Novel Editing Tips
In this article, you'll discover a range of novel editing tips. You'll learn the steps you must take to prepare your book for publication and understand the editing process.
9 Novel Editing Tips
There are nine editing tips that will help you lift your novel to the next level.
- Give your novel 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.
What is Self-editing?
Self-editing your novel is the process of re-writing the first draft of your novel to lift it to a publishable standard.
The editing process can't begin until you have completed your first draft. However, once you are happy that you have finished your story, the editing can start.
Here are a few tips that you should undertake before editing:
- Create a fresh digital copy of your novel and use this for editing. This will mean that you have two copies of your novel: the first draft and the edited copy. This will allow you to easily see what changes you have made and revert to the old version if needed. Make sure these two files are named in a way that will be clear in six months' time.
- If you wrote a plan before you started writing, dig the plan out, and read over it to refresh your mind. The same is true for any old notes. You want to ensure that you have a clear picture of your initial vision for your novel.
- Make a list of questions or problems you wish to address during the edit. If you have niggling doubts and worries about your novel, write them down into one document. This will give you a strong oversight of your potential problems before you begin editing.
If you want to read more about the pre-edit checklist, here's a relevant article.
As you can see above, there are nine areas that you should be considering when editing your novel. We will look at each of these in turn.
Give Your Novel 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
It is essential that when you begin editing that you go into the process with the correct mindset.
There are three important concepts you should hold in your mind as you edit your book.
- Think like an editor, not a writer.
- Be prepared to cut.
- It takes time.
Thinking like an editor is an important first step in the editing process. This means that you are looking at your novel from a technical viewpoint. It means that you take a more dispassionate approach and come to your writing with an open mind.
This leads to the second concept, being prepared to cut.
When editing your book, it is essential that you are in the mindset that cutting words is beneficial.
You should approach each sentence and paragraph with one question in your mind – is this essential?
If a sentence or paragraph is not describing your world, moving the plot forward, or developing a character, it should be cut.
The final important concept is to understand that editing will take time. Editing your own book is a complex and time-consuming process, and it cannot have been rushed. You must understand this from the start and are therefore prepared to spend the time that is needed to lift your book to the next level. Rushing your book at this stage will result in a poor edit that will be reflected in later book reviews.
Identifying and applying the correct viewpoint to your novel is essential.
Novels can be written in one of three possible viewpoints: first-person, second-person or third-person. However, second-person is extremely rare.
To fully understand narrative viewpoint, we must first look at narrative viewpoint in general. In fact, we must take one step further back and consider narration as a whole.
Wikipedia describes narration as 'the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience'. [source]
In other words, it is the way a story is told to the reader.
Narration is split into three elements:
- Narrative point of view: the grammatical person used by the narrator to refer to the character being narrated.
- Narrative tense: the consistent use of the grammatical tense of either past or present.
- Narrative techniques: methods of conveying the story.
Of these three elements, it is Narrative point of view that interests us.
In the first-person viewpoint, the narrator is a character within the story, and the story is told from that character's perspective. You can see that this story is being told from the viewpoint of the narrator. Stories written from the first-person viewpoint will use pronouns such as 'I' and 'we'.
Examples of first-person viewpoint include To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick and The Wasp Factory.
In third-person viewpoint, the narration refers to all characters with third-person pronouns such as 'he', 'she', or 'they’, and never first- or second-person pronouns. In other words, the narrator is not a character in a story and is a separate entity. Third-person viewpoint can be further broken down into subjective/objective and omniscient/limited.
Examples of third-person viewpoint include A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice and the Harry Potter series.
It is essential that you not only understand the viewpoints in which you are writing, but that you are consistent at applying this viewpoint throughout your novel.
Think About Structure
One important thing that a professional editor will do for your novel is to assess the overall narrative structure and ensure that it has been correctly applied to your story.
There are many different types of narrative structure, but the most common is three-act structure, followed closely by five-act structure.
There is a good chance that your novel will fit into one of these two narrative structures. In fact, most people have a tendency to think of stories in a loose three-act structure even if they are not doing so consciously. This is mostly a result of years of conditioning from Hollywood films, which have been constructed using a very firm three-act structure.
As a side note, if you want to learn about three-act structure in Hollywood movies, check out Save the Cat!: The Only Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need Paperback (https://amzn.to/3bmAVcT). This book strongly influenced the structure (and writers) of some of the most well-known films.
A story written using a three-act structure will contain the following elements:
- Act I - Setup: Exposition, Inciting Incident, Plot Point One
- Act II - Confrontation: Rising Action, Midpoint, Plot Point Two
- Act III - Resolution: Pre-Climax, Climax, Denouement
Alternatively, a story written in a five-act structure will contain the following elements:
- The Tag: Start exciting.
- Act I: Exposition for the Audience.
- Act II: Conflicts appear.
- Act III: Things get real bad.
- Act IV: Everything's downhill.
- Act V: Tying up loose ends.
- The Dénouement: Where do we go from here?
Though most writers will not strictly adhere to either a three- or five-act structure, most stories will have an element of one of these narrative formats. Therefore, it is important that you, as the editor, understand how these formats work and how they may apply to your novel.
Do You Need a Prologue?
Having considered the wider issues within your novel, you can now begin to focus more tightly on other elements of your book.
One thing to consider closely is whether you require a prologue for your novel. There are two elements to assess when deciding whether to include a prologue.
The first element is the genre of your book. You will discover that some genres make liberal use of prologues, while others use them rarely.
For example, if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, then the reader will feel that it is commonplace for a writer to include a prologue. However, if you are writing a thriller or romance novel, the reader will not expect a prologue.
The next element to consider is whether your novel requires a prologue. In many cases, a prologue is simply Chapter One rather than a distinct chapter in its own right.
A prologue is defined as 'a separate introductory section of a literary, dramatic, or musical work.'
The keyword here is "separate".
For a prologue to exist, it must contain information that is separate from the main story. If this information is not separate but is simply a different element of the same story, then it should be called Chapter One.
There is one very critical situation in which a prologue is essential.
If you are writing a book of a particular genre, and elements of that genre are not strong in the opening three or four chapters of your book, then a prologue is needed.
For example, let's say you have written a book about aliens invading Earth. This is a military science fiction story. There is going to be lots of high tech fighting from chapters four onwards. However, as a writer, you want to use the first three chapters to develop your main characters. This will allow readers to connect with these characters.
In this example, a prologue is essential.
The writer's problem is that though they are writing a book of one genre, the opening chapters are not of this genre. It is therefore important that it is signaled to the reader that they are, in fact, reading a military science fiction story.
One way to do this would be to use the prologue to write a clearly military science fiction scene. We may create a scene in which the aliens invade Earth's moon base before finally arriving at Earth. This way, the reader gets to see the action before the character development.
When editing your own novel, you must identify and remove any info-dumping. This is the situation when a narrator passes character back story and plot information to the reader.
Look at this example…
Cathy looked down at her dress. It was the best one she could find. Her husband's business had tanked, and she had sold her fancy dresses in order to pay the bills. Since her friends didn't know, they had invited her to the annual social fundraiser. She was determined to go. But her husband, Greg, didn't think it was a good idea. She had met Greg when his business was booming. As he had come from a long line of wealth, she assumed she would never find herself in this position. But here she was. She wasn't going to let Greg's mistakes cloud her social life.
Here, we learn that Kathy's husband's business is in trouble and that she has sold her dresses to raise money. We also think that Greg feels the social fundraiser is a mistake and that Greg comes from a long wealth line.
This all comes from the narrator, not the characters.
The problem is that the reader is spoon-fed this information. The reader is being pushed onto the back foot and is passively given the information about the characters and the plot. This is not only boring to read, but it will also turn the reader off the story. If a novel contains too much info-dumping, the reader will eventually get bored and stop reading.
The best way to pass backstory and plot information is in a conversation between characters. This way the reader will be an active part of the process as they discovered the plot and character development. The reader will not become bored but instead actively engaged as they read.
Here is an example of how the information from the extract above can be passed in conversation, avoiding info-dumping:
Cathy looked down at her dress. It was the best one she could find. Turning to her husband, she said, "I had to sell all my good dresses to pay for the bills since you made that bad business decision. I never thought I would see this day. When we met, your business was booming, and since you came from a long line of wealth, I thought we would never struggle this way."
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.
This way they must build their own picture of your characters.
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.
5 More Novel Editing Tips
Having looked at these 9 novel editing tips there are still 5 smaller tips that you can apply to your editing process to ensure you produce the best possible results.
- Read your work out aloud. This is a tried and tested methodology to help catch small line level errors. You can either print out your work and read it yourself or use a text-to-voice facility on your computer.
- Check your spelling. This can be either with your word processor's built-in spell checker, or, more effectively, with a dedicated grammar and spell checker such as Grammarly. If you need help formatting dialogue, here's a detailed guide.
- Think about style manuals. Copy editors will use style manuals to ensure that a level of consistency is applied to a manuscript. You can make use of style manuals, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or AP, to correct any sentence-level issues.
- Be consistent. It is essential that you are consistent. This is not only with Storey elements but also style and technical elements. Ensure that your chapters are correctly numbered, and they are formatted. Make a list of any formatting choices you make so that you can easily refer back to this list later in the edit.
- Think about point of view. The narrative view point you use for your novel is important. Here's more information about third person point or view. Here is an article about first person point of view.
- Get professional help. Once you have completed your edit, you must consider professional help. Here is an article that outlines the best type of editing for your novel.
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