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How to edit your novel

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

You’ve got a first draft, so now the hard work begins. For me the writing is in the editing, and I find revising and rewriting much more enjoyable and satisfying than putting words on a blank page. It's a chance to really shape and polish your rough-hewn story into something wonderful. Given I’m currently editing my second novel again (draft six, since you asked), I thought I’d share how I go about it. I’m certainly no expert, and hopefully I’ll hone my process the more books I write, but for now, this is what works for me.

Use fresh eyes

One of the hardest things about editing is trying to read your book like a reader does when you’ve written it and know every word already. So after you’ve finished your first draft – or second, or fifth – leave your manuscript alone for a while and try to forget about it. Ideally a good few weeks, if your deadline allows. Then when you come back to it you’ll be reading it with fresh(ish) eyes, able to pick up things you couldn’t have noticed when you were rewriting the same paragraph for the tenth time.

Read like a reader

For me that first read-through after a break is really valuable. Try not to spoil the flow of reading by making changes as you go along (though I find that hard to resist). Read it as a reader would, but note down your reactions along the way – I usually read on screen and use the comments function in Word or highlight things that I want to change later, but you could read on a kindle or on paper and make notes by hand. Which bits don’t quite make sense in the story? Which words or sentences aren’t you entirely happy with? Do any bits of dialogue seem out of character for your main protagonist? Do you find yourself drifting off at any point? Are there any continuity or timeline issues? Have you called three characters Bob?

Don’t tackle everything at once

There are many different levels at which you need to edit and, in my experience, it can’t all be done at once. First, I edit for structure and pacing – remove or tighten up the plodding parts where I drifted off, cut paragraphs of superfluous prose, perhaps move scenes around to improve the pace or flow of the story, possibly delete or rewrite whole chapters if they aren't doing enough to further the plot (I keep an outline of my chapters in another Word doc, which makes moving things around easier to figure out). Then I might look at character development. Do I need to strengthen a character arc? Have I properly shown a character’s main flaws and aims? Should I add a scene to intensify the conflict between two characters? For me, these are two hardest levels of editing. But then comes the part I like the best – honing the prose. I think I could tweak til the cows come home (cliché – delete) because it’s at this stage that you get to make the writing really shine. You know what you want to say and in what order to say it, now you need to figure out how to say it best. In terms of how to polish your prose, I found the book Self-editing for Fiction Writers had lots of useful advice about adverbs, dialogue tags, showing not telling, etc.

Trust your gut

You know your story better than anyone, so as long as you're prepared to be brutally honest with yourself, then you should trust your gut instinct. Interrogate yourself as you assess your book: why did you stumble over that word? How could that sentence be better written? What was it about that paragraph that didn’t feel right? Have you really shown what your character wants (and do you actually know what that is)? You might not understand what’s wrong straight away; go and make a cuppa or take a walk, and when you come back to it later, hopefully the answer will appear. I think the key is to be ruthless – don’t ignore a clunky phrase; don’t leave in a paragraph or scene or chapter that you love but that doesn’t serve the story (the famous ‘darlings’ all writers are meant to kill); don’t say ‘that’ll do’. Be hard on yourself – and then reward yourself afterwards (chocolate biscuits, wine and crisps do it for me).

Trust others

After many, many rounds of editing and reading, I’m very glad I have an agent and editor to help me figure out what still needs doing. If you don’t, ask a writing buddy to read it and be honest with you, or consider paying a professional editor if you can. It can be really hard to show people your work (I still feel nervous about it and I think I always will) but it’s worth choosing someone who isn’t afraid to tell you what they think (albeit in a kind way – we writers are sensitive creatures). Listen to what they are saying, take a moment (a day, a week) to think about it before you respond, and genuinely consider all their suggestions, even if they make you want to throw things at them. It can be hard to hear that something isn’t working or needs to be done differently, particularly when you know the amount of work needed to correct it, but it’ll be worth doing if it improves the book. Perhaps try things out before rejecting them (save changes in a new version in case you need to go back to the old one) – you might find your beta reader was right. Having said that, it’s your book, and if you honestly don’t think a certain suggestion is going to work, then you don’t have to act on it. Writing is subjective, after all.

Let it settle

When you’ve made all your edits, let it stew for a while, give yourself a break and do something fun, and then come back to it and read it through again with fresher eyes (see point 1). Hopefully this time you’ll be satisfied you’ve made most of the big changes, and possibly many of the small changes. But if you know there’s still work to do, then get to it.

Know when to stop

Having said all that, I’m not sure a book can ever be as good as you want it to be. You can always keep editing. But if you want it to be published, at some point you have to stop. I’m not very good at this, but I figure when I’ve read my manuscript so many times that I’m no longer seeing the words, it’s time to call it a day. There are things in my debut novel that I wish I’d changed or that I’d do differently if I was writing it now, but I figure that’s part of the learning process, so I’m trying not to beat myself up about it. Hopefully all that means is that my second book will be better!

My debut novel The Other Daughter is out now and available from all good bookshops (links to which are here). You can pre-order my second novel The Lost Chapter (out 3 Feb 2022) here.

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Wonderful advice, Caroline. I particularly like your suggestion to break the editing into three discrete passes: first structure/pacing, then character arc, then prose. Also tickled to see you are still finding the Self-Editing book useful! --Robbie

Caroline Bishop
Caroline Bishop
Mar 05, 2021
Replying to

Thanks Robbie! Yes I forgot you recommended that book to me! I find it really helpful, I reread it regularly.

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