For Writers

How to Edit a Scene in Five Easy (Heh. Try Hair-Pulling) Steps

As you might know from my What Projects Am I Working On? post, I’m currently editing the first two books of my fantasy series together into a single story — and by “editing” I mean “smashing”, “hacking and slashing”, “pleading, begging, sobbing, cajoling, coaxing, coercing, and otherwise bribing” the two stories to fit together into a single narrative arc.

It’s been fun.


(I say, as a single drop of sweat slides down my brow.)

As I’m a little bit obsessed with reading about people’s editing adventures,  I thought I would share what do, when I need to hack and slash and smash. Every writer’s process is going to be different, but if you’re at that revision stage and need some advice for how to get started, you might find this post helpful!

Step 1: The Overview; Bold the Clunk

To start off, I reread my entire scene (or chapter) from start to finish. Once I’ve refreshed the scene in my mind, I go back through and bold all the clunky sections that need to be pared down. The paragraphs that run on for too long, the descriptions that are too vague and hard to visualize, the dialogue that doesn’t sound quite right.

For example, here’s a sample of a scene where I’ve bolded all the lazy, too-long, uncertain sections that I don’t like the look of:


As a general rule of thumb, I try to seriously reconsider any paragraph that’s longer than 5 or 6 lines, and any chunk of dialogue that’s more than 3 or 4.

Usually, a lot of problems with scenes not making sense come from a lack of clarification in the writing. Trimming everything down so it’s clear, concise, and moves along quickly really helps.

Step 2: Print it Out, And Get to Work

Once I’ve got my problem areas glaring at me with their condemning boldness, I print the chapter out and really dive in.


This first editing pass is a broad-sweeping one. I go through the whole scene or chapter and hack at the paragraphs that I’ve bolded. I do the major rewrites here, checking and double-checking my outline as I go to make sure I’m hitting all the moments that are vital for the story to make sense.

I don’t worry too much about word choice at this point — the point of Step 2 is to make all the big necessary structural changes. Once you’ve got the story where you want it to be, then you get to move on to Step 3, the stylistic changes…

Step 3: Roll Up Those Sleeves and Go Line By Line

Now that I’ve broken up my giant paragraphs, slashed what needed to be slashed, regained my focus, I’m ready to do the real grunt work. The line by line rewrites. This is taxing, but it’s the necessary elbow grease that’ll really make the work shine. Note: do not tackle this step until you feel confident with the direction of your scene/chapter. Make sure your story makes sense, make sure the building’s foundation is sturdy before you start tweaking the window dressings.

Some examples of things to look out for:

Eliminate Crutch Words.

With your Eagle Editor’s Eye, find those weak words that you rely on way too much in your writing and find new, more creative ways to write the sentence. Every writer has words they use more than any other, but here’s a chart of some of the most often abused crutch words:

(If you’d like a closer look into eliminating crutch words from your writing, check out this post!)

Sharpen Vague Descriptions

Instead of listing three to five details of the scene, really hone in something tactile and emotionally significant to root the character and the reader into the story.

Keep Characters Moving

Add action to a scene. I remember one of the funniest and most frustrating details of the Twilight movies was the sheer amount of time characters spent standing around dramatically making plans. Don’t let your characters dawdle in the same place for too long — Have them explore the world of the scene, interact with things around them; employ some classic Sorkin Walk and Talks to keep dialogue and the plot moving forward!

But Don’t Make Them Move Around Too Much

It’s not necessary for every line of dialogue to be couched in a bit of action, and you don’t need characters standing up for one line, sitting down for the next, pacing endlessly around the room, picking up every little object they can get their hands on — As well as you can, visually block the scene in your head like you’re watching a movie or TV show play out, and try to make your characters’ movement around the area as natural as possible.

Eliminate Unnecessary Dialogue

You want your dialogue to be doing as much work as possible; revealing character, moving the plot forward, laying down clues, all the while being as entertaining and dynamic as possible. No short order, is it? Obviously, you want to read your dialogue out loud as much as possible to make sure it sounds realistic and works in the context of the scene.

While you’re doing this, consider seriously if every line of dialogue you have in a scene is holding its weight. Does that joke land? Does that declarative speech actually go anywhere? Is it that important for this character to say this right now?Look at the qualifiers you couch your dialogue with in your attempt to make it sound realistic. Does every sentence need to start with “Well,” or “Look,” or “Listen”? Probably not. That four sentence soliloquy your protagonist  goes into — could that be cut down to a single line? And, most importantly, is it all affecting the plot?

Every sentence of dialogue should be a little boot kick to the story, nudging things forward.What I like to do is put all the dialogue on its own in a separate document and visualize the scene as a teleplay. If the scene were in a movie or a TV show, could you follow the story just by listening to the characters? If so, you know you’ve written some strong dialogue that’s moving the plot along.

Create Parallels

A great technique is to have the end of every scene, either through the dialogue, imagery, or internal narration, mirror the beginning. The same goes for every chapter. This gives the scene or chapter a tidy, satisfying feeling of completion, and the lack of parallelism might be why your scene doesn’t quite feel finished.

Step 4: Reading It All Back

This is the most important stage: the second read-through. Before you can uncork the champagne, unleash the balloons, turn on the music, and get the victory party truly started, you have to make sure your accomplishments actually improved the chapter. So after all this editing (which can take hours, days, or weeks, depending) I read the piece through again, with an ear out for consistency in the language, a general ramping of the tension and movement, and make sure the chapter, edited within an inch of its life, is still interesting.

As you read, ask yourself this very, very, very important question: Am I still having fun?

If you are, congratulations, you’ve successfully edited a dynamic chapter! If not…

Step 5: Don’t Give Up

Maybe you need to go back to your outline and fundamentally change the direction of your scene or chapter. Maybe you need to add more dialogue, or less, or change the tone, or rearrange the events. Maybe, even after you’ve polished and polished and polished the writing, the scene still doesn’t shine. That doesn’t mean you’re a failure or that you’ve wasted your time.

I know, okay? Editing is the HARDEST THING. It’s so frustrating. You have all these words, and they don’t quite work, and you’re not entirely sure why, and the only thing left to do is repeatedly beat your face against your keyboard until everything falls together. Take as many breaks, breathers, and breakdowns as you need: just, don’t give up on your story. Take some time off, write something new, reread a larger portion of your WIP to get back into the headspace, examine your outline, or maybe even set the scene aside and give it a few days before you judge it again. Whatever you need to do, don’t fret. You’re putting in the time, you’ll get there. Promise.

Happy writing. 🙂

Christina is an aspiring novelist, who wanted to create a safe, fun place to share advice, inspiration, and motivation with other writers!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.