The Red Pen: NaNoWriMo & Editing? Blasphemy! (Or not. Keep reading.)

I know what you’re thinking.

This is NaNoWriMo! There’s no editing in NaNoWriMo!


And you’re right. The whole point of it is to produce a 50,000 word manuscript in a month. That’s about 1,600 words a day, and nobody said they had to be great words. Or punctuated words. Or even grammatically correct words.

That comes later.

On the other hand, you might hit the wall this November. You might find yourself staring at a blinking cursor, wondering when the madness will end. Bored with your story, hating your protagonist and ready to resign yourself to that desk job, you’re about to pull the plug on the whole project.

But wait!—this is where a quick edit might help jump start your writing.

How to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em when it comes to editing during NaNoWriMo? Read on.


It’s not as counterintuitive as you think (at least, not the way I mean it). While most people think of proofreading, the dotted i’s and crossed t’s of a piece, there are other levels of editing. Substantive editing looks at structure, content, language, style, etc.—the “big picture” things.

A mini-substantive edit may seem like backtracking, but it can recharge your writing when all hope seems lost. Better to do a quick rehash than stare at a screen for five minutes, right? Here are two easy ways to get yourself going again:

The Twisted Trailer Edit:

Ever see those twisted movie trailers?—you know, the ones where they take Jack Nicholson’s scare-the-pants-off-you film The Shining, cut the Penderecki soundtrack and add a happy Peter Gabriel tune, and re-splice it as Shining, a sweet family dramedy? Try going back even just a paragraph or so and rewriting wherever you’re stuck in a different genre: romance, western, cyberpunk, etc. You’re not going to keep this, obviously, but a few lines will stretch you creatively. You’ll be more aware of the conventions that make YOUR chosen genre special, and this will help you to be more attuned to the word choice and world building that will connect with your readers as you continue. Refreshed? Good! Onward!

The Action Edit:

Feeling bogged down by your tale? Another quick edit: take a minute to sweep a page and highlight all the verbs on it. With the exception of helping verbs (we’ll save that for another post), verbs fall into two basic categories: action or linking. If your story is feeling way stale, you may find that much of what’s happening on paper looks like this:

  • Dragomir the Orc Slayer was sad.
  • Great Aunt Agatha seemed impatient.
  • Kelvin and his twin brother Melvin became tired of their elven home.

Problem? Linking verbs, connector words that relate subjects with descriptors (sad, or annoyed, or tired, in these cases), abound!

This may not seem like a big deal, but if most of your verbs are linking rather than action, there’s a good chance you’re telling more than you’re showing. Take a minute and see what a little action could do in such cases to create interest:

  • Dragomir the Orc Slayer slumped against his axe.
  • Great Aunt Agatha tapped lacquered nails on the desk in perfect time with the clock.
  • Kelvin and his twin brother Melvin trudged down the well-worn path of their elven home like they had every day for the past four hundred years.

Now that your characters are doing something, you’ve got a better chance of a story that propels itself!


You can flag a scene to come back to it. You can highlight a subject/verb agreement issue your 6th grade teacher would have smacked you upside the head for forgetting. But for the sake of all that is good and holy in this world:


Everyone’s first draft is crap. You are no exception. You’re going to miss stuff the first time through—obvious stuff, like quotation marks, and i-before-e-except-after-c rules, and enormous plot holes that rival the Grand Canyon, and characters you just kinda dropped. Don’t dwell on it.

The Bottom Line:

November is for writing.

December is for editing.

We’ll chat again in a month!


Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and college level.


Sentence structure still got you down? Click here to learn about Pink Umbrella Editing Services, and follow our blog for writing and editing tips.

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