivation.

It pushes us to keep going when we're tempted to cheat on our editing, to skimp, to gloss over details, or to disregard depth.

It motivates us to ruthlessly chop whole paragraphs, whole pages, even whole scenes that we once thought were brilliant.

It forces us to let go of words, to see them as just that–words.

It challenges us to exert painful effort to push, shove, and shape the story into something better, something that whispers with the breath of life.

In this current publishing climate that entices authors to produce more content, we're faced with the challenge of giving enough time and energy to quality editing. It's all too easy to focus on writing and publishing more books and to let the hard work of editing become the last thing on our to-do list, especially because editing tends to be tedious and difficult for many of us.

I only have to think of my readers, however, to quickly give editing the high priority it deserves. I don't want to disappoint anyone who picks up one of my books. I want to hand them my best every time.

If we as writers don't take the time to brutally and viciously attack our stories (during editing), readers will brutally attack the book later. But why give them reason to lash out? If we're brutal with our books, then our readers won't have to be.

Here are some of my favorite quotes on editing. These show just how seriously most successful authors take the editing process. (I love Shannon Hale's quote the most!)

I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” ~ Shannon Hale

I've found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living [crap] out of it.” ~Don Roff

"Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love.” ~Stephanie Roberts

"Editing is like pruning the rose bush you thought was so perfect and beautiful until it overgrew the garden.” ~Larry Enright

"Your first draft is a petulant teenager, sure it knows best, adamant that its Mother is wrong. Your third draft has emerged from puberty, realizing that its Mother was right about everything.” ~Angeline Trevena

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”~C.J. Cherryh

"Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it." ~Colette

Are you tempted in the current publishing climate to skimp on editing? Are you attacking your story during the editing phase or are you being too gentle on your work? 


  1. How do you know when to stop being brutal?

    1. I personally could go on forever. Every time I read a version of my book, I spot things I want to change. That's why I never read my books after they are in print!

      At some point, we have to let go. If we've had a professional macro edit by someone knowledgeable in our genre, if we've had a really thorough line edit (again by a professional), and we've made the suggested changes, then after that, I usually allow myself to go through the manuscript one or two more times. After that it's simply nit-picking.

  2. I love hearing about your new books. Is the lighthouse series to be published by Bethany House? You mentioned having a book that will be out on submission. Does that mean another publisher has the right to consider it?

    1. Hi Sylvia,

      Yes, the lighthouse series will be published by Bethany House. I'm continuing to write historicals for them and love working with them.

      My agent will also be shopping some other projects that fall outside of what I typically write for Bethany House. So, we'll be soliciting other publishers. Or perhaps even consider self-publishing at some point! :-)

  3. I revise and revise and revise... but I know I'm not seeing my writing with the critical eyes of an experienced writer. I suspect after you've had edits recommended multiple times, you get better at recognizing what needs culling and refining. I look forward to that day.

    1. Hi Carol,

      You brought up a very good point. Now after having feedback time after time with from my editors, I am better able to spot things to work on even before I get their feedback. I can anticipate what they'll say more often! But still, there's nothing like getting objective feedback. No matter how hard we try or how experienced we are with editing, we can never see all our own mistakes.

  4. One of the joys of being an unpublished writer is not having the deadlines and pressure. One of my favorite parts of writing is being able to go back and read through a finished manuscript but not worry about the little details, just edit for plotting, characterization, pacing, etc. Just getting the feel of the story. I find it relaxing and refreshing. But don't get me wrong, I do edits that are anything but relaxing. Cutting paragraphs, scenes, whole chapters (been there, done that) simply because rough drafts are quite simply--rough. The editing I'm doing right now feels like I'm pretty much rewriting the entire thing. I'm looking forward to writing the first draft of the third book in my series. Just getting words on the page without worrying about sentence structure, whether or not I'm using too many adverbs, etc.

    1. Hi Shelly,

      Yes, deadlines often add pressure! I have had more migraines this month and haven't been sleeping as well due to the stress. But the good thing about the deadlines is that it does push you to do the hard tedious work. You can't put it off. You finally have to put your head down and just do it! :-)

  5. Editing absolutely terrifies me. I have a completed novel that I wrote at least 10 years ago, and reading over it again, so much of it needs changing. I've graduated from college now, taken a bazillion creative writing courses, and the book needs so much work, so much editing. And I'm terrified to start because it feels like such an overwhelming job. It's refreshing to know that I'm not the only writer who struggles with the editing process. I guess I really do need to view my work objectively, as if it belongs to someone else, and hold myself to the same standards I have for published writers.

    1. Hi Carissa,

      Yes, I think I would be discouraged if I looked at a manuscript that I wrote 10 years ago too! I'm sure you've matured and improved a lot. In fact, I'd guess your writing voice has likely changed too. If I were in your place, I'd probably just start over. Perhaps you can salvage the plot and ideas and characters. But overall, I'm sure you'll be able to take the story to the next level now! Wishing you all the best!

  6. I get what you're saying, Jody, I really do, but you do have to be patient with YOU, not just the process, and I'm not talking about the atypical "Patience" advice we all get.

    I'm talking about the REAL difference between healthy accountability (Whether internal or external) and driving ourselves to the breaking point.

    2012 was "The Year of Multiple Breakdowns" in my world. It was awful, yes I was getting insightful critiques, I was doing my due diligence as I struggled in revision, etc. But I came to the point where I was second-guessing myself so much, I broke down.

    I had to go to hospital at one point because I was emotionally BROKEN and snapping at anything and everyone.

    There's a LIMIT to how much you can push yourself, I don't want to see other writers face that pain, I wish it on no one, even the "Hacks" who wouldn't do what you and I try to do with our work. You sound stronger in this area than I, and I know it was hard won, but let me tell you, this isn't something I'm proud of. But it's my truth at this point and time.

    Plus, you do have to put "Brutal Feedback from others..." into perspective. Some things are "Personal Preference DISGUISED as practical advice" so it's not always a "If the reader's annoyed, it's all my fault" problem.

    Not to say it's not ever the case but the opposite is true, too. This is why I don't beta-read certain genres because I would risk giving counsel that goes against whatever genre norms "HAVE to be there" etc.

    It is HARD to be slow and methodical in a world where it feels like opportunities are passing you by simply because you aren't this ideal mix of excellence and speed!

    Sorry if I sound mad, and I'm not taking it out on you, Jody, but I had to make those points for those who may be in a different stage with this than you are now, and when I say that, I mean in terms of HEALTHY self-evaluation, not necessarily a "Getting over being an egomaniac" problem...

    That said, take care, and sorry if I sounded mad. I'm not. At least, it wasn't said solely in anger (Smile)

    1. Hi Taurean,

      I'm so sorry to hear that you reached a breaking point. There is a limit to how much we can push ourselves and sometimes we think we're more capable than we really are. Some of us push ourselves harder than we should and don't take care of ourselves the way we need to.

      Brutal feedback from others can be subjective. I like how you put it,"Personal Preference DISGUISED as practical advice." I think that's why we need to be careful about who we're getting our feedback from!

      So I think you've brought up a couple of issues: one, the need not to be too brutal on ourselves (versus our stories) and two, the need to protect ourselves from needless brutality from others.


    2. Exactly what I meant, Jody, and I need to stress I'm not feeling as bad about that now, I still have my hard days like anyone else, but I've found more peace with it now.

      But I'd hate to see other writers face what I had and think that just because they're not as stoic about the process as others (And would frankly LIKE to be!) means you're a weak, crybaby egomaniac, when 9 times out of ten it means you are HUMAN.

      Even the most hardened "Businessman or woman" knows that at a certain point, that healthy self-assessment can turn into trauma that NO ONE who takes writing as seriously as we do truly deserves.

      I'm not a parent as you know, and I wouldn't say this if I didn't have some smidgen of experience with this, if only speaking from the child's ( Or student via the "Traditional" Schooling I didn't complete) perspective. (Though I'm considerably older than your oldest kids being 26 given what you've shared...) We can't teach kids to forgive themselves if we're always being self-critical.

      That's WAY different in my mind to "Coddling or Spoiling" anyone, child or not, as I feel some "Parenting Experts" forget that if we want children and teens (Especially those who can't be thoughtfully home schooled like you do for your kids) to have self-empathy (And empathy toward others), when they make major or minor mistakes or have setbacks that may not be ENTIRELY their fault, we have to-

      A. Acknowledge it, FOR REAL.

      B. Model it whenever possible.

      And C. Never act like it's a "Luxury." It's key to our survival as human beings.
      Without it, we'd be despondent neurotics, drunk with shame (Even if you're Sober, alcohol-wise BTW), and that helps no one. Right?

      As writers, we can sometimes let a however much needed "Wake Up Call" (Whether internally or externally via beta-readers, agents or editors) jolt us into a state of fear and pain that does more harm than good, at least in the short term.

  7. Yes, I edit and reedit and reedit, even though I hate editing and would rather just write. And I do so mainly for readers. I'm terrified my next book will disappoint them, and I don't want to lose readers by making foolish mistakes. Also, I do see the book getting better through the edits--my own and my publisher's. And so I do them.

    That said, I'm rather curious about your new agent and who he or she is. I'm also rather curious about why you switched agents and would love to read a tasteful and yet insightful post on the topic. How does a writer know when it's time to switch agents? I hear horror stories from some authors, but I totally love my agent and couldn't imagine leaving her. Anyway, just a thought about a future topic of interest. :-)

    1. Hi Naomi,

      Yes, I'm considering writing a blog post about agents and why I switched. There are a lot of reasons that went into the decision, but I'm not sure if I have enough distance yet from the experience to be able to handle it as tactfully as I'd like.

      All that to say, I don't think enough is said about choosing agents and what needs to go into that process. But it's a tough subject to broach, especially in CBA where everything is always coated with a good dose of positive and where saying anything negative is so taboo.

  8. I do love that quote by Don Roff. :) Editing is such a unique process and one that really pulls us into a whole new place of looking at our work objectively. It's not always easy and one things that's helpful is time to let the words mellow before we dive back in, but once those contracts start coming and the work piles up, time can be a long-forgotten luxury! :) Hoping all goes well for you, Jody, as you work on these different rounds of revisions. Cheering you on!

  9. I admit to publishing before the book was ready, although I did edit it and have it edited, it was by an editor I could afford and so, not the best. Also, I was learning my craft, right at the beginning of doing so, which meant I couldn't see a lot of the glaring issues at the time. Thank heaven for second editions. :) Excellent post! X

  10. Hi Jody -

    I prefer the first draft phase as well. Editing seems like an unending process, but it's worth the effort. Once a book is out there for all to see, it's not easy to make changes or corrections.

    Thanks for your transparency.

    Susan :)

  11. Writing is eating your favorite meal or dessert and editing is doing the dishes with a one inch rag. ugh

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  13. It takes me 2 or 3 weeks to step-plot a novel, 2 to 3 months to write it and up to a year to edit it. I think I'm not alone.

  14. Hi,

    So glad you liked my design enough to use it as an illustration in your blog post - would you mind linking it to my shop, where I sell it on t-shirts, etc? Thanks, Sally McLean