Book Editing Help: 9 Tips To Help You Edit Your Novel
When it comes to getting book editing help, it can be a long and complicated process.
Book editing requires a writer to approach their books with a new and different mindset.
In this article, you'll discover nine tips to help you better edit your book.
- Give your book space.
- Have the correct mindset.
- Consider viewpoint.
- Think about structure.
- Do you need a prologue?
- Avoid info-dumping.
- Show, don't tell.
- Get description right.
- Format your dialogue correctly.
Give your book space
Many writers (and editors) have given the advice that you should allow as much time as possible between completing the first draft and your first round of editing.
The most famous example of this advice comes from the horror writer Stephen King in his book On Writing.
King says, 'My advice is that you take a couple of days off—go fishing, go kayaking, do a jig-saw puzzle—and then go to work on something else.'
As for how long you should wait, King suggests that 'it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, aging and (one hopes) mellowing. Your thoughts will turn to it frequently, and you'll likely be tempted a dozen times or more to take it out, if only to re-read some passage that seems particularly fine in your memory, something you'd like to go back to so you can re-experience what a really excellent writer you are.'
Have the correct mindset
Writers approach novels with a mindset focused on story, plot, and characters. They are concerned with building complete narrative arcs, believable worlds, and engaging storylines.
Though all of these are of similar concern to an editor, they will approach a novel with a different mindset.
When editing your novel, it is important that you view your words from a technical viewpoint. You must see them dispassionately, through the eyes of a reader and editor.
You are looking for problems, plot holes, and sections that don't work.
You are looking to ensure that you are showing, not telling.
You are looking to guarantee your characters are three dimensional and well developed.
You are looking for narrative tension, conflict, and narrative movement.
And this is just the start.
You must also be willing to cut.
You must approach each word, sentence, and paragraph with the understanding that they must fight for their lives. Every part of your novel must justify its existence. If you find a section of your book that is not developing characters, moving the plot forward, or building your world, then it must go.
You must also approach editing with the understanding that it cannot be rushed.
Everything takes time.
Reading your work through the eyes of an editor and reader (rather than a writer) is time-consuming and difficult. Only by understanding this will you be able to carry out a successful edit.
Creating a consistent and coherent narrative viewpoint is essential to any novel.
When editing your book, you must ensure that you are paying close attention to the narrative viewpoint. It makes no difference whether this is first, third, or even second person; what matters is consistency.
You must have a deep understanding of viewpoints and assess each section of your novel with a clear and open mind.
Think about structure
Your novel's narrative structure will provide a skeleton on which you can hang your events and characters.
A well-executed narrative structure will ensure that you provide sufficient narrative tension to keep your reader engaged from the first to last page.
You must understand what structure you are using within your novel and how it is applied.
Typically, novels will fit into a three or five-act structure. However, this is not always the case. It is possible to use a hybrid approach or even a completely custom structure.
What is important during the editing process is that you know the structure you are using and how it is being applied to your novel.
Do you need a prologue?
One question to ask yourself, when editing your novel, is whether you need a prologue.
The inclusion of prologues will depend on your story's genre, your reader's expectations, and how your story is structured.
You will find that some genres use prologues more commonly than other genres. For example, it is not unusual to find a prologue in a science fiction or fantasy novel. However, it is less common to find a prologue in romance or perhaps even historical fiction.
Your readers will also have expectations for the genre in which your book is set. If you are writing in a genre in which prologues are unusual, the inclusion of a prologue may leave the reader slightly confused.
The structure of your novel may also determine whether the prologue is needed. One of the most common uses of a prologue is when a novel is written in one genre, but it is not immediately clear to the reader that the book is set within this genre.
For example, if writing a military science fiction novel, the reader will be expecting battles with aliens. However, you may wish to develop characters in the opening chapters of your novel so that the reader is able to connect with these before the storey fully unfolds. In this situation, you may have a number of chapters of character development before any aliens make an appearance. If this is the case, you run the risk of the reader becoming confused and bored before the novel really begins.
This would be a good place to include a prologue.
In the example above the prologue would include a battle with aliens, perhaps something that has occurred before the opening chapter. In this way, the prologue is showing the reader what is coming in a novel and will buy the writer some time to develop the characters.
When editing your novel, one thing you should be watching out for is info-dumping.
Info-dumping is the process in which back story is presented to the reader via the narrative summary. This most commonly occurs when you see paragraphs of back story in between sections of action and speech.
This type of info-dumping needs to be avoided at all costs. In essence, you are telling not showing, and risking the reader becoming disengaged and bored.
When editing your novel, you should be removing any info-dumping and instead, placing this plot information within conversation between characters. This way, the reader will be discovering the plot as the story unfolds and remain fully engaged with your work.
Show, don't tell
The advice to show not tell has become a well-worn cliche, but it is still essential information.
When editing your novel, you should be on the lookout for tell.
One of the most common reasons a reader stops reading a book is that they become bored. The reader will start with the best of intentions, but if the plot is weak, the characters are undeveloped, and the writing is not fully engaging; the reader will turn off.
When reading a book, the reader must feel part of the story. They must feel as if they are 'in' the narrative, experiencing what is happening.
The best way for this to happen is for you to treat the reader as an observer to a scene. A reader must 'see' the scene as it unfolds in front of them. They must be able to picture the location and characters, visualizing the action as it occurs.
This means that you SHOW the reader all that is happening, not TELL them.
For example, if you were to write:
'The woman was happy.'
This would be TELL.
You are telling the reader the woman's emotion; she's happy. The reader is left with no wriggle room.
They are left with no work to do and don't need to engage.
However, if you wrote:
'The woman smiled and then jumped in the air, clapping her hands.'
This time you are forcing the reader to do work.
They need to picture the scene and the woman. You are leaving some narrative space for the reader to lean into and add their own meaning.
Is the woman happy? Ecstatic? Something else?
It's now the reader's job to engage with the story and add the meaning.
This is SHOW.
You are describing the woman's actions. The reader remains part of the scene and, hopefully, the character's actions trigger an emotion in the reader.
By showing, not telling emotions, plot and backstory you are forcing the reader to 'lean into' the book.
This keeps them engaged and part of the process.
Each time you tell the reader something about the story, the reader is pushed onto the back foot and disengages, too much tell and the reader gets bored and stops reading.
The aim is to create a narrative space between the character and the reader.
By showing the reader what is happening, but not telling them, you force the reader to work out the reasons for the character's words and actions.
Get Description Right
Many writers shy away from writing enough description.
I am not suggesting that you have pages of flowery prose, but that you have adequate description to allow the reader to 'paint' a picture of the characters and locations in their mind's eye.
In On Writing, Stephen King describes writing as an act of 'telepathy'. He said the writer's job was to pass a picture of a scene from the writer's brain into the brain of the reader.
You have to get the images in the writer's mind into the reader's mind.
The way this is done is via character and location description. There is no need to go over the top with these, but it is important that you give the reader enough to paint a picture.
You must also be aware that any words a writer uses will never be as powerful as the reader's imagination.
If you say, 'door' it will conjure an image in the reader's mind. 'Green door' will conjure a different image, 'green door with flaking paint and brass door handle', still another image. The key is to use just enough words to allow the reader to paint a better picture than you are describing.
The reader is constantly painting a picture of the book's current scene in their mind's eye.
You must also be constantly updating this picture, giving the reader enough information to 'see' the picture as you wish. This sounds a little complex, but the technique is actually pretty simple.
Here are a few rules:
- If a location changes then add a new description of the location. This means that if a character walks from one place to another, then you need a new description.
- If a new character enters a scene, add a description of that character.
This throws up the question of how much description; again, there are a few simple rules…
If the character/location is minor, then add a small amount of description. The waiter who makes a fleeting appearance delivering a meal might simply be 'the waiter'. However, if the character will linger in a scene, but only one scene, you will need a couple of lines. In this case, the waiter might become 'the waiter was tall, six foot with neatly cut black hair, but with bushy eyebrows.'
If the character/location is major, then you need a large amount of description. As a general rule of thumb, if a character will be in more than one scene then they/it needs to be treated in this fashion.
The best way to approach this type of character/location is to provide a couple of lines of description initially, then as appropriate, continue to layer in an occasional line of description, this way, the reader can build an increasingly complex picture in their mind's eye.
Format Your Dialogue Correctly
Formatting dialogue correctly can trip up even the most talented writer. From the outside, formatting dialogue can be a black box of contradictory rules. The best way to explain the rules of formatting dialogue is to use an example…
Hi have you seen my cat said Bob. No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is. If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad. Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.
Formatting Dialogue: New Speaker, New Line
This is a pretty easy rule to apply. Each time a new speaker speaks you place the line of dialogue on a new line. This line should also be indented. We can see how this applies to our example:
Hi have you seen my cat said Bob.
No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is.
If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad.
Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.
Formatting Dialogue: Adding Speech Marks
The next rule says that all speech should be placed in speech marks. These can be either single (') or double ("); it's your choice. However, keep in mind that if you use, say single ('), you need to be using the opposite, in this case double (") when you are reporting speech inside speech.
'Hi have you seen my cat' said Bob.
'No' said Bill 'I have no idea where your cat is.'
'If you see my cat will you let me know' questioned Bob looking sad.
'Of course' replied Bill with a tone of concern.
Formatting Dialogue: Punctuation
When writing dialogue you will often use 'tags'. These are verbs, which link the spoken words with the remainder of the sentence. Commonly used tags includes said, asked, replied and many more. Without going into the technical detail, to correctly punctuate spoken words and tags you must link them using a comma. If you use a full stop the sentences are broken and it no longer makes sense. If we look at the second line of our example we see:
'No' said Bill
This is a single sentence and therefore must end with a full stop, giving us:
'No' said Bill.
The tag in this sentence is 'said' and this must be connected to the speech. If you added a full stop at the end of the spoken words, it would separate the tag and become incorrect:
'No.' Said Bill. [WRONG]
Instead, we must link the spoken word and the tag with a comma, this gives us:
'No,' said Bill. [CORRECT]
There's one more tip. It is best to use 'Bill said', rather than 'said Bill.' After all you would write, 'he said', not 'said he'.
If we apply this to the full example we get:
'Hi, have you seen my cat?' Bob said.
'No,' Bill said. 'I have no idea where your cat is.'
'If you see my cat will you let me know?' Bob questioned, looking sad.
'Of course,' Bill replied, with a tone of concern.
Please note that in the first and third lines we have used a ? instead of a , since it is a question.
Editing your novel is a complex and time-consuming process.
You must come into the task with a clear picture of what is required. Not only is a technical understanding that is important, but also the correct mindset to avoid you becoming quickly frustrated.
They said book editing is an essential skill, and when applied correctly, it will lift your novel to a publishable standard.
If you want to learn more about self-editing, check out our self-editing checklist.
If you want to learn more about self-editing, check out our self-editing checklist.
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