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How to edit a novel without getting overwhelmed

You might already know that writing your first draft is just one of the first steps to writing a novel, but what should you do after that? Editing a book sounds like such a big undertaking and it can seem like so much work that it would be easier to not write anything to begin with. These are totally normal feelings, but when you understand why editing is important in writing, you don’t want to skip any of the stages of editing a book that you actually want your readers to love.

If you’re going to be editing your very first novel, I recommend also reading my best beginner writer tips and common beginner writer mistakes. They’ll help explain some of the things we’ll be talking about in this post.

In this post, you can find my easy-to-follow process that I use to edit all my stories and you’ll learn the things to look for when editing a novel.

Can you write a novel without editing it?

Can you write a novel without editing it?

The short answer is no.

The slightly longer answer is that if you want to share your writing with the world, you should aim to make your writing good. Nobody’s first draft is great and it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, if you think your writing is good enough as it is, you really don’t know enough about writing to be writing that well. Sorry!

If you want to share your novel with other people, I’m sure you want your writing to be good. And if you ever want to make money with your writing or get published, you really, really owe it to your readers to do a good job. Even if you were the most experienced writer in the world, your first draft would never be good enough. It’s simply not the purpose of the first draft. No, you’re not the exception.

Is editing the same as revising?

We often use “editing” as a catch-all term for the different stages that happen after you’ve written your first draft, but there are differences there.

What's the difference between revising and editing a novel?

Revising is what you should do to your first draft, and it involves making a lot of bigger changes and likely a lot of rewriting. It is a lot of work, but it also produces the best work. This is where you might be changing character arcs or rearranging entire scenes. Another person – like a developmental editor – can tell you what kind of changes you might need to make, but ultimately, as the author, you need to make them yourself.

Editing is different from revising because it requires smaller changes. You might focus on editing on a sentence level and choose the best words to use, or you might be making sure that you’re using the right names for all your characters and stuff like that. Finally, you will proofread your manuscript to get rid of any typos and missing commas. A copy editor can help you with stuff like grammar issues or inconsistent word choices, while a proofreader will do the, well, you know what they do. Proofreaders proofread.


Writing a novel takes multiple drafts, but what IS a “draft” anyway

What is a draft when you're writing a novel?

When talking about writing books, the term “draft” can be difficult to define. Essentially, a draft is any single round of edits you do to your manuscript, but it still doesn’t need to involve working all the way from the first page to the last. If you’re not completely rewriting each draft, which most writers aren’t doing now that we have computers and don’t necessarily have to work on paper, it’s harder to say where third draft ends and fourth begins.

The first draft is the easiest to qualify because it’s the very first time you write your story from start to finish, but ultimately it’s up to you what number you call each draft. Nobody will come and check, and besides, some parts of your story will be worked on more than others anyway.

Should you start each draft from scratch?

Should you start each novel draft from scratch.

The short answer to that question is no. The slightly longer answer is that some drafts might need to be started entirely from scratch, but certainly not each and every one of them.

The first draft naturally has to be started from scratch even if you have an extensive outline, but what should you do after the first draft? Usually writing the second draft involves so many changes that it might be easier to just rewrite the whole thing completely. Still, it’s still up to a personal choice. Do you think you’ll find it easier to start a new document and write an entirely new draft, or would you rather cut off and rewrite parts of your existing document? The choice is yours.

I always write my first drafts by hand, so naturally, I have an extra step between the first and the second drafts when I type up my manuscript on the computer. I generally don’t make any changes during that part of the process unless I find something so cringy that I never want to see it again.

How should you make notes for changes?

Whenever you’re going through your manuscript and you see something that needs to change, you should make a note of it somehow. You don’t want to forget anything important, but also, you want to keep your focus on the things you should be changing that time around and nothing else. (More on that later.)

You could keep a running list of things that need to change, you could highlight whatever needs to be changed or you could insert a comment if you’re using Google Docs, Word or any other word processor of your choice. Scrivener probably has plenty of more advanced options for this.

Personally, I like using a combination of all three. I have a running list of general things that need to be changed in the overall story and in specific scenes, and I keep this list in a notebook or in Notepad on my computer. In LibreOffice Writer (it’s like a free version of Word) I highlight any words and sentences that I’m not happy with, and insert a comment when I need to change something bigger.

The Future You will thank you if your notes make sense, and I’m saying this from personal experience. Don’t just write “Fix this later, dummy” because later you might not remember what it was that you really needed to be changed. Was it the tone? Was something factually incorrect? Let yourself know.

Your every round of edits should have a purpose

Why every draft you write needs to have a focus.

When you start a new draft, it’s usually not smart to go through every single page and change every problem that you see. Every single draft should have a purpose and a focus.

How should you edit your first draft

Knowing what to do after you’ve written the first draft is probably the most intimidating part of the editing process. Once you’ve finished writing it, you should probably let it sit for a few days at least, but then you have to read it. And while reading, you should make note of these things:

Do this to edit your first draft.
  • Are there parts of your story missing or should you cut something out?
  • Did you forget to mention something and did you leave loose threads?
  • Are the events in the right order?
  • Is there something that doesn’t make sense?
  • Or are you perhaps overexplaining things?

Now you know what big-picture changes you need to work on during the second draft. You might feel compelled to fiddle with smaller changes, but leave them be for now. You can even leave placeholders like [insert something witty here] if you feel like you’re getting stuck – I promise you’ll be able to figure them out later.

How to revise your other drafts

To make revisions not seem like such a huge undertaking, you should have a focus for each new draft. Choose one aspect to focus on and try to ignore everything else – only make quick notes when needed.

How to edit your scenes

This is the most important part of editing your novel

Editing your scenes the right way is probably the most important part of editing your novel. If you created scene outlines during the outlining process, you’ll most likely have less to fix at this point. Having a plan and following it are two different things, however, so definitely don’t skip this part of the process.

When I edit my novel’s scenes, I start from scene structure and I make sure all parts are where they need to be. Each scene needs a goal that belongs to the POV character, there’s a conflict in reaching that goal and there’s an outcome. Usually the character ends up not reaching their goal or there are unexpected consequences. These things need to be visible in the story and they have to happen “in real time” without skipping over anything, so that’s definitely something to keep in mind when editing.

After that, the POV character reacts to the outcome and the reaction happens in this order: feeling, thought, action. (Why? Because that’s how real people work.) Then they decide what’s going to be their next course of action. These things don’t need to be spelled out, and apart from the outer manifestations of your POV character’s thoughts and feelings (are they frowning or laughing, perhaps?) it could all happen inside their head.

Mind you, sometimes scenes kind of melt into each other, which means your POV character’s reaction might be delayed. If there are multiple scenes full of action right after another, make sure your characters get a chance to react to and review what has happened. It depends on your genre whether you’re emphasizing action or reaction.

Remember cause and effect when you’re editing your story

After I’ve finished editing the structure of a single scene, I look at how it fits in with other scenes. This means I need to think about cause and effect.

Remember that goal your scene needs? It needs to come from something that has previously happened. Something has forced your character to make a decision and now they’re acting on it. Likewise, when they’ve made a new decision based on what has just happened, it needs to lead to a new scene. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the very next scene but it does have to come up eventually.

Also remember that everything that happens in your story needs to lead to something. You might not want to jump from scene to scene too much when you’re editing, so if you see a cause without an effect or the other way round, just make a note of it and fix it later. It’s a lot of work, but working on your scenes in order helps you make sure you’re not missing anything. You don’t want to realise that there’s a problem in scene 56 because you made a mistake in scene 12.

If you’ve got a plot twist in your story, this is where you need to make sure you’ve set it up properly. This is also the process that prevents plot holes from happening, so do make sure to do this properly especially if you’ve got a very complicated plot.

Editing your characters

Do this to edit your characters when revising your writing

Editing your individual scenes and their flow is definitely the most labour-intensive part of the editing process so you should be pretty happy to start working on your characters next. Still, if you haven’t outlined your story properly, this could lead to some major changes.

Every single character in your story needs to have a purpose (that is related to your protagonist) and goals of their own. They can’t be there just for decoration. Naturally this applies to the actual characters of your story, not nameless cashiers and other randoms. If you absolutely need to keep all your characters, their purpose and their goals need to be obvious to the reader. The other option is to remove or combine characters.

You also need to make sure all your characters are distinct personalities when you’re editing your story. It’s okay if they’re not much more than talking heads in your first draft as long as you fix that during editing and use appropriate character descriptions. You can edit their dialogue later.

Editing your point of view

It’s remarkably easy to make mistakes with your point of view, but fortunately those mistakes don’t matter as long as you fix them during your edits.

The most obvious mistakes with your point of view are ones where you’ve used the wrong pronouns. For example, maybe you’ve been writing in first person but have accidentally written “she said” somewhere you meant to write “I said”. These are easy to find and fix.

More difficult-to-fix issues with your point of view are instances where you’ve dipped into the wrong point of view. This mistake is the easiest to do when you’re writing in third-person intimate – you’re supposed to stay inside a single character’s point of view at a time and you CAN’T jump into anyone else’s point of view until the scene is finished. You’re not writing in omniscient point of view.

If you are writing in omniscient, however, you need to make sure during the editing process that you’ve got an interesting narrator and that it’s obvious to your readers whose thoughts and observations we’re seeing at all times.

If you’ve got multiple POV characters, make sure all their scenes are actually necessary and that there isn’t unintentional cross contamination of information between the characters. If character A hasn’t seen character B do something, character A can’t know about it unless they’re told about it, etc.

Editing your story settings

Before you go fiddling with smaller details, make sure you’ve chosen the exact right setting for each of your scenes. Consider if you could make a scene more effective with a different setting. If you’re writing a really intense scene, you could make it even more intense with a smaller, more cramped setting. Try it out! You could also choose a setting with a different significance, like switch a hospital to a playground or cellar to a bedroom.

When you’re sure you’ve chosen all the correct settings, you can start making sure they’re all tangible. We need to see them through the eyes of your POV character, so make sure they interact with their surroundings. Use all the five senses when appropriate when you’re writing descriptions.

How to edit dialogue

How can you edit dialogue in your story

Editing dialogue is one of my favourite parts of the editing process, mainly because I find it easy. Whether you feel the same or not, you can’t afford to skip this part or take it lightly!

When you look at a scene, you should first figure out if there’s enough dialogue or perhaps too much. Shorten big chunks of dialogue and add dialogue tags or action tags in the middle when needed. People are usually doing something else when talking, whether that’s washing the dishes or pacing around, and you need to show that.

You’ll probably end up editing the amount of dialogue later anyway, but after you’re mostly satisfied with the amount of stuff your characters are saying, you can move onto what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. When you’re editing dialogue, remember these things:

  • Filler words are unnecessary unless you’re trying to make a point. (Is your character, um, particularly unsure about something?)
  • If your character is using big and fancy words, there needs to be a reason for that.
  • Don’t have them say things that your readers already know. Instead, write something like “Sheila told her mother what had happened.”
  • Unless they’re yelling out Help! or something similar, avoid exclamation points.
  • Generally, people try to get to the point as quickly as possible. Cut out as many words from your dialogue as you can without losing meaning.
  • Your characters shouldn’t all sound the same, so make sure they aren’t using too many similar expression and that their personality and background are reflected in the way they talk

If you’d like to learn more about how to polish your dialogue, check out my dialogue workshop.

How to “show, not tell” when editing your novel

We already touched show, don’t tell when we talked about setting and characters, but here’s one more chance to get it right when editing your novel. Telling instead of showing does have its place when you want to be quick and you don’t need your readers to be really immersed in your story world in that moment, but most often you should be choosing words and expressions that make us really feel your story.

Ask yourself these questions: How do you know? How can you prove it? So if you’re saying your characters are angry, sad or successful, how would you know? How can you prove that? Answering those questions will help you edit your writing for the better. Yes, most of these things will increase your word count, so make sure you make those words… count. You’re not just describing things, you’re telling your readers important things about your characters and settings, you’re dropping clues and you’re furthering the plot.

Remove anything redundant or repetitive when you’re editing a novel

I talked more about this in my post about things to look for when editing a novel, but here’s the quick version: Look for anything that doesn’t actually offer any new information to your readers and any stragglers from earlier drafts that are no longer relevant.

Although you should have done most of your big-picture changes by now, you might still end up cutting out complete paragraphs when you realise they’re not actually doing anything for your story. Don’t be afraid to do this even if you’ve spent time polishing that bit of writing, an author needs to be able to do hard decisions.

Save these for the final drafts

How to edit the finer details of your novel

Now that you’ve made the bigger changes to your story, you can start messing with the details.

Editing on a sentence level can be such a slow process but it’s necessary if you want your writing to be better than just okay. You will have to make sure you’ve chosen the right words and that the sentences flow effortlessly into each other and match the pace of the scene. I like to isolate one paragraph at a time when I do this so I don’t get overwhelmed.

Is your tone consistent throughout your manuscript? (As in, if it starts off serious, does it stay serious?) Have you chosen words that are right for your genre? (For example, if you’re writing historical fiction set in Victorian England, your characters probably shouldn’t be saying cowabunga, dude.) Are all your names consistent throughout your story? Now is the time to focus on those things.

When you’re pretty sure all your words are where they should be, you can move on to spelling and grammar. And then you’re pretty much finished!

How long does editing a novel take?

How long does it take to edit a novel

Editing a novel should take much longer than writing the first draft. If you’ve never written books before, you might be suprised by this, but it’s generally true. Sure, if it took you years to write your first draft, then editing will probably take less than that. But in general, we’re usually talking about months versus years.

I can’t tell you exactly how long you should take to edit your novel. Sorry! But you probably should aim for more than a year unless you’re working with a professional editor all the way through. When I was writing my previous novel, it took me a month to outline it, three months to write the first draft and two years and three months to edit it.

If you’re writing just for your own enjoyment, sure, finish your novel in six months. But if you’re hoping to get published and you want to write a GREAT novel, you can’t afford to be hasty. Your readers deserve your dedication to your craft.

When should other people see your writing?

There are no right or wrong answers to when you should show your writing to other people. You might want to share your story with beta-readers after any of your later drafts, and if you’re working with a developmental editor, they might want to see your manuscript fairly early on.

That said, I’m firmly of the opinion that your first draft belongs to you. The first draft isn’t even supposed to be readable, so it’s totally fine if it’s a total garbage fire that can’t be read by anyone else, living or dead. But if you need help and another set of eyes to figure out a problem in your writing, then by all means, have them access your writing whenever you need it!

Do you just want to learn how to become a better writer so that editing would be easier?

Doing this will make editing your novel so much easier

I get it, it’s easy to lose faith in your writing when editing feels tough. What if you got the right foundations for writing your novel so that editing it wouldn’t be such a massive undertaking? When you join Writing Your First Novel 2.0, you get a map that helps you avoid most pitfalls of beginner writers and keeps you on the right path.

If you’ve ever felt frustrated with your writing because you don’t know what you’re doing, I’m happy to tell you it’s not your fault. It’s just that nobody has taught you exactly what it takes to write a novel – until now.

Do you need more help with the editing and revising process? Share your questions in the comments!

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