EditingNovel writing

Editing your novel: Step one

From Rick:

Last time, I talked about how long it takes to write a novel. I’m sure some of you were surprised at how long that time span can be. In fact, most of the novels listed on the right side of this blog were not written in less than a year, and some I know took the authors several years from start to publication.

So, let’s assume that you have completed a hopefully good draft and are satisfied with the story you’ve written. I’ll ignore whether you’ve gotten any critiques on parts of it. I’m simply assuming that you have a completed draft, whatever its state. What’s next? Editing.

What follows in the next two to three posts about editing is not the only possible editing process. However, it’s best to start with the big picture first because it’s rather pointless to spend a lot of time editing for grammar and typos if you’re still going to be making changes. Start with the overall structure and story of the novel first, then work your way down to the finer details, regardless of who is doing the editing.

Editing is not a single step. Scott has talked before about the various levels of editing in two previous posts.



As I’ve said before, I consider myself a very good editor… for other writers’ work. It is much harder to edit one’s own stuff, primarily because you’re so close to it that you see what you intended to write instead of what is actually written. For The Mosaic I was constantly amazed at the errors that outside readers caught that slipped through even after Chris and I had made many passes through it. In all fairness to Chris and me, these were not final drafts that those readers saw, and we were constantly revising (which meant adding potential new errors). Even so, there were still more errors near the end stages than I expected.

I’m going to be blunt here: I’m critical of outside editors simply because I’ve seen many mediocre ones (even among those that charge rather high prices). That may sound harsh, but I’ve read far too many “edited” novels that had glaring common, grade-school-type grammar errors in them. I’m not saying that there aren’t excellent editors out there, and I’m not saying that editors are not good intentioned or that the good ones don’t deserve what they charge, but my experience is that they can be a mixed bag, prices aside, and this leads me to be cautious.

If you know you don’t have the editing skills yourself and will need an outside editor, here’s a piece of advice that may help save you some money. Editors generally charge in one or two ways, by the word/word count or by the hour. Some charge by the page, but those will specify what they mean by “page” and in essence it boils down to charging by the word.

Before you engage an outside editor, you’ll want to minimize the potential cost by doing as much clean-up as possible beforehand. You don’t want to pay an editor for editing 500 pages when you suspect it’s too long and perhaps you could have trimmed it to 400 pages first yourself. That could be a lot of money saved. In the next part of this series, I’ll talk more about editors, what to expect from one, and how to find a good one for your needs.

As I said above, the best approach to editing is to start with the overall story structure to see how it and the characters hang together. After you’ve finished a solid draft of the novel, put a little distance between it and you. Set it aside for a few weeks, and work on another project, preferably an unrelated one (not a sequel that causes you to think about the first novel) or anything other than this novel.

NOTE: If you’re ahead of me in the game and have already done this part, good for you, but it might not be a bad idea to go through it again. However, you can look on a more detailed level if you know the overall novel is sound. Also, the process I give here is not the only one you can use.

After a sufficient passage of time, read through the novel carefully from the beginning and as much as possible read it as if it were someone else’s book. During this read-through, take notes.

Focus not so much on the writing but on the story. Does it pull you in immediately? Or does it begin with a lot of background and lead-in material? Are there any places that you’re tempted to bypass because you “know” those parts are fine or you think they’re just description you can ignore? If you find yourself with this attitude, it’s a sign of a problem and of potentially boring sections for the reader. If you feel you can skip over something, then why would a reader not want to do the same? Again, pretend you’re someone reading it for the first time.

While you’re doing this critical read, keep alert for plot glitches and inconsistencies. For example, if you changed any of your characters’ names from when you first started writing, did you change the name everywhere? Did Michael suddenly become Martin (maybe because his name was different in an earlier draft)? Does your character “Elizabeth” get called both Liz and Beth? I know this sounds obvious, but I’ve seen it happen on a number of occasions.

Pay close attention to descriptions of the characters and their locations. Look for inconsistencies like holdovers from previous drafts that you forgot to change. Did someone’s car change model or color? Be sure that your time line makes sense. Did you have a scene originally indoors then later moved it outside but forgot to change something in the setting? (I’ve done that at least once.) Did daytime suddenly become nighttime? Is the overall time frame reasonable for the events to occur in? Have you researched how long that plane ride or car ride is? Is the time of day (and time zone) right and does the reader know when events are occurring? Have you properly described (but not over-described) the settings?

Does the story make logical sense everywhere? Have you put in certain things simply for plot convenience instead of giving them a logical reason for being there? If your main character pulls a gun on someone, did you make sure he or she was actually carrying a gun for a good reason? In other words, watch for continuity.

Is it reasonable for your character to know those facts you have him or her citing? Have you researched your scientific facts and police procedures (not merely gotten them from a TV show where things get stretched a lot).

Does the story flow smoothly and can the reader follow it easily? Does it move too slowly in spots? Did you jump around a lot, possibly confusing the reader? One mistake I find writers making is to have too many things going on at the same time and they try switching among them. If you have more than one event taking place in the same time frame and in different locations, don’t wait too long to get back to each one. Don’t start one event in a chapter then wait until two or more chapters later to come back to it. Readers will lose track. The last you want your readers to have to do is look back pages or chapters to check on something.

If you give the reader a piece of information or introduce a character that’s not mentioned again or important until thirty pages later, you risk the reader forgetting it or the character. Keep your reader oriented. Never forget that you, as the writer, know all this stuff intimately and have lived with it for a long while, but to a reader it’s all new.

I’ve seen too many times where writers dump a bunch of characters into a story at the beginning, then add even more, and the poor reader forgets who’s who. Be sure that EVERY character you create is distinctive in some way so as to be memorable, regardless of how major or minor that character’s role.

While you’re reading, note the POV. Do you switch between character perspectives in the same scene? That’s head-hopping, and it’s something to avoid. (Look up our articles on it with the SEARCH on the blog.)

By the end of the novel, have you answered all story questions and wrapped up everything (unless there will be one or more sequels)?

NOTE: During this read-through, you should try to ignore the small errors unless you see something glaring. Don’t let small things distract you from the bigger picture, which is the key at this point. You’re going to have to revise this anyway, so more errors will likely creep in. Again, make sure the story works on a macro level and that your story and characters are consistent.

Done reading it? Go back through your notes and fix the issues you found. This may be a fairly quick step, or it could mean extensive rewriting. There’s a lot more to this editing process ahead, but after this first step might be a good place to give it to a couple of critical outside readers. Before you do that, though, run a quick spelling and grammar check to clean up as many of the obvious the obvious errors as possible. Even though I said you should not worry about them at this point, you don’t want excessive distractions for your test readers.

A WORD OF CAUTION: If your writing is rough, then it’s pointless to give it to outside readers because they’ll be so distracted by bad writing that they won’t be able to give you the proper advice. If your writing truly is bad, then I strongly recommend you find an editor, a writing coach, or a patient someone who can who look past the writing and analyze the novel for what it is and help you bring it to a reasonable level.

When you engage these outside readers, tell them that you’re interested in whether the story itself is good and works and how the overall writing is. Tell them that you know it contains a lot of typos and grammar errors, but ask them to ignore those for now. You are interested in whether the story and the characters engage them and keep them reading. Ask them to take notes on any questions they have or anything they have a problem with. Assure them again that grammar errors and typos will be taken care of later.

NOTE: As an alternative to handing out the whole novel (because it’s not easy to find readers for that 500-page masterpiece), consider handing out only the first few chapters (maybe 30-50 pages) to get an initial reaction. If that works out (and your readers are willing), you can hand out more later.

Now you sit back and wait for the verdict.

In the next installment, we’ll deal with handling those reader comments as well as the next steps in polishing the novel.


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