Tips on Editing a Novel

writing, editing, how to, revise, tips, advice, writers

I’ll be honest, I’ve been slacking off on blog prep for the last couple of weeks, mainly because I’ve been so consumed with the current WIP I’ve been working on. After a short dry spell where I just didn’t know where the story was going and I just wasn’t feeling it, I’ve suddenly (finally!) caught on fire and I’ve just been eager to write, write, write.

On the one hand, it’s good. It’s really good. Oh so very, very, very good to have my writing mojo on – there is nothing like the feeling in the world.

On the other hand, now that I’ve caught on fire, I don’t want to waste this elusive spark and so all I want to do is write. Which isn’t good for all my other life activities.

I just finished the first draft on the weekend and now I’m deep in the first editing round. So I thought it would be timely to share a blog post on the how-tos of editing a novel.

Clean and polish, clean and polish!

Essentially, the first draft of your novel is just spewing the words on the page (Sorry for any gross visualization there). That’s not the time to worry about making the words perfect and pretty, it’s about just getting them out of your head and onto the page.

The first edit, however, is reserved for that. This is where the big rewrite comes and you have to shape your words so they say exactly what you say. That’s when you:

Knuckle down on grammar, spelling, etc.

Do a check for misspells, grammar mistakes, malapropism and repetitive words. Microsoft Spellcheck always helps here but it’s not the end all and be all of grammar-dectectors. Keep an eagle eye out for general misspells and also misspells of character names, particularly for those writing in the fantasy genre and using made-up names or elaborate names.

Be consistent: British spelling or American spelling? Harvard comma or no Harvard comma? To add an s or no to a plural possessive that ends in an s (E.g. Mr Jones’s umbrella or Mr Jones’ umbrella)? Paste tense or present tense? All these are subjective grammar styling – there is no true right or wrong way, but the thing is to choose one way or the other and then stick it with it throughout your novel.

Also, watch out for malapropisms – make sure the word you use means exactly what you want it to mean. Have a grammar style guide next to you at all times to check your manuscript against. And keep an eye out for repetitive words.Does the same word keep popping up too many times?This is where a thesaurus comes in useful! I’ll use an example of a paragraph to be found further down this very blog post:

Take that feedback, weigh it up, let it sit for a while, then see if it works for you and your story. If you feel the feedback could help improve your story, go ahead and incorporate it in your story.

Change that to:

Take that feedback, weigh it up, let it sit for a while, then see if it works for you and your story. If you feel the feedback could help improve your work, go ahead and incorporate it in your manuscript.

See how much better that is?

Read your work aloud.

There are several reasons for reading your work aloud, especially to an audience (like a writing group). For one thing, it helps you figure out where you’ve got sentences that are way too long – if you find yourself having to pause in the middle of a sentence to take a breath, have a look to see if it needs cutting down or separating into two or three sentences instead.

Reading aloud can also help you understand if you’ve managed to get the pacing right in your story, the right cadence and rhythm of words.

It also helps to spot sections where your story’s dragging – the long descriptive paragraphs or moments where it’s just taking too long for your characters to get from Point A to Point B. A good rule of thumb is to note when your audience starts shuffling their feet or clearing their throat, looking restless. If what you’re reading is boring the audience, it’s not going to get the reader any more excited. Cut it out and tighten that story. Which leads us to…

Keep an eye out for that word count.

Do you need to pad your story out? Or cut it down? The general word count for a novel is between 80,000-10,000 words, but it also varies between genres. To find out the ideal word count for your novel, have a look here and here.

Cut that Exposition. 

If your novel is way longer than it should be (And trust me, it usually is), then you’ve got to cut that exposition down. I recently read a quote about the short story author Amy Hempels which I’ll never forget: “She can do in a paragraph what it takes other writers a page to do.” Good, strong, concise writing always packs a punch, more so than long, flowery, descriptive passages.

I’m not going to say much more on this as I plan to put up a post pretty soon on How to Cut Down That Damn Novel! When the post goes live, I’ll link it here.

Check for plot holes/logic flaws.

This is something I start to look at around my second or third round of edits. At this point, I start creating (if I haven’t already) a glossary, a cast list, a timeline, an Invented Words dictionary and a map. (this works mainly for fantasy but having a reference list also helps even if you’re writing in another genre). It’s good to have a list to check against to ensure, for example, that my characters aren’t travelling east with the setting sun in their eyes or that Mitty’s hair isn’t black in one scene and red in the other. That if a character’s pregnant, they’re not giving birth only six months after they’ve conceived or I’ve got snowdrops shooting up in November or someone wearing a fur coat during summer, that sort of thing.

I also check for plot holes – does the storyline make sense? Have I tripped myself up anywhere? Are there any inconsistencies in my story? Any continuity errors in the timeline? Do all the rules of my magical world make sense? Am I playing Deus Ex Machina anywhere? Also, are all my characters behaving, well, in character?

Beta readers and critique groups.

Sometimes we’re too close to our story to tell if it’s good or bad. And trust me, after hours of re-reading the same section, the words start to blur and you just can’t tell if what you’re reading is a masterful magnum opus or a load of crap.

That’s where having an extra pair of eyes is a good thing. When I say an extra pair of eyes, I don’t mean your best friend or mum or someone who’s going to sugarcoat things and say they love you work no matter what! You want someone who can offer good useful feedback. Examples include a local writers’ group or online critique group, or getting input from fellow writer friends. Failing that, you could pay for some beta readers to read your work.

Find the balance in opinions. 

Having said that, don’t feel you have to change your work according to all the feedback you receive from your beta readers/workshop members, particularly if they’re extremely contradictory. Take that feedback, weigh it up, let it sit for a while, then see if it works for you and your story. If you feel the feedback could help improve your work, go ahead and incorporate it in your manuscript. If you don’t feel it, don’t change it. Take heart from Jo March’s experience in Good Wives, where she tried to rewrite her book to suit everyone and ended by pleasing no one, not even herself. In the end, you must trust your instinct and yourself.

Take time out between edits.

<insert loud siren noise> Step Away From That Novel! Something that’s hard to do when all you want is to work on your novel and time away just feels like time wasted. But, again, after hours of rereading the same words over and over again, your perspective can get seriously blurred. So when that happens, put that novel away and go do something else for a few days or even a week or two. Then come back to it with a mind and eyes refreshed.

Save, save save!

Don’t forget to hit Save! There’s nothing worse than spending hours, days, weeks or even months working on a draft only to have your computer go on the blink one day and lose everything! For extra insurance, keep extra copies of all your work in an external source – a Dropbox folder, an e-mail draft folder or an external hard drive/USB. Prop tip: Create a new folder/word doc called The Cutting Room – this is where you’ll dump all the work you’ve previously deleted. So if you experience a pang of regret for the chapter you deleted just a week ago, you can always pop into the Cutting Room folder and retrieve it.

Format your book according to the style gods.

Namely, the literary agents. So no fancy font, no colored ink, no gold star stickers. Follow the guidelines here and here.

Finally, know when to stop.

So, months have passed. You’ve read your work aloud till your voice is hoarse. You’ve cut and cut and cut until your novel is as tight and streamlined as a racing yacht’s mainsails. You’ve polished and honed your novel until it shines like one of Cleopatra’s jewels. Your writing room’s littered with maps, glossaries, dictionaries, timeline graphs, rule systems, cast lists, plot boards. Your beta readers and critique groups have praised your work to high heavens and your final draft has been reformatted to the nth degree.

But you’re still muttering to yourself, “Just one more edit,” and removing commas and replacing them an hour later. Changing one word, then changing it back again. Fussing with the names and numbers of the chapters for the 397th time. This, my friend, is the time to stop editing.

You may give yourself one more edit. You may step away for some time, at least a week, then come and do a final read-through. But at some time, we all need to stop editing. Your novel is a good as it gets. Abd it is time – time – to take a deep breath and set your baby free into the world.


  1. Pingback: Tips on How to Cut Down Your Novel’s Word Count The Salonniere's Apartments


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