Writing a first draft of a novel or any book is, you might say, the easy part. But it’s at the editing stage that we craft our work into something special. We aim to transform our material into work that will compel a reader.
If you’ve recently finished a draft of a novel – or indeed, if you are mid-draft but aware that you need to edit before you continue – the methods that I share here break down the process and make it much more manageable.
When I edit my own novels, I always work through several stages so I thought it might be useful to share a checklist of the things I’m looking for when I edit my own work. This article focuses on fiction primarily, but a parallel process can be used for non-fiction.
Take Time Out:
Once you have completed your manuscript, take time away from the work prior to editing. Have a break for a couple of weeks and consider getting feedback on the work from a trusted writing colleague. Think carefully before sharing your work however and choose somebody who you know will be constructive. Opinions can be subjective and if you are not getting professional feedback, it is worth choosing a number of readers, so you can get a balanced opinion on the work. You might like to prepare a list of specific questions for your reader. Alternatively, if you prefer to keep your work private, just taking time out alone will be enough. You need to gain distance from what you have written before you can edit it. Do something fun whilst you’re waiting!
Consider the feedback carefully:
The best part about receiving feedback is that you are free to use it or discard it. Nobody will give you some ‘ultimate truth’ on your novel. Some feedback will be valuable. Some you can discard. Go with your gut feeling. It might take a few days for the feedback to sink in and for you to sift what is useful. Sometimes we experience a sense of disappointment that the work is not perfect already. It’s a natural response. But learning to accept feedback and use it well is a vital part of our work. The fun part here is the freedom you have to accept what you’ve been told -if it is insightful – and use it well. Take your reader’s notes to an inspirational place and journal on the areas of your work that you now sense need work.
Go for the full read-through:
Take a deep breath and don’t put it off any longer. Just take time out, pick up the entire work-to-date and a pen to scribble with, get comfortable in an armchair (or on a cliff-top, wherever you feel at ease…) and read. Read it as if you had never read it before, as if you were an outsider, a professional editor. Read the whole document – if necessary over several longish sessions – and annotate your text with any comments that occur to you in relation to changes you want to make, including small line-edits. Just get everything down on that manuscript as this will be your working document. Whatever comes into your head as you read – get that on the page.
Look at the big picture:
As you read, have a separate notebook where you make notes on what I call ‘the big picture’. This is where you can scribble more lengthy thoughts on the over-arching shape of the work. Is the structure effective? If not, why not? What would you like to change? How might you adjust it? Are there any missing pieces of the puzzle? Get it all down in your journal as you read. You’ll use these notes later.
Use a simple check-list:
As you read your manuscript, look out for the following in particular. Make notes in the margins and your notebook. Keep scribbling freely and don’t let any thought go:
- Structural issues – where does it not hold together? Are there plot holes? Does it go off at a tangent? Is the plot too clichéd? In non-fiction, does the ordering of the material work?
- Voice issues – is the tone right? Is it consistent? Is it written from the right perspective? Do I need to make changes to the narrative voice?
- Character issues. Are the characters believable? Do they take actions that seem real? Do I believe that they are flesh and blood? Is their dialogue naturalistic? Can the reader empathise? Do the characters develop and change in the course of the book? What do they learn?
- Dialogue – Is it a good, condensed version of natural dialogue? Is it too focused on telling a story via dialogue and not realistic enough? Would the characters SAY this? Is the dialogue there for a purpose – to deepen characterisation or to advance the story?
- Telling not showing – Am I telling the reader too much, when I should be revealing the truth through action? Remember, dialogue doesn’t equal “showing”. Good “showing” is when a scene is dramatised and we are immersed in what is happening, unaware of the narrator’s presence. We don’t say ‘he is sad’, his sadness is revealed to us.
- Pace – is the action always moving forwards? Am I certain that each scene is propelling the character towards their goal, even if they are frustrated in that process? Am I wasting time, waffling? Every scene must be there for a purpose and advance the plot in some way.
- Scene structure – Is there movement in the scene? Do the characters shift? Does perspective change? Is there drama and conflict and change and development?
- Sentence construction. Is this working on a line by line basis? Am I overusing adjectives? Am I using adverbs? (They rarely work!) Do I repeat myself? Are there phrases I overuse? Does it flow? How’s my grammar?
Condense your actions down to a short list:
Once you’ve completed the read-through, take a separate session to look through your annotated notes. Then, choose a notebook – or a document if you prefer to work electronically – that relates specifically to your editing process and begin by making a list of all the major ‘big picture’ changes you want to make. Then ask yourself – can you condense this list to five key areas? Examples of such areas could be:
- The character of Isabelle is too passive; I need to change her actions and responses to make her more feisty and thus engage the reader.
- The pace in the first third of the book is too slow – cut down on extraneous scene-setting and cut to the chase. Keep the scenes more focused on action.
- Work on my tendency to over-describe and lay-on the adjectives. Remember that less is more
- Get clearer on Simon’s motivation in the novel. That needs to be built at an earlier stage if the book is to have drive.
- Find a different resolution to the love affair. At present it is too clichéd and the end of the book doesn’t have impact as a result.
Don’t forget the line edits:
These are simply examples of the kind of points you might make, but there’s something very powerful in having key focus areas. It means that as we go through the book, we know where our main attention should lie. In addition to these larger points, you will also have a list of smaller points. However, you can work directly from the manuscript in relation to the smaller points rather than noting them separately.
Keep excellent records – be organised:
When you are editing, work on your main document but draw from all of your sources. Have the annotated manuscript(s) at your side and your list of key points. Editing can be an organic process, as when you make changes to a book, other aspects of that book can shift and change. Keep your editing notebook open as an ongoing document. From time to time, print up your newly edited work and read it through. It’s so satisfying to read a new draft and to feel how much smoother and more believable it is becoming. When working with clients, I’m often amazed at how swiftly work can improve with good editing. It is always a pleasure to see how work can be transformed in this way. Don’t let your filing get disorganised at this time. You need to know where everything is so that you can draw everything together with ease. Generally I save a copy of the old full manuscript, then take a fresh copy of it and ‘over-write’ the new version on the word processor. You can start a whole new document if you prefer, but I generally find over-writing works best.
Be a perfectionist:
Once you’ve edited the document – if you are preparing for submission – you need to read the final manuscript through at least twice more. This might seem like the least fun part but if you approach it in the right way, you can gain a lot from this stage. No literary agent or publisher wants to receive a manuscript full of typos and often-repeated words (we all do it!) When I was finishing my last book, I did the final read-through on a Kindle. (You can forward the ms to your freekindle.com address). There’s something empowering about this, as it enable you to see the manuscript as if it were a finished book. But also – when you read it like that, all the little errors leap out at you. The final read-through is the most fun of all because (if you’ve done your job!) you can really enjoy the pleasure of reading your work in a fully polished form and you can take huge pride in this.
Remain true to your own vision:
Finally, remember that if we don’t edit, we don’t learn. Even when we think a book is finished, it will then go to an agent or a publisher who will notice aspects of the work that will improve with further editing. As a result, the book generally gets stronger and stronger. At the same time, remember that it is important to hold tight to your own vision of the book. Stand your ground if you need to. We do learn so much in this process and it strengthens our abilities as a writer.
Essentially, aim above all for the best possible work you can do and for a vision that is uniquely yours. Then your own pleasure in the work and your skill will shine through to the reader, agent or editor. Don’t forget – you don’t have to do all of this at once. Just make that commitment to the read-through, pick up the manuscript and a pencil to scribble with and before you know it, you’re engaged in the process.
Why not try beginning today and let me know how it goes? You can break the process down into simple thirty minute chunks if you’re busy.
What would you add to these recommendations? Do please share in the comments.