Creating Chapter Outlines to Help Edit the First Draft of Your Manuscript

Q: I have just finished the first draft of a novel and am a little intimidated by the editing process. I have read Michael Seidman’s book Editing Your Fiction, but I was hoping for some additional advice on how to look at the project as a whole, and the concept of chapters (right now I seem to have dropped chapters in at random). -Anastasia

I’ll refer again to the Sol Stein book, “Stein On Writing.” Stein has a good take on the project as a whole.

Here’s another idea that is easy and fun and has many benefits. Type up a chapter-by-chapter outline. List each chapter and capture its essence in one short paragraph, such as this example:

“Chapter 3
Mary comes home early and finds her daughter and a stranger playing Scrabble at the kitchen table. The daughter introduces the man as her tutor, John Wright. Mary has an uneasy feeling about John and goes online to learn more about him. She discovers that he had been a professor at a nearby college, but he no longer teaches full time.”

After you create a summary of each chapter, you may need such an outline later, when you query publishers. In the meantime, use the outline to display the order and flow of your story. Once finished, your outline will probably show you if some elements need to be moved to other chapters or if some chapters need to be moved to other locations. Move everything around until you sense that the story moves forward and concludes in a natural fashion.

It’s easier to shuffle outlined chapters than it is to move full chapters, so play with the outline all you want. Don’t hesitate to take parts of one chapter and move them to others. Be sure your first chapter starts at the point where things start to go wrong.

Play with your outline as if it were a dollhouse. Try out new arrangements until you know you’ve put all the information and all the chapters in the right and perfect order. Next you can make the changes on the actual manuscript.

Bobbie Christmas
Owner of Zebra Communications, a Literary Services Firm