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The Multi-Pass Method for Editing Fiction

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

So you've finished the first draft of the novel that's definitely going to be a bestseller, just like all the others. Get yourself a cookie and insert your head into the jaws of the vice, because now is the time to fix all of the problems you missed. Editing is not a lot of fun, to put it mildly. It's more work than the first draft, more frustrating and just a touch depressing. There are lots of interchangeable methods out there for self-editing,'s another one.

The Multi-Pass Method is based on - if you couldn't guess from the name - multiple cycles of editing, each of which is shorter than a full in-depth cycle. It isn't necessarily shorter than other methods - a standard set of passes over a standard-length manuscript will still take a good 30 hours - but splitting it up into parts can make it more manageable, while also letting you focus on different aspects of the work in each pass.

I have a worksheet to go along with this:

novel editing

Click here or on the image for a print-ready PDF. You'll probably only need one, unless your manuscript is a real mess.

The Method

Below are the types of passes you might use. You're not obliged to use all of them, and they are ordered by the sequence in which you would use them - the ones at the top are best done early in the process, while the ones at the bottom come later.

There are two ways to set this up: You can prepare a suite of passes in advance, or add them as you go. I recommend the latter, as it gives you more flexibility. In either case, as you complete each pass, take notes on weaknesses in the manuscript that you'll need to fix in the next pass.

Correction Pass

Avg. time: 45-60 min / 10k words

The gentlest editing pass you'll make, a correction pass is a quick read-through at more or less standard speed with an eye toward catching obvious typographical errors as well as refreshing your memory of the manuscript. Should you spot more serious mistakes, make a note of them for the next pass but don't bother fixing them just yet - you'll deal with those during the more in-depth passes. This should always be your first pass, and you may benefit from a second correction pass at the end of the cycle.

Development Pass

Avg. time: 2 hr / 10k words

This is a serious editing phase meant to address significant issues. During this pass, you'll restructure sentences and paragraphs, edit dialogue, trim out redundant passages, add foreshadowing, refine the exposition, flesh out characters, and generally fix the kinds of things you don't think about much when drafting. Usually, this will be your second pass. For most projects this will be the longest pass you make, and the one that requires the most effort.

Structure Pass

Avg. time: 2+ hr / 10k words

The most extreme edit you'll ever need to perform, a structure pass is a round of edits to significantly change the structure of the manuscript - for example, by adding or replacing a chapter or shifting the timeline. This is something you'll rarely need to do, but if it must be done, do it early so that you don't have to redo other passes.

Spot Pass

Avg. time: 2 hr / 10k words

This is another deep development pass, but this time you're working on a small part of the manuscript rather than the whole thing. If you've found that certain chapters are rougher than others, or if there are pacing issues only in a specific section, then this is the pass you need to perform. In a very long novel, you may have to conduct multiple spot passes.

Continuity Pass

Avg. time: 1 hr / 10k words

If you have a complex narrative with lots of subplots or a very tight main plot, it may be worthwhile to do a pass dedicated solely to ironing out continuity. Here, you should edit like an especially pedantic reader, taking note of any setups left dangling or time discrepancies. Only do this pass if the story absolutely needs it - most stories won't, and you can catch most errors in other passes.

Length Pass

Avg. time: 1 hr / 10k words

This is a pass intended solely to either remove or add content to make the manuscript fit the standard length for your genre. If you need to do a length pass, it should come late in the process, as the word count for your manuscript will change a lot between passes anyway. Don't make extra work for yourself by fixing the length right before another round of edits.

Refinement Pass

Avg. time: 30-60 min / 10k words

This is the pass you run when you've fixed everything that needs fixing and now all that's left is to put a high shine on the manuscript. Here, you'll take another quick pass over the work, this time with an eye toward fixing the kind of minor problems that separate good from great. In particular, you'll want to deal with your own bad habits. I'm a fan of running my own works through a text analyzer to find overused words. You might also look for awkward sentences, short paragraphs and sentences, bad dialogue tags - anything that's technically fine, but looks bad.

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