Guest post: Story editing by John J Hohn

I’m delighted to bring you tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of editing, by novelist John J Hohn.

Story editing

Story editing is an impossible task for an author to complete alone. It requires a professional. It may be expensive to employ one, but it will pay for itself in the long run.

Writing and editing are two very separate activities—involving different parts of the brain. Don’t think about editing while you write. Don’t think about writing while you edit.

Editing begins with a good outline of the book. If an outline is too confining, write a treatment—a narrative that covers the story from beginning to end.

The treatment will pry out the technical issues that need research. Getting the research completed at this stage is very important as it may dictate a change in the plot or the manner in which a character is presented. When the treatment is complete, the writer should know where the story is going, how it will develop, and how it will end. When this point it reached, it is time to begin writing.

The story belongs in the hands of the characters. The writer needs to suspend concerns about relevance, plot line, and economy, and write as the subconscious releases ideas, descriptions, and actions to the imagination. A good writer will have a powerful imagination, one that makes full image dreaming possible without being asleep. To tap into this flow of creative juices, the editor in the author needs to back off. The author should follow every impulse. Saving time doesn’t matter. Getting back to the plot doesn’t matter. Write! Go down every avenue, street, alley, and path. Find out what awaits with each excursion. Enjoy it. The results will be surprising and exciting. They will help to fill out each character’s personality and make even the most minor character credible.

The end product should be an immense manuscript. To illustrate, Deadly Portfolio was a 167,000-word tome in first draft. It was pared down to 93,500 words when published.

Finishing a novel feels great. But a lot of work lies ahead. The first thing an author needs to do is walk away for at least a couple of weeks. That seems counter to everything a writer feels at this time, but it is mistake to ride the surge of energy that always follows on completing a book into the editing task. Defensiveness and bias will interfere with the difficult decisions that are essential in editing. Leave the manuscript alone.

Once the simmering period is over, print out the manuscript. Word-processing is great, but editing on the CRT screen is too limiting and awkward. A printed manuscript is far better. Then chart the story.

A chart is the critical path along which the events of the story take place. Chart every sidetrack taken at the point at which it enters and concludes in the story. Count the pages, if necessary, to determine how much of the reader’s time is taken up at different points along the way.

Check that events are taking place in chronological order, or if not, that the transitions are clear to the reader. Graphically, the chart will quickly demonstrate where things bog down. In Deadly Portfolio, I wanted to demonstrate how arrogance contributed to the downfall of the first murder victim. I had her best friend deliver the eulogy at the funeral. It was great fun to write—the feminist manifesto applied to an insecure, grasping woman. My chart showed me that the story was losing time between the victim’s death and the next critical event. Cut!

At another point, I wanted Matthew Wirth to express his disdain over the piety professed by a neighbor. Again, it was fun to write. But ultimately, as in the previous case, too much time was lost on the subject and very little, if anything, contributed to the plot or the depth of the characters. I found more efficient ways to portray the female victim’s arrogance in her dialogue and actions. The same held true for Matthew, an idealistic agnostic.

This trimming removes the branches of the story that block the overall shape and flow of the story. The work needs to difficult, even painful, to be good. If it helps, save a cherished segment with the thought it can be reintroduced later if needed. At least a third of the original text should be cut. Save the computer copy of the first draft. Then make the changes to create a first revision and print out copies for friends to read.

Friends can be a great help. Make it comfortable for them to be critical. Assure them that the flow of the story is most important and not individual word usage or grammar. One reader told me, for example, that she thought there was too much police interrogation of suspects. I love writing that kind of dialogue, but upon reviewing the passages, I agreed and found other ways to reveal the characters’ thinking.

Compile all of the criticism into one master printed copy and evaluate each contributor’s suggestion. Full segments may need to be cut from the first draft. Pride of authorship contaminates editing judgment. The author needs to work against it. When all the friends’ advice is weighed, decide on the changes to the script, make them, and print a second revised version.

Use the second revision to prune the text. Examine each sentence—one at a time. Decide whether it is as clear as it needs to be. As short. Perhaps a character trait can be best illustrated by a better verb choice. Demonstrating the characters’ personalities in dialogue and verb choice is more powerful than any amount of description. Make sure the text is alive with color, sound, scent, and sensations of hot, cold, moist, dry, etc. These may be a matter of style but deserve consideration at this point.

The changes this sentence-by-sentence pruning works into the manuscript is a final step. Submit a third revised manuscript to the story editor you have chosen. Your baby will be in good hands.

167,000 to 93,500 – wow, that’s some doing. I thought my 117,540 to c.105,000 was tough, and yes, I’m a print-it-out-and-hack-it-with-a-red-pen editor. Thank you John!


John J. Hohn is the author of two five-star literary mysteries, Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds, 2011 and a sequel, Breached, 2014. As I Was Passing By, a collection of poems, was published in 2000. His prize-winning poetry appears frequently on his web site along with articles on a variety of subjects. He plans to publish a book of selected works later in 2017.

BreachedHe contributes to various web sites dedicated to writing and publishing. His own website,, features articles on a wide range of topics including book and drama reviews, autobiographical sketches, financial planning, and civil rights.

Born and raised in Yankton, South Dakota, USA, John graduated from St. John’s University in 1961 with a degree in English.

He is the father of four sons and a daughter, a stepfather to a son, and has resided in North Carolina since 1978.

He and his wife Melinda divide their time each year between their home in Winston-Salem, NC and a cabin near West Jefferson, NC.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me at with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please” (while quietly bouncing up and down in my seat with joy!).

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with historical, romance, paranormal novelist and writing guide guru Smoky Trudeau Zeidel who guest blogged for me recently – the one hundred and eighty-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

2 thoughts on “Guest post: Story editing by John J Hohn

  1. williamdoonan says:

    Enjoyed your post, John.

    I approached Oak Tree Press with my archaeological mystery, American Caliphate, about a year ago. Sunny Frazier told me she really liked my query, but at 103,000 words, the novel was too long. I offered to pare it down to 85,000 words, and she suggested I give it a shot. The result was months of painful chopping of nearly one fifth of my precious words. But at 85,000 words, the story was way better. I had to lose some nice backstory, but it’s so much tighter. I’m glad I did it.

    William Doonan


We'd love you to leave a comment, thank you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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