How to edit your novel: 7 practical tips that really work

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You’re drowning in words. There are a million things wrong with this book. And you’re so busy trying to figure out why page thirty-five sounds so blooming doofy that it’s months before you notice the whole first half of the book drags and your characters are totally flat.

Further down the road, after countless rewrites, you will finally realize you’re the wrong person to edit your work. You’re too close to it. The picture of what you want your novel to be is so huge in your mind’s eye that it leaves no room for what the novel actually is. You can get your friends to read it, but they’re not editors either, and can’t tell you much. And you sure as heck can’t afford to pay a professional a few thousand dollars to take a look at it.

So…a hopeless case?

Not so.

You just need a plan.

For starters, forget about your novel for a couple of weeks, at least. You need a break. Use the time to catch up on your reading and write a short story or some flash fiction. When you’re ready, take a deep breath and proceed to the next paragraph:

Nathan Bransford has the excellent advice of starting with the biggest stuff and working your way down from there. You don’t want to waste time making a bunch of tiny changes in a section you’ll end up cutting or completely rewriting later on. Nathan also has a fantastic editing checklist.

But if you’re like me, you need help seeing the big stuff. Because right now, you can’t see the forest for the trees (er…the story for the words?).

Here are some practical steps that work for me.

Part One: The Forest

Plot, Tension, and Character Development

 

1. Summarize. Quickly skim each chapter and, in a separate document, list everything that happens, in order (incomplete sentences are fine). My Chapter 3 summary looks like this:

Meets R. Discovers language problem. Walks to castle. Intro J, planning to leave. They meet. J shocked. Debates his life or hers. Tells her truth. She doesn’t believe it. Hear ship outside.

2. Highlight tension and clues. Pick two colors and highlight the parts of your summary that indicate either an escalation of tension (dramatic stuff like explosions, death, getting fired, or discovering a cheating spouse) or the revealing of clues (interesting information that will be important later, like footprints, mysterious notes, or snippets of conversation). The colors may overlap sometimes.

3. Highlight character development. With a third color, highlight everything that indicates character development. That includes background, expressions of love or hate, and any important decisions the character makes. You might use different colors for each major character. Do each character’s actions fit with his or her personality? Do they change as the story progresses?

4. Review the plot. Looking over your summary (highlighted in at least three colors by now), pay attention to the progression of the plot. Which characters cause which events? Did those characters have logical reasons for acting that way (plausible motives)? Does each event lead logically into the next? If not, hold a brainstorming session to find a way to make it work (critique partners are invaluable for this kind of thing).

5. Rearrange. Once you’ve got your plot squared away, again look at the highlighted portions. Make sure you have an increase in tension at least once in every chapter, preferably at the end (keep readers reading). Make sure your “clues” are spread fairly evenly throughout and not clumped together (nothing worse than a huge pile of plot exposition at the climax). Move chapter breaks around if necessary.

6. Compare each character’s dialogue separately. Now back to the actual manuscript. Using the “Find” feature of your word processor, search for your main character’s name. Stop at each place you find dialogue by that character. Copy and paste it into another document if necessary. Make sure everything that character says consistently matches his upbringing and personality. Tweak as necessary. Then, do the same for the next major character down, and so on.

7. Contrast dialogue between characters. Make sure your characters don’t all talk the same way. Adults speak differently from children, blue collar workers from desk jockeys, Northerners from Southerners, and aliens from dragons. Play around with accents, slang, and verbal ticks.

Got any editing tips? Leave them in the comments!

Now posted: how to look at the “trees” of your novel.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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12 Comments

  1. Awesome step-by-step method and exactly what I need as I have just finished a read through of my first draft after letting it stew for a few months. Will definately give the highlighting a go and looking forward to finding out about the ‘trees’. Thanks.

  2. Love your idea of using a color-coded summary as an overall editing technique. What a great way to visually diagnose major plot problems.

  3. very clever… also very challenging, but then your posts tend to challenge me. Hmm.

  4. Great road map to guide in the process!

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