I edit novels (among other works). I was having a discussion with someone (not an editor) who didn't understand my technique.

What I do is read through the document, and the moment something occurs to me — whatever reaction I'm having for good or ill, whatever I catch, any questions I have, mistakes I spot, delightful turns of phrase I notice — I mark it. When I get to the end, I then go back and briefly review my remarks, so that if I wrote something like "Is there a reason that Dave went to the deli?" and I find later that Dave needed to be at the deli so he could overhear Sarah, I can delete that comment.

My friend thought that I should read through the entire book first, as though I were reading it for pleasure rather than as an editor, and then do a second round as an editor. He thought that reading it first as an editor was somehow unfair to the "spell" that the writer was trying to create with the book.

I really think that it's important for a writer to get my first-read impressions. If I already know that we aren't going to return to Blandings Castle for another 150 pages, then I don't feel impatient. But if I'm reading through for the first time, as a reader I'm wondering "when TF are we going to get back to Blandings Castle already? It's been over 100 pages!" I think the author needs to know that the reader is feeling impatient. If that's deliberate, or if the author doesn't care, that's a legitimate choice. But the writer can't know that unless as a reader (and editor) I give her that feedback.

So I ask any other editors here: what's your technique? Mark as you read on first draft, or read and then mark? Or something else altogether?

  • 1
    Good question there
    – pramodc84
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 12:09
  • There's a specific point to your fellow editor's method: If you don't remember about given point/worry at the end of reading, was it important enough to worry about, to begin with? Letting your memory be the filter of "important/unimportant" is a good method to get rid of many unnecessary worries. "I would have remembered it if it was worth remembering."
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 24, 2013 at 7:43
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    @SF. I strongly disagree. On that first read, I am trying to follow the story, which may be chockablock with false trails and details and subplots. It's only on second read, when I know what's going to happen, that I realize that the timeline for the shooting doesn't work. There's literally no way for me to know that until I read it the second time and take notes of the timestamps. Just because I was fooled by the ol' razzle-dazzle doesn't mean there isn't a problem. See also TV Tropes's Fridge Logic: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FridgeLogic Commented Nov 24, 2013 at 13:27
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    @LaurenIpsum I'm a web-designer. Whenever I visit a website I feel as though I'm picking holes in it, just because I know how I can do it myself. There's no shame in 'not being able to turn off the inner-editor'... embrace it. Your friend probably sees things he/she would like to change whilst on the first read, and does nothing about it. This is probably worse. I'd have the same gut reaction as you; mark it, move on. +1 for your technique
    – Dan Hanly
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 21:27
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    I've re-developed an acquaintance's site before now for free, because it was so bad. I couldn't turn off my web-design skills and let this pass. In the context of your question, you can edit however you feel comfortable - I happen to agree with it wholeheartedly.
    – Dan Hanly
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 22:20

5 Answers 5


I haven't done actual editing, but I've done a fair bit of critique and review. I think the issues are pretty much the same.

Standard proviso: everybody has their own system. Of writing, of reading, of editing. Obviously your system isn't "wrong," even if nobody else does it; nor is it "right" merely because you may find that everybody does it. But that's not what you're asking, so I'll assume this point is obvious :)

Here's my take: the first read-through is crucial. That's how pretty much everybody is going to be reading it, after all, so that's the experience you want to polish, refine, and make absolutely perfect.

  • What you're saying, in your question, is, "The first read-through is crucial, so it's best to set down my comments and reactions to that, and not rely solely on reactions to subsequent re-reads."
  • Your friend, on the other hand, is saying "The first read-through is crucial, so it's best to read it in the most pure, receptive manner you can - and constant commenting and critiquing will not enable you to get the real first read-through experience that a real reader would have."
  • My own opinion, in a nutshell, is that you're absolutely right on this one - but you should keep your friend's point in mind.

In other words (and in more of them): your technique of marking reactions during your first read-through is (IMHO) spot-on. Your friend perhaps does not understand how difficult it is to re-capture those initial reactions of yours, or how important they are to the editing process. Your friend also might not appreciate that an editor's job involves, in a very real sense, the ability to read critically and for enjoyment in the very same reading. You have to: your criticism is meant precisely to make the book better, more powerful, more enjoyable; how can that skill be separated from your ability to feel the power and enjoyment in the book?

On the other hand, that being said, it is harder to enjoy a piece when you're also trying to fix it. In my experience, that first pass is an attempt to capture your response to the book - not to fix it, or to make any suggestions on how to deal with it triggering those responses. Those are things you can do once you've finished the first read-through. And anything critical (and certainly active editing suggestions) that can wait for later, probably should.

So, for example, "Dude! It's been 100 pages since you mentioned Blandings Castle! WTF?" would be fine, if that were your reaction, whereas "It's been a long time since you've mentioned Blandings Castle - is this really necessary? If it is, maybe you could at least give some ominous hints to what's going on there - maybe as news from the water girl in Chapter 17!" would probably be pretty far out of I'm-A-Regular-Reader Zone. That's what I'd take from your friend's opinion: capture your reaction; leave "what to do about it" for later; don't break into full-out Editor Mode.

What's really nice is that as an editor, you can jot down your most cryptic, frustrated, mocking comments - the same ones you have reading any book! - without needing to explain yourself. You don't need to phrase your reactions as helpful comments, or even as intelligible comments. You just need enough to get a good sense, when you are writing your comments to the author, of what needs to be addressed - from the fresh-reader's perspective. Because you've got your own, all jotted down.

You asked about my own technique; it sounds like it's something similar to yours.

  • I make a first pass with my most initial reactions - usually as comments right off the text.
  • When I'm done with the piece, I write a long response, detailing my macro-level comments, addressing any concerns that repeated a bunch of times, and going into detail for micro-points that require it.
  • Then I go back to my initial reactions, and I edit them into clear, helpful micro-comments for the author. "WTF is going on with Blandings Castle???" turns into "I'm getting a bit frustrated that you've left us hanging on Blandings Castle for so long. The reader may feel like you've swerved away from the 'real plot,' or just feel like the story's unraveled somewhat." By this point, I already know the ending, so I can give constructive criticism on how the point might be improved - particularly if it's not something that can be fixed by a simple "I didn't like X, don't do it." I want the author to have these comments, as a record of my initial reaction, which I see as very valuable - but it's generally necessary to edit them for legibility and tact.
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    I use your approach when editing technical documentation that's meant to be read linearly (like tutorials). The same concerns apply there too, though I grant that sometimes the plot is a bit thin. Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 15:10

I mark upon first impression because, for me, on second reading the remarkable writing becomes stale and the bad writing becomes acceptable and commonplace. When I get that frisson at a nice phrase, or the ennui and discouragement that arises from bad writing, that's the time I have to note it. Just MHO.

-- pete


I will pile onto the "both methods will work" bandwagon, with a qualification.

Your first impressions are important enough that they should be preserved if possible, even if any concerns are addressed later.

For example, you provide a comment that you struck once the question was answered:

"Is there a reason that Dave went to the deli?"

In that case, rather than striking the comment, I would modify it to something like:

"I was wondering why Dave went to the deli. Insert additional commentary, such as 'Good hook' or 'Seemed irrelevant at the time, but good job maintaining continuity' or 'You could have telegraphed a little more/less with this'"

That can provide a hint to the author on the value or impact of his decision. Basically, if you noticed it, the author's decision was noteworthy in some way and merits consideration.

Obviously, some comments will offer very little value after a complete reading. Strike those. However, a lot of times, a comment that was rendered moot by further reading can be rendered insightful by further consideration.


As with Standback, it's agreeable that either approach could work and that there's no "official" way to do it.

Perhaps it's advisable to try the next one the read-then-edit way and see how it works any better for you.

There is one way you could try it by reaching a middle ground. Perhaps only correcting obvious errors such as spelling, punctuation and grammar, then once you have read the whole manuscript, go back and look at the story itself.


My process is to only mark things that interfere with the reading process on the first pass. This is that I try to read for pleasure, and anything that reminds me that the world actually exists out side of the story gets marked now. The second pass is for plot, the third pass is for story telling, the forth is for grammar spelling and punctuation. then I start over. the ninth pass is layout. Then I read something else, anything else.

  • Okay, I have to ask: did you deliberately put spelling and grammatical mistakes in the phrase about spelling and grammar? :) Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 21:32

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