Editing your novel is one of the absolute most important things you will do as a writer.
Nearly anyone can write a first draft. Very few possess the clarity, discipline, and intestinal fortitude to make the decisions necessary to turn a mediocre first stab into an incredible novel.
Here’s how to do it.
Edit as you go
As you’re writing a novel, there is always the temptation to just power through and get something, anything, on the page and race toward finishing that first draft. Still, I believe it’s beneficial to engage in some self-editing along the way.
There is one very simple and important reason why you should self-edit as you go: problems can snowball.
A weak spot that you brush over in the first few chapters can worm its way through the novel in such a way that it can become very, very difficult to fix later on. When something happens near the beginning of your novel that just doesn’t work, it can be extremely tricky to change it and still make the rest of the novel make sense. You’ve built a house on a shaky foundation, and changing this may require you to tear things down to the studs.
It’s crucial to stop every now and then, re-read what you’ve written so far, try to imagine yourself as a reader, and ask yourself very honestly: “Is this working?”
Chances are, even when you’re in the throes of that initial burst of confidence, you’ll know when something isn’t working. There will be a quiet, tiny, nagging voice that you won’t be able to shut off as long as you’re listening to it. This voice usually manifests itself as a sneaking suspicion that you have somehow gone astray, even if you can’t pinpoint the exact moment when it happened.
If you practice self-editing as you go, you will save yourself time when you’re finished. Still, this is only a partial time-saver, because everyone, and I mean everyone, has work to do when they’re done writing. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft.
How to edit when you finish your first draft
Here’s how to start revising your novel after you’ve finished your first draft: read your book.
It sounds simple. It is not. Because as you’re re-reading your book, you have to shake the tendency to read uncritically.
Provided you have let some time pass before you revisit your book (which, by the way, you should), once you return to it, you may be struck by your own ingenuity as you re-encounter parts you forgot you wrote. You will be lulled into speed-reading a narrative that you have memorized by heart. You may crack yourself up with your own hilariousness and wonder how it is that everyone in the world is so lucky as to live at this time in which you are the bard of your era.
All of this is great, but it’s not going to help you to be a good reviser.
In order to shake yourself out of auto-read mode, you have to slow down. You have to think. You have to take in your novel as if you have not actually read it a thousand times before and know exactly what is going to happen, because, you know, you really have read it a thousand times before and know exactly what is going to happen. You have to be very, very self-critical.
One helpful trick for shaking yourself out of auto-read mode is to put yourself in the shoes of someone else reading your novel. Pick someone you know extremely well, and whose response you can imagine in any given situation, such as your mom or your significant other or your kid sister, and try to read the novel through his or her eyes. What would they think of the part where the charming rogue fights the peacock? Would they be fooled when the villain reveals himself to be a malevolent mold spore?
This mental distancing will help you spot problems and see your novel as someone else would see it. The extra mental gymnastics necessary for reading this way will slow you down, and you’ll trick yourself into reading critically.
Once you’ve re-read your novel a few times (yes, read it through more than once) and you’ve taken note of everything that needs fixing, you’re ready to begin your novel’s surgery. But be very, very systematic about how you go about it.
Confronting a revision can be extremely daunting because of the Cascade Effect: when you change one plot point, it often necessitates two more changes to ensure that the plot still makes sense after the change, which prompts still more changes, and more, and more. Ten or more changes can cascade from a single change, even a minor one, particularly when the change is near the beginning and it requires you to eliminate a character or make events unfold in an entirely new way.
In order to avoid Cascade Effect Terror, I find that it’s helpful to work on only one plot change at a time, starting with the most massive changes and working down to the smallest.
Here’s why you should start with the big changes before you tackle the small ones: it’s a waste of time to make small changes that will only be swallowed up over the course of a much larger revision. It’s not helpful to fine tune the dialogue in a chapter you’re going to cut entirely because the whole plotline no longer makes sense.
If you approach changes by starting with the most important and far-reaching and moving to the smallest and least important, you’ll be as efficient in your revisions as possible. Don’t get distracted by the smaller things that bother you about the book as you’re making the big changes. Just make that big change, and then all the other changes that become necessary once you’ve eliminated a character or altered a major plot point.
Then, once everything makes sense, move on to the next most important change, then the one after that, etc.
When you’re done fixing the main plot points, you can move on to the chapters, refining how these unfold, and then move on to the line edits and minor tweaks.
Get as far as you possibly can on your own before you engage someone else to edit your work.
Not sure if you’re finished? Ask yourself the questions in this novel revision checklist.
Find someone objective to read your work
Do not, and I mean do not, query a literary agent before someone has given you good, objective feedback on your work.
There will come a point in the self-editing process where you’ve gone as far as you possibly can on your own. The chances are that by this point you’ll be cross-eyed and hate everything to do with your novel, including the air that surrounds it and the space in between the words on the page. Now it’s time to seek feedback from the outside world.
This could mean a significant other (be careful, though!), a critique partner, a friend, a mortal enemy . . . or you could pay a freelance editor for a professional edit (I can help you with that).
The advice that comes back to you should be positive, useful, strike you with the occasional “Why didn’t I see that?!” moment, and, perhaps most importantly, be consistent with your vision for the project. In other words, the critiquer shouldn’t simply be telling you how they would have written it.
Once you have received this advice . . . steel yourself and approach the edits with a calm and open mind.
I like to pretend that the letter is a radioactive substance that must be acclimated to over time.
Triage the changes you need to make and follow the same systematic approach from above. If, after tackling all the changes (both major and minor), you’ve revised your book as far as you can on your own, and you can’t think of anything else you need to change . . .
How to know when you’re finished writing your novel
It is possible to tinker with a book endlessly as a way to avoid facing the uncertainty and potential pain that inevitably stems from showing your work to strangers who might think you stink. You can fiddle with individual words, rewrite scenes until the horse has been beaten to death in various forms of the afterlife that humankind never knew existed, and you can come up with seventy-two alternate endings just to make sure the one you arrived at really is the best.
But at some point a novel has to be done.
There is only one way to know if a novel is done enough to move on to the next step, and that is by deciding that it’s done after some honest self-reflection.
When deciding whether I’m actually done or not, I take a mental step back from the book. I take a deep breath. I take a bit of a break. I re-read the novel for the millionth time and make sure that, as I do so, I’m only fixing typos and making minor changes here and there, if I’m changing anything at all.
Then I ask myself these two questions:
- Am I satisfied with how everything fits together and does everything really and truly make sense?
- Can I think of anything else I can possibly do to make the book better?
The answers should be “yes” and “no,” if you’re keeping score.
At some point, you’ll run out of ideas. At some point, you’ll re-read the novel and stop making changes. At some point, you’ll just know you’re done, and it won’t be the revision fatigue talking, you will just really, truly, and actually be done. Or you’ll realize the changes that you’re making are kind of pointless and aren’t going to make the difference between the success and failure of your book.
In which case . . .
Hey guess what you’re done
Your little novel bird is ready to fly!
Congratulations. You have polished that lump of coal into a shiny diamond.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.