EditingNovel writing

Editing your novel-2: Polishing the novel

I’m reading a YA vampire novel (with romance elements) right now that showed good initial promise. I had read a free prequel short story showed good promise for the novel itself. Unfortunately, it has a lot of problems. The story itself isn’t bad, but the author sometimes jumps into a completely different scene and place without so much as a scene break. It’s worse than head hopping. One paragraph we’re in such and such a place, and in the next paragraph, it’s not only a different character’s POV and location. It’s very jarring.

As you might expect, that’s not the only problem with it. Writers who commit one writing sin are usually guilty of others because they do not yet know the conventions or understand good technique. The editing in this novel is inconsistent, the story flow is uneven—dragging in places and being rushed in others. Some of the plot points are a stretch. And, as you might imagine, some of the reviewer comments call attention to these deficiencies, and one reviewer noted that with attention to the editing, the novel could be so much better.

In the last post (STEP ONE) I discussed the first editing stage, which involves making sure the story is in good shape and that everything flows well. In editing terms, this stage would be called CONTENT EDITING. It’s also referred to SUBSTANTIVE EDITING or DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING. No matter what you call it, it’s “big picture” editing.

I ended the last post with having you give the novel, or part of it, to outside readers (often called “beta readers”). This is not something you should bypass. Beta readers will be able to help you know in advance whether your book will sell or be ignored.

And believe me, I’ve heard all the excuses for not using beta readers: you don’t know anyone who can do it, you don’t know how to find them, you’re hesitant to let outsiders see it because you’re afraid someone will steal your ideas before it’s published, or you don’t think you need them (because it’s already perfect). Regarding this last excuse, I consider myself an experienced writer and editor, and even I don’t believe my writing is perfect enough to skip that step. I did in the past, and I regretted it.

The alternative to beta readers is hiring an editor, but when it comes to content editing, that’s the most expensive kind of editing.

SIDE NOTE: I really don’t fully understand why content editing should be so much more expensive because it doesn’t require the minute checking that copy editing and proofreading do, but I suppose you’re paying for an editor to analyze the work and tell you how to fix what’s wrong, and maybe they figure their “analytical” time and experience is worth more. On the other hand, I suppose it depends on how analytical the editor gets. I’ve seen good beta readers who could tell you just as much as a paid content editor.

When it comes to beta readers, many times you will receive contradictory comments from them as well as comments you simply disagree with. That’s fine. A good friend, who I’m helping with his novella, ran into that. We looked at all of the comments, fixed those things that made sense to fix, and ignored those that didn’t make sense to us. However, no comments were ignored because every comment represents a genuine concern on the part of the reader. What we had to decide was whether it would be a problem for other readers.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on how to pick beta readers other than to caution you to find critical readers, not yes-people. You don’t want people who simply read everything, but people who know the difference between good work and mediocre work and who care enough to tell you if yours doesn’t hit the mark.

Depending on your novel and your level of writing competence, you may need to do more than one round of beta readers. In that case, you will want some new readers the second time, but it might be good to keep one or two of the ones from the first pass to help validate the success of your revisions. Here’s a previous post to checkout as well.


When processing beta reader comments, you must be open to possibly harsh criticism, and you must be willing to act on it if it happens. You also must read all of the comments before you come to any conclusions (such as what you’ve written is really bad). What’s important is that you go in with your eyes and mind open to all possibilities and have a positive attitude. Everything can be fixed. It may not be an easy fix, but it can be fixed. Do you believe in your work enough to want to fix it? One piece of advice I’ve heard is that the only person who can make you give up on your writing is you.

At this stage it’s important to find the right kind of help and support for fixing your writing. This is where I advise caution if you decide to engage an editor or editing service. I’m sure that some editors will gladly take your money and lead to believe they’re doing the proper job for you. As I mentioned last time, I’ve seen enough cases where an editor did a poor job and the writer had no clue that the editor was merely blowing smoke in the writer’s face.

Here’s one good test for beta readers or editors who tell you that the book is good: Ask them if they would buy the novel or at least recommend it to friends (and if they’d still have those friends after the recommendation). If they wouldn’t recommend it, then they better give you a good reason for saying no. Otherwise, these are not the people you want critiquing or editing your work because those are people who don’t believe in the work.

For the friend I mentioned above, the one I’m helping to edit his book, I can honestly say that I would buy and recommend the book. Would I have said that at the beginning? No. However, I saw the book’s potential and knew that if he continued to work on it, then I would be able to make that recommendation. I’ve been working with him for over 2 years, and twenty-one revisions later (and two beta reader passes), we’re ready for the final edits and proofreading. He’s produced a book that I will be able to proudly endorse. And I’ll be sharing it on the blog once it’s published.

Well, enough general talk. We’re at STEP TWO, the polishing phase, which would be called the COPY EDIT phase. We’ll talk more about it in part three. This phase may take, as I said about my friend’s book, MANY editing passes and months to get it right. DO NOT RUSH IT! Nothing will be served if you do. If you want a good book, you’ll have to take your time getting it right.

Once you’ve fixed all the things that your beta readers have found and all the things you found wrong, go through it again. And again, putting a bit of time between successive reads. This is where a critique partner or a writer friend can help. As I did with my friend, I went over it, he fixed the problems—back and forth. Yes, you may need an editor, but be forewarned that it could get expensive that way. The more you can do yourself, the better.

I really wish I could give you a magic formula for how to edit and polish your work. The best I can do is to tell you (as I did last time) to read it as if it were someone else’s work. Try reading it different ways: on the computer, printed out, or out loud to yourself or to someone else. Every different way you can find to read it will help you spot problems. If you’re fortunate enough to have someone who can read it to you while you listen, then that will give you new perspectives.

I strongly recommend that you buy Scott’s and my Punctuation For Fiction Writers because we took the time to include a lot of tips that will help you with polishing, not just punctuation. I promise it’s a good investment, and I’m not pushing it just to make money. We believe in the book and we believe that it will make you a better writer.

Here are some things to look for in the polishing steps:

–Listen to your dialog. Does it ring true? Do your characters all speak the same? Have you used enough dialog tags so your reader knows who is talking? Have you used too many and in places where they are not necessary so that they get annoying> (Our punctuation book has an extensive chapter on dialog.)

–Listen to your phrasing and wording. Are your sentences short and choppy, or too long and awkward? Does your writing sound like you talk? If so, that’s a problem. Your writing should sound like your characters or your narrator speaking, not like you.

–Compare your writing to that of the pros. I’m not saying you should write like someone else, but your writing should not sound like an amateur wrote it. And I think if you objectively compare your writing to that of known good writers, you’ll be able to tell if yours truly stacks up.

–As you read through your novel, be alert for anything that stands out or sounds awkward.

–Watch for unnecessary lines (dialog or otherwise). In the novel I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are many scenes where the characters are just talking about mundane things that do not move the plot forward. I find myself skipping whole pages of that stuff. For every sentence you write, ask yourself if you could omit it and have the reader not miss it. Would removing it make a difference to the story? If you have a whole page of two characters talking about where they’re going for dinner, you need to cut that unless it’s important to the plot.

Yes, I’m serious about what I just said: Every scene, paragraph, sentence, or word that is not necessary or important should be cut. The reason many beginning novels are much longer than they need to be is due to non-essential fluff. If you want your reader to read every word you wrote, then make sure every word you write is RELEVANT and NECESSARY!

This is why writing a novel is not a speedy process, regardless of how much you do yourself and how much you use outside readers and editors. Crafting a novel and editing it properly takes time. There are no shortcuts. You have to decide how serious a writer you are. If you simply want to write a novel and publish it without regard for how good it is, then don’t waste your time listening to my advice. Go forth and publish. Just don’t expect people to buy it.

Next time I’ll continue with the copy editing phase and more advice on trimming and polishing. I’ll also try to come up with a couple of examples to show you some things to look for.


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