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Steps to Writing a Book: Editing

Welcome back to another post in the Steps to Writing a Book series! This is probably the most difficult step – editing. When it comes to the first draft, you just need to get the words on the page; they don’t have to be good. But editing is when you actually need to make it good. And that’s intimidating if it’s your own book! At this point, I’ve done a ton of editing on my first novel, a fair amount on my second (that I’m still working on), and I’m now editing as my job. While I might not be a full expert yet, I’ve done this plenty of times now, so I’m sharing my process of editing to help you figure out your own process.

A point of clarification: you probably shouldn’t do each editing step only once. For example, when I mention that step 2 is focusing on plot, don’t read through your entire manuscript, focusing on the plot, and then move on to step 3 after one read-through. You might need to work through the whole manuscript multiple times while working on your plot. In fact, when it comes to something as important as plot, you probably should go through it all multiple times. So basically you should do each step as often as your manuscript needs, as every manuscript will be different.

How To Edit Your Novel without Hating Your Life | Other posts in the series

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So you've written the first draft of a novel. Congratulations! Know what comes next? Editing. I'm sharing my tips on editing novels (as someone who has written multiple novels and is a professional editor) to help you make your book as good as it can be.

Step 1: Read through the entire thing without making any changes – I find that this is so completely and totally necessary. I’ve done it with my novels and with editing clients. By reading through it, you can get a better look at the big picture than if you’re in the weeds of editing. This is great for finding plot holes, unfinished plot lines, unnecessary elements (characters, subplots, scenes, etc.), and more. What I do is read and take notes. Sometimes they’re about changes I need to make, and sometimes they’re about things I need to remember for later in the manuscript. If you’re taking notes, I strongly suggest also including page numbers that correspond to your notes in case you need to flip back to that later.

Step 2: Work entirely on plot – I think we can all agree that plot is so, so important to a book. While everything is necessary, this is the most obvious element of a novel, so it’s the first thing that you should focus on. Look at your main plot, but also look at your subplots. How do these fit in with one another? Is there enough set-up for the main issue? This is about the big overall picture. Get rid of scenes, add scenes, rewrite scenes, etc.

Step 3: Work entirely on themes and/or overall messaging – This is also about the big overall picture. Once you’ve got the plot down, think about the messages you want to convey in your novel. What are your themes? What do you want readers to walk away with? Now work on assessing what you currently have in your manuscript, what you need to add, and what you need to get rid of.

Step 4: Work entirely on characterization – Once you’ve gotten the plot and themes down, focus on your characters! One thing you can do to help yourself is to make notes about all of your characters before you start editing for characterization. If you haven’t already, take the time to make a list of key qualities of each character. The more important the character is, the longer the list. For the main characters, you should also probably make a list of things that have happened in your character’s personal history. As you go through the manuscript, add important things you might need to remember later in the novel to your list. This way, you don’t have to flip back if you’re unsure about something that you know you already mentioned.

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Step 5: Work on the quality of the writing – It’s hard to wait to work on this, but you will save yourself a headache if wait to work on this until after you’ve dealt with plot, themes, and characterization. And now you can focus entirely on writing well! Think about your word choice, your descriptions, etc. While all of these steps that I mention here are things that could take multiple runs through your manuscript, this is one that could especially take a long time. But, as with all steps here, don’t rush it. Take your time!

Step 6: Proofread – What’s the difference between this and Step 5? This is just about correct grammar and spelling. Take no chances and google any questions you have or anything that you’re uncertain about. Are you using the right version of there/their/they’re? Did you spell that city correctly? These are the sorts of thing to look out for when you proofread. (PS – check out my grammar blog posts and my ebook The Essential Grammar Handbook)

Step 7: Read through it all again – Whether you think that you’re done or you know that you’re not but don’t know where to start, you should really read through your manuscript all over again once you’ve gone through all of the above steps. Think about the overall picture, aka how it all works together. If you’re unsure about something, work on it. If something doesn’t seem that right, work on it.

Sharing my novel editing tips as well as lots of resources to help you make your novel as amazing as it can be.

Novel Editing Resources

Structuring Your Novel (book) – This is an awesome book that I own and love. The last third or so is about editing, and it has completely changed how I think about the editing process. | Check out my review

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (book) – Amazon says, “In this completely revised and updated second edition, Renni Browne and Dave King teach you, the writer, how to apply the editing techniques they have developed to your own work. Chapters on dialogue, exposition, point of view, interior monologue, and other techniques take you through the same processes an expert editor would go through to perfect your manuscript. Each point is illustrated with examples, many drawn from the hundreds of books Browne and King have edited.” | Check out my review

10 Things To Do Before Editing Your First Draft (site – Well Storied) – This is pretty self-explanatory, but they’re all really good tips.

Top 4 Ways To Edit Your Own Writing (site – Sagan Morrow) – Awesome tips! These are general tips and not very specific, but they’re good places to start.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How To Be Your Own Critic (site – Jenny Bravo Books) – On the other hand, these are more specific. My favorite one (and one that I need to remember as I edit TLM) is, “Don’t send your work to an editor until it’s practically glowing.” Basically, make sure it’s as amazing as you can make it first. This is also important since it can probably save you money and time.

Resources to help you edit your novel Click To Tweet

How To Edit Your Novel: 8 Simple Steps (site – Now Novel) – The tips here are even more specific. And it includes a free guide to editing your novel! If you can’t or don’t want to spend money on a book or other resources, I really suggest you get it.

The Difference between Editing & Revising (site – Well Storied) – Unlike the other posts mentioned, this isn’t one that gives you instructions on how to edit. Instead, it has a list of things that you need to look for when editing and revising, as well as an explanation on what the difference is.

Manuscript Editing: How To Cut Words When Your Novel’s Too Long (site – Now Novel) – If you have the problem of having a way too long draft (like, at least 120,000 words, unless it’s all absolutely necessary), these tips will help you decide what needs to go.

How To Prepare Your Book for an Editor (site – Sagan Morrow) – These are great tips for once you’ve made all the edits you want or feel you need to and are about to send your manuscript to an editor. It’s not just about doing your own editing; it’s about thinking about what you want your book to look like at the end of the process.

What are your favorite editing tips?

Like this post? Check out:

Other posts in the Steps to Writing a Book series, How To Build a World Like a Pro, Best Books on Writing, Writing a Book: How To Power through the End

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