There’s nothing quite as enlightening for a writer as editing other’s works. I’ve learned a great deal about what to do and what not to do from my freelance editing which has helped me grow as a writer. So here are 10 key tips I’ve learned for Editing Your Novel:
1) Preserve The Fresh Eye — This can’t be overemphasized. I am not possessed of a great deal of patience. Never have been. But I’ve been editing for five years now, and I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned that has helped me improve my work. But none of that can be applied without having proper perspective. Putting aside your work until the rush of adrenaline and accomplishment at having finished such a monumental project fades (at least 4-6 weeks) is vital. Move on with other projects after a day or two of celebration. Get your mind on other things. You’ll come back much fresher and with better distance to be objective in reviewing your own work. After all, editing requires killing babies and nitpicking your favorite words and phrases, and you can’t be emotionally attached and do that well. This is an excellent time to send the work out for beta reading or notes. While you wait for that feedback, you can’t really begin editing in earnest, right? Or at least shouldn’t.
2) Watch Out For Intruder Words — This one is so vital I did a separate post on it here, but the basics are look for words like “saw, thought, wondered, felt, knew, heard,” etc. are all ‘intruder’ words. They intrude on the action, by stating extemporaneously what can be written more actively. They pull us out of the intimate POV of the character and throw things into telling or passiveness. There are times when one might deliberately choose to use intruder words. But these should be done with careful thought and sparingly. Otherwise “She felt the wind blow across her face” is stronger as “The wind blew across her face”. Or “She heard a bang” is better written as ”A bang thundered behind her.”
3) Don’t Abuse The Tags — Speech tags are so common that people use them without much thought, but the industry has come to lean more and more toward minimal usage. When you have two characters going back and forth, you don’t always need to identify the speaker. If one of them makes a gesture or action, you can describe that action instead, and we’ll know the dialogue in the same paragraph is from that character. Also, be careful not to use words that are not descriptors of speech patterns. “I’m coming,” Bob waved, “as fast as I can.” Uh, no. Try: Bob waved in acknowledgement. “I’m coming as fast as I can.” Which makes more sense? I’ll do a post on this later on but it’s something that can and should be looked at in revision. Eliminate as many as you can.
4) Read Aloud — This is one I struggle with. It can feel odd to read things aloud to yourself, but it also has great value. Especially in finding run-on sentences, awkwardly paced phrasing and even repetitive words. I often read aloud when I am comparing one wording with another to find which is more natural. Just because our internal voice reads as we write doesn’t mean our words will translate the same way for others. Remember that writing is a rhythm of stops and starts. You may pause to choose words and then continue without realizing you’ve just created an awkwardly paced or long sentence, or even missed punctuation that would make it clear. Reading it aloud, or even listening to someone else do so (if you can bear it), can teach you a lot about where you need to make changes.
5) Set Daily Goals — Don’t try and edit your entire novel in one sitting. You will start skimming and skipping without even realizing it. Editing requires a very focused reading and most of the time 2-5 chapters will be more than enough to accomplish in one sitting. Finish them and take a few hours away to refresh before starting on more. It’s okay to set goals for what you want to accomplish each day, but allow flexibility that enables you to step away when you get that glossy-eyed feeling so you can preserve the quality over quantity of your editing time. Even when editing other people’s work, I set daily goals, because I know that at a certain point I become less effective and my work suffers for it. This happens all the more so when I am editing work I’m so overly familiar with, like my own.
6) Work From A Checklist — Either based on beta reader or editor notes or you own writing experience, having a checklist can be an excellent tool. Cat Rambo provides examples here. What are the areas of weakness and strength you’ve discovered in yourself as a writer? What are things you need to focus on? Is there a particular arc or character speech pattern to examine and refine? Are there themes which you discovered as you wrote you want to work in and layer throughout? What about repetitive words? Do you need to add or trim description? Maybe you need to cut excess words? Having a checklist to refer to with each chapter can keep you from getting sidetracked by one aspect and ignoring others. It can keep you on track and remind you to address all of the issues which were on your mind when you sat down to commence the edit.
7) Evaluate Necessity — One of the most important things to do is to evaluate the purpose of every scene and character. What does this scene or character do to further the plot? How do they relate to the key conflicts? Do they advance the story? World-building is a legitimate way to advance the story but don’t overdo it. 3 pages of double spaced manuscript can be 10 pages in the finished book. Will readers really sit through that much description and detail about every day items, clothing, food, etc.? Did you really need a new character for that moment or could an existing one have been recycled allowing you to develop them further? Does that little vignette about the character’s past or emotional life really contribute to what’s going on now? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you need to be willing to start cutting nonvital characters, scenes, words, etc.
8 ) Be Willing To Work In Stages — Sometimes, especially when an area is a particular weakness, focusing on just one issue while editing is appropriate. You can do separate passes for pacing, removing extra words, character arcs, etc. if necessary. Don’t be so rushed to get it done that you don’t allow yourself the time to get it right. It’s a natural part of the writing journey that we internalize various skills as we go along and develop, but we don’t start out with mastery of them all or an ability to use them all simultaneously. Even as a professional editor, I can’t do a serious copyedit and developmental edit at the same time. I have to do them separately. The two tasks require different types of focus and thinking and one can easily distract from the other. So be willing to break your edit into separate passes or stages when required. Your book will be much better for it.
I’m sure I could think of more tips but that’s enough for today. Those are tips I find are not often remembered because editing discussions so often focus on craft and storytelling details, but how you approach the process can be just as vital to the success of it as those technical details. So I hope these are helpful in stimulating your planning and approach. I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. By the way, these same tips can be applied on a smaller scale to editing short stories as well. And they work for both fiction and nonfiction. I edit all three. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.