How To Edit Your Novel


If there is anything writers loathe more than staring at a blank page, it has to be staring at a bloated first draft, knowing that the page is probably too full (who knew, right?), and riddled with mistakes. 

I’m relatively sure that we all have the exact same urge to hit publish / email friends / declare victory as soon as our first drafts are finished, but the sad truth is that we’re now only halfway done with our monumental project (or 1/3 of the way, or 1/4 of the way, depending on who you ask).

A lot of published authors will even say that the first draft of their novels wouldn’t even be recognized as the same story when compared to their final drafts.  Really encouraging for those of us who have just finished first drafts, right?

So it is with (extremely) grim determination that I began editing my current WIP after leaving it on a shelf for 2 months, and I have been neck deep in it for the past 3 weeks.

Reading through my first draft has been an absolute THRILL – even if it is incredibly bloated.  What I’m experiencing is probably the same thrill we all experience when reading our own words in book form.  It’s even more of a thrill when/if we realize that those words aren’t so indistinguishable from a book we might find on a bookshelf in our local bookstore (read: from a book you might find on an Amazon webpage).

After turning my first draft into a PDF and downloading it onto an iPad, reading it feels a whole lot like reading a book on my Kindle, and while there are times when I have to cringe at how awkward a section reads or how unconvincing a line of dialogue is, there are also times when I feel like I’m reading a real book, and can see how the story would make a reader compulsively turn page after page.  Of course, then I have to remind myself that I’m already in love with the story because I’m the one that wrote it – but as writers of books that can take a year or more to finish, we have to grab onto encouragement and victory whenever we can, so I’m running with this feeling of accomplishment for as long as possible.

Leading up to this project I did a lot of research on popular methods to edit a novel to see how I could refine the editing process I’ve used on past novels.  The array of options out there are dizzying.  You can:

  • Edit chapter by chapter, fixing all errors you find at once
  • Edit in descending order of importance, first fixing plot, then structure, then characterization, then prose, then copy (grammar/typos)
  • Edit in chunks, dividing your book into 3-6 parts and tackling them one by one
  • Edit in outlining form first, making sure the flow and structure is correct, then edit in prose form
  • Edit upside down, left eye closed at all times (eye patch recommended)

When we think about it, editing our novels is actually a lot more difficult than writing the first draft (Although I’m sure a few people reading this might disagree!  I’m an outliner so the first draft is generally easier).

For me, since this story is so long and complicated, I’m going about the editing as if I were a sculptor: First I need to get myself a huge block of stone (first draft), then I need to refine a shape by cutting out huge blocks (second pass), then refine further so the body/legs are visible (third pass), then reveal the arms and hands (fourth), face (fifth), defining features and the details in the clothing (sixth), you get the point (seventh), why am I still talking? (Eighth), okay bye (ninth).

If I can’t get the underlying shape and skeleton right first, then all the work I do on the details could be for naught when I have to cut out or reshape a huge chunk of the statue.  There are two whole mini-plot arcs I need to add to make the story more impactful and well-rounded, and I need to cut out about 1/4 of the extra unneeded action (kill your darlings!) to make the book into a manageable length.  Then I need to confirm there are no structural inconsistencies in the plot, make sure the characterization is strong and that everyone acts and speaks in accordance with who they are as a person, edit and polish the prose, and remove awkward and extraneous sentences.

I mean, it is HARD not to jot down notes on awkward lines during this first read through – the only notes I’m allowing myself to write are solely on the concepts I’m currently editing for, which are plot (is it exciting, does it make sense, where would I add the parts I need to get into the story, what can I take out because it’s unnecessary?), character (is he/she interesting, would they do that?), and structure (that makes absolutely no sense Dave you IDIOT).

Editing is arduous, difficult work, but it’s extremely exciting too, because we finally get to (slowly) reveal the finished product that’s been living in our heads for so very long.

And there is certainly no one right way to edit a novel – just as there is no one right way to write a first draft – but this is currently the process I think works best for me.  For now.

I thought it might be fun to share a brief blurb about the plot of this book.  Full disclaimer, though, this is something I just jotted down literally three minutes ago, and not a fully revised hook, so please be nice :-).

Oliver wakes to find himself washed up on the shore of an island he doesn’t recognize, because… well… he doesn’t exactly recognize anything.  With no memory of who he is or how he got there, he is quickly assaulted and kidnapped by a group of people mere minutes after waking up.  The problem with the interrogation led by this group of islanders is that there is nothing he can possibly tell them.

Gabriel, the enigmatic leader of the group, and Alice, an apparent mute to whom they all look for protection, believe what Oliver is saying because they don’t have their memories either – nobody in their tiny, utopian village does.  So the question arises: if they all arrived on the same day two years ago, why did he arrive alone just that afternoon? 

When one of the villagers is found murdered the very next morning, suspicion inevitably falls on Oliver; until a clue from their past arrives – a clue that says one of the villagers was a convicted murderer in a past life.  And it seems Oliver has just the right skillset to help out in this type of situation.

Back to the topic at hand, I would love to know how you all edit your longer works.  The same way I do?  Similar but not exactly the same?  Totally different and I’m making this way too hard for myself?

18 comments on “How To Edit Your Novel”

  1. I’m with you, editing is hard. Compared to the excitement of creating a whole new story, editing is drudgery. Necessary, of course, but no where near as much fun as writing 🙂

    1. So true – the excitement of pure creation is enough to drive us all through the first draft. Compared to that, editing is drudgery! The satisfaction of having something that will make someone else appreciate what we created almost as much as we do is what keeps me semi-excited during the process

  2. Editing can be brutal I think. When I’m editing and I realise I have to take out a certain part (that I remember liking when I first wrote it) because it doesn’t make sense to the story always kills me. I prefer to read through chapter by chapter and sort out as many grammar/punctuation/spelling errors before starting again and focusing on different areas. This usually ends up with me spotting a character that isn’t really written well enough and stopping editing to make more notes on them. Oh the joys or editing.

    1. The grammar/spelling/pure-awkwardness errors really get me and I wish I could stop and fix them first! But the thought of all that work being for nothing when I have to remove or rewrite a certain part keeps me from it (I guess it’s laziness in a sense haha). Having to ‘kill your darlings’ when a part of the book doesn’t go with the rest anymore is really hard for me, too, especially since it’s usually a part I’m particularly fond of

      1. I’m the same. I keep the ‘kill your darlings’ approach in my head during the editing process. I really don’t want to. I try and do it quickly then go into a corner and cry. Do you use grammarly at all? That helps me quite a bit. But I prefer to get the grammar part out of the way as early as possible.

      2. I haven’t used it before but I’ve heard good things. I definitely struggle with the cutting out part – it helps me to save a different document for editing so I know the words aren’t gone forever haha

  3. Interesting blurb, regardless of just jotting down in 3 minutes haha 🙂

    And I edit similarly: structure, then content, then proofing and so on and so forth. It’s so hard to ever call it “done” haha, always something new I see that needs tweaking or a new idea I have, so I should caveat that I cycle back through those sometimes more than I should if a belated structure idea occurs. *facepalm*

  4. I agree. Editing is hard, but you have written a great summary of your editing process. I also liked the blurb for your book. Sounds like something I would read. 🙂

  5. Whatever method you choose, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to add a professional editor and proofreader to the process. Beta readers aren’t enough. Yes, it’s expensive, but if you want to make it to the big leagues, you have to be willing to make sacrifices. I recently bought a self-published novel written by a friend who’s a professional journalist. I couldn’t make it more than halfway through. The structure, scenes, and dialogue were weak and there were so many typos. I thought he would know better.

    1. If I do self-publish, I would definitely invest in a professional editor. You’re so right. Nothing takes a reader out of a story more than a typo or grammar error!

  6. I used to have a summer job as a proofreader, and that kind of ruined me for doing anything else first. Anything I read, the first thing my eye goes to is the error in spelling (even signs on walls in public places). It isn’t necessarily lazy, though, that you prefer not to edit a lot of text that you end up cutting anyway. Plus, the cutting itself may cause new grammar/spelling issues that weren’t there before (maybe you mean to substitute ‘his’ for ‘the’ but end up leaving them both in).

    I do think a full read-through is necessary, though, to catch continuity errors, flow, etc. You know the story in your head, so it may take effort to realize you didn’t put on paper what you thought you did.

    1. Yes, exactly how I was thinking about it. I can see how the job would spur you to need to fix spelling errors first – honestly they do really get on my nerves. Nothing takes you out of a story more than a typo or grammar mistake, especially if it’s made it through to a published work

  7. Editing is harder than writing. Hemingway aid write drunk, edit sober. Now, I’m not saying he said go drink yourself silly and then go into rehab before editing, what I think he meant is when you write something, you go crazy with it. When you edit something, you have to ask if each word, period, comma, and so on is justified, contributes to the story, or needs to be dropped.

  8. Great piece. Writing is editing. And for me, to be honest, more fun than writing the first draft, which I just try to get down because I know it will kind of suck in some ways and that will ultimately be fixed in the editing. And often, the details and the jokes and the dialogue all come during the editing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. I like editing a lot too, though I think I may prefer the first draft more. You can write with wild abandon then, and have to be more thoughtful while editing. But one thing I do love about the editing process is that you get to go back and appreciate all the good work you did and add to it, so I agree with you there!

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