How to edit a novel and save your sanity as a writer

December 4, 2019

So you’ve written a novel, and now you want to do what? Edit it? Delete words you spent hours carefully piecing together to form a narrative. Why would you want to do that? 😬

First up, congratulations! You have achieved a massive milestone in putting those 60,000+ words one after the other. It may or may not make sense at this point. It’s a red-hot mess, but that’s okay. This is what editing is for.

And yes, you need to edit your book. Just because you have written the greatest space opera of all time with a cast of twenty-seven lady warriors from the planet Zem’ephanik, all in space bikinis, does not mean that you can just publish it or submit it without editing. That’s like going out naked to the shops.

So – fanfare please – I’m going to take you through how I edit my novels. This is not a definitive series of steps, but if they work for your process, I hope they help you edit your novel.

Take notes while you write

While I’m writing a novel, I want to get the first draft out as quickly as possible. So I don’t slow down too much, if I notice something needs to change but will take too long, I’ll make a note of it using the comments tool in Word. That way when I print off the manuscript to edit, I’ll have those notes handy.

I also keep a notebook for every novel I write and use it as a dumping ground for bigger picture structural and thematic issues. If I notice that a character has changed over the space of the book, I’ll make a note to fix it in the edit.

Step away from the manuscript

Once your book is finished, take a break from it. And no, not just for a couple of hours. Take a month away from the work. Write something completely different. Go on vacation (I did!). DO NOT LOOK AT THE MANUSCRIPT. This will allow you to clear your head and see it with fresh eyes. 

Mechanical edit

The first step in my editing process is what I call a mechanical edit: using automated tools to smooth out the manuscript. This helps to make easy fixes without using too much brain power. You will need that brain power later.

Track changes

Before you start editing, turn on track changes–it’s great for seeing how much you’ve edited your novel from the first draft. Also, if you don’t like changes you’ve made, you can see what you had before.

Word spelling and grammar checker

Run your manuscript through the Word spelling and grammar checker. If you don’t know where it is, it’s in the ‘review’ section of the ribbon under ‘Check document’. I know this seems like such a basic step, but you would not believe how many times I’ve picked up basic typos and mistakes using this tool.

Make sure your document is set on the correct language for the location of your book. You don’t want to a novel set in America full of British spelling and vice versa. If you change the language settings, you’ll need to restart Word before they update in your manuscript.

After the whole editing process is complete, I also run the spelling and grammar checker one more time before submitting, to see if I’ve made any typos in changing the manuscript.

ProWriting Aid

ProWriting Aid on screen

I also use a tool called ProWriting Aid. It’s a writing software that integrates with Microsoft Word to flag not only grammar and spelling, but a huge amount of readability tools. I love it. It’s so helpful for picking up easy fixes, like pacing, adjective usage and overused words. I especially like the writing style check, which helps me see where I can omit or be more specific with words. While ProWriting Aid doesn’t cope with analysing a whole manuscript at once, I do chapter by chapter assessments of style, grammar and overused words in a combination report. 

Delete filtering words

I then search in Word for filtering words using Ctrl + F. Filtering words are words like to look, see, think, feel and hear, which are often unnecessary and a crutch for lazy writing. I say this having at least 1,000 in my latest novel. I’ll make a pass over the manuscript for each word, and if it can be deleted or reworded, get rid of them! Especially if you write fiction in limited third or first, where you need to be so close to your character your reader feels like they are there, GET RID OF THE FILTERING WORDS.

Full edit

Now to the full edit. Get out those red pens, ‘cause you are gonna make that manuscript bleed (red ink that is).

Cat sticks its tongue out at computer
My cat trolling me as I edit. Really.

Print your manuscript

I cannot stress this enough: it is very difficult to do a proper edit of your novel on a screen. The screen encourages you to skim past words that leap out on paper. By printing it out, it allows you to disassemble the story in a new format, which means you’re seeing it with fresh eyes. And you need those fresh eyes to see the book from a reader’s perspective.

Delete and clarify

There is no easy way to go about a full edit. When in doubt, delete. Anything that doesn’t make sense to you won’t make sense to a reader. Excess verbiage, verbal diarrhoea, call it what you will. Get rid of the fluff and tighten that book up.

A few questions I have at the back of my mind when I edit.

  • Does this feel clunky?
  • Can I say this with fewer words?
  • Would someone highlight this when they read a book?
  • Is this too much or too little information?
  • Does the setting feel realised?
  • Is this necessary to the story? No? Then why is it in the book?
  • Have I said or established this already?
  • Is the timing realistic? Or is everyone using the Westeros speedboat to jump from place to place.
  • Are there inconsistencies? Does the living room have green curtains in the first scene and blue in the second? Is a clue mysteriously teleported one character’s pocket to another’s?
  • Can this backstory be told with dialogue?
  • Are my characters speaking in a consistent style through the novel? Has my Aussie bushranger slipped into Cockney slang?
  • Do I need to make this world-building more authentic? Does this need to be more researched?

Structural editing

I don’t do a lot of structural editing as I spend months plotting my novels before I even start writing. This makes the editing process a lot easier, because I’m not having to move scenes around or add too much in.

However, sometimes you read through your work and think, this needs more, or this scene should happen earlier. Don’t be afraid to make those changes. If it’s helpful, write all the scenes on palm cards and arrange them on the floor. Once you’re happy, start moving them around. Just be careful–if you move your scenes around that characters don’t talk about the previous scene when it happens next!

Get some Beta readers

Once you’ve made several passes on the novel, once you’ve cut out all those excessive words, it’s time to show it to people. 😱 What! You mean I actually have to listen to feedback on my book? Someone might not like the space bikini babes of Zem’ephanik ?

Chances are, you might know some other writers who are also writing novels. Ask if they’d be willing to be a beta reader. It’s important to find someone you trust to share your work with, but who will also be critical and flag things that might be confusing. They don’t have to be a writer at all! In fact, it’s good to have people who read it that might be the audience for your work.

The biggest feedback I want to hear from beta readers:

  • What did you enjoy?
  • What was confusing?
  • Was there anything that didn’t work?
  • When did you figure out the mystery/crime/killer/secret?

Also, don’t be a jerk. If they’re a writer, offer to return the favour when they have a novel or work to read.

Sensitivity readers

If you’ve written about characters from a marginalised community or outside your own experience, a sensitivity reader may also provide beneficial feedback to make your story more authentic and well-realised. These are paid readers, so be considerate of their rates as you would any other freelancer.

Should you pay someone to edit your book?

Should you pay someone to edit your book before sending it out into the world?

If you’re self-publishing? 100% yes. And not just some rando you found on the internet for 0.0000001 cents per word. Hire a professional editor with an interest in your genre of books and university level or equivalent qualifications/experience.

If you’re looking to submit to an agent or traditional publisher, then no. Make it the best damn draft you can, but don’t think you need to pay an editor to get it to the next level. A publisher, and often an agent, will provide edits before the book is published or sent out on submissions.

Finally, don’t be lazy

Editing is challenging, and sometimes it’s tempting to make easy choices to speed up the process. In editing, you can’t avoid the parts where you wrote “Describe cool battle scene here”. You need to face up to the hardest parts of the novel. If a choice is making you uncomfortable simply because it’s hard, that’s probably the right editorial decision. Sigh, grumble, sure, but get on with it. Know that it takes me almost as long to edit a novel as to write it.

Now you have all this arcane editing knowledge, go back to that space opera with confidence and delete, delete, delete!

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