Writing Discussion

Editing a Novel The Painless Way

You sweated and bled through that first draft. Now what? You’re not done yet. Here are a few tips for making the edit more manageable.

1) You don’t have to do everything at once. Breaking the novel into parts can work. I know some people will work on 1/4 segments at a time so that there’s less story to manage. Alternately, you can break the process into multiple passes of varying depth. I’m a fan of this technique. I’m lazy. I like to focus on just one thing at a time.

2) Start with the story, and save word choice until last. There’s not much sense in crafting the perfect sentence if the scene’s going to get cut. The big stuff includes looking at the novel as a whole, figuring out which scenes to cut, scenes to keep, identifying plot holes etc.

3) Try making the story look different when you’re editing. Change the font and page size. This can help trick your brain into thinking you’re reading something new. I like the idea of resizing to a novel sized page, and seeing how it looks.

4) Send it out to first readers only after it’s as polished as you can make it. Critically reading over a manuscript is a lot of work. Save your readers as much work as you can. They’re doing you a huge favor already. Plus, if it’s polished enough, it’s easier to focus on the bigger issues instead of getting bogged down in things like grammar.

I love editing, and this process works for me. Pick and choose as you like, or discard as you will.

My novel editing process:

Draft 2 – “OMG the first draft is unsalvageable” (optional draft):

  1. Reread the novel.
  2. (Optional) Rewrite. If the first draft is in really rough shape, I may have to do a rewrite. This means writing the story again from scratch, based on what I remember the story to be. Sometimes this is easier than trying to edit it.

Draft 3 – The big picture:

  1. Reread the novel, and make notes about what I still need to research, what changes I need to make. I also make a spreadsheet (my novel bible) and write a sentence or two about what happens in each scene. *More on the novel bible later.
  2. Go over the scene list, and figure out which scenes need to be rearranged, where they should go, what scenes are missing.
  3. Cut, paste! Fire up the manuscript and move those scenes around as needed.
  4. Smooth it out. Write in missing scenes. Fix character arcs. Fix subplots. Ensure the POV is the most appropriate. Make changes I noted in the last reread. Redo the beginning.

Draft 4 – Details details:

  1. Go through from start to finish, and edit using a checklist. Here’s a great editing checklist by Elizabeth Engstrom and a list of Style Blunders via the Blood Red Pencil
  2. Ask the critical questions. Was I telling instead of showing? Does it begin in the right place? Is there a way to add more tension to this scene?
  3. Check the dialogue. Is it clearly attributed? Does it flow well? Is it cliche?
  4. Search for passive voice. “was, were”
  5. Search for adverbs. Words that end in “-ly” are a giveaway. Decide whether it is the best choice or something else is more appropriate.
  6. Search for phrases I overuse. I have a bad habit of using “he turned” or “she looked” and “hands trembled”.

Draft 5 – Kill a tree:

  1. Print it out.
  2. Go through it all with a red pen. It’s at this point I’ll try to read aloud and see if the rhythm is correct. Take out all distractions. “Make it read like the wind.”
  3. Type in all those changes.
  4. (optional) Apologize to mother nature. Draw happy pictures on the reverse, then recycle it 🙂

Draft 6 – Get someone to read it:

  1. Send to first readers. In the meantime, take a break or work on something else.
  2. Consider the feedback. If all your readers say the same thing is wrong, it probably is.
  3. Incorporate any feedback you feel is appropriate.

If I had the luxury of time, I’d send it to a new set of readers after draft 6.

Painless, right? Ok I lied. It’s still a lot of work, but breaking the process into stages sure helps make it a lot less daunting.

Maybe there’s a quicker way to edit, but I haven’t figured one out. Do you have any tips to add?

17 Comments

  1. “Kill a tree” LOL.

    Wow, your process is really thorough! I mean, it’s exactly what I would do (or do do?) so I love that you’ve spelled it all out. Totally going to bookmark this to use as a checklist, hehehe.

  2. Draft 6? I print it out every two drafts or so 😮 I know, I know…

    My tip is to take out/replace any extraneous characters or characters that are skin-deep and pointless…eliminate ornamental people!!! (Of note: I did this to one of my main characters, as well as to a supporting character. By way of supporting character: he turned from a carbon-copy of the MC fighting with them, to an opposite personality fighting against them.)

    1. Yikes you’re slaughtering forests! 😉 You gotta do what works for you.

      Good tip too. In my latest draft I ended up taking out quite a few characters, and mashing some together into one. From now on I’m going to think of them as ‘ornamental people’ hehe I like that.

  3. I like the organized approach. Believe it or not… I’ve yet to reach this stage of writing a novel. I got so close once… but then I just scrapped it and went back to the drawing board. Next time… Next time.

    I have a feeling, I’ll work it out some way similar to this, once I finish that first draft. I’ll call it at around July of 2012…

      1. Indeed. But I won’t even start work on it until roughly June 2011, following what I hope to be the addition of some wiggle-room and writing time post-graduation, and I intend to spend more of my writing time on short stories, at least at this stage of my “career”. And I’m anticipating a year’s worth of writing time to put together the novel after. It having been a while since I’ve worked on a novel… I’m not really sure how long it will actually take me.

  4. Regarding tip 4 & Draft 5. I wasn’t sold on getting an iPad until my gadget-fiend office mate sent me a link to the iAnnotate app and I realized that I could “print” out my document to the iPad and highlight and mark it up (and type… but the keyboard on it isn’t really that good to do much of that). I’ve stopped killing trees.

    Great tips & it is always interesting to see the way someone else breaks down the editing work.

  5. It’s funny – I’ve read plenty of “getting started on your novel” posts but this must the first “right here’s what to do after the first draft” one! Very, very useful though Mrs Bazelli – a couple of ideas there I would never have considered (changing the fonts and page size in particular). Nicely done!

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