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How I Edit a Novel

How I Edit a Novel

You’ve written you book. Now what? It’s time to polish it to perfection. (If your novel is still stuck inside your head, check out my how I write series part 1, part 2, and part 3. You’ll be back to this post in no time.)

I love editing. I love writing, because everything is brand new and exciting and the characters take you places you never planned while outlining. I love story building, because the world is shiny with possibilities and can veer in absolutely any direction. But editing has its own joy. For starters, the words are there. They might not be the perfect words. They might not even make up the right scenes, but they give a place to start. Plus, no matter what your mental state—filled with energy and creativity or sapped and listless—there’s always an editing task you can do and still make progress.

Like my writing process, my editing process is an evolving system as I learn. This is its current form.

List the Problems

The first step is to read through the novel. I don’t put pen to paper or cursor to screen. I don’t fix typos or even check spelling. This step is purely for listing the problems. In a new document, I create a chapter-by-chapter list of all the problems, big and small that need to be fixed: plot holes, repeated information, pacing that goes too fast or slow, conversations that are stilted, etc. For my most recent novel, I had 26 pages of double-spaced notes.

CatThis step takes a lot of internal fortitude. It’s the first step in severing the connection between your soul and the writing. It can feel like you’re listing your personal faults and dwelling on them. But as painful as this step is, it’s vital. The separation between you and your work is important to make it better. Grab a chocolate bar or a tissue, and keep going.

It can be easy to start thinking that your book, your writing, or you, yourself are complete crap at this stage. Ignore these thoughts. They’ll pass, you’ll strengthen your book, and you’ll be so thankful you’ve gone through this process.

Outline, Outline, My Good Friend

Oh yee of outline scoffery. Did you think I’d leave behind my beloved writing strategy after the book was written? Now I create a no-frills outline following the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey (see The Writer’s Journey) to make sure all the elements made it through the first draft. I inevitably veered from my original extensive outline in little and large ways, and this is an efficient method to make sure nothing important got dropped.

Internal and External Conflict

Every novel should include a main internal and external conflict for the protagonist. Sometimes these can get muddied in the writing, and now’s the time to clarify each point on your mini-outline and then note what changes are necessary to make these conflicts shine.

Timeline Updates

The timeline gets a similar scrutiny and update. In writing, what should have fit in one day might have become too much for a character to physically handle, or a scene I thought would take longer, didn’t. Some time and date reshuffling might be in order. All timeline problems are added to the editing list.

The Big Edits

Once I have my mondo list of All Things Wrong, I prioritize. Rather than start in chapter 1 and work my way through, I work on the biggest-picture problems first, and worry about the smaller details (conversations that don’t mesh with character’s voices, descriptors that need more umph, etc.) later, so I don’t have to rework anything twice (hopefully). There’s no point in fixing dialog on a scene I later decide to cut.

SquirrelBig-picture problems include:

  • rewriting scenes
  • reshuffling scenes
  • cutting or adding plot lines
  • reworking the beginning (this will be done several times)
  • reworking the ending (yep, several times)

I do most large edits on the computer for ease when throwing chunks of text around or drafting new scenes.

Everything Else

Once the big-ticket items are crossed off, I print out the novel and start on page one. I enjoy the tactile sensation of working with pen and paper as well as the ease of reprinting a page if my edits veer the wrong direction. While fixing the remaining problems on my list, I edit with the idea of making the book reader-ready. So pacing, tone, word choice, and everything in between are addressed. My pages usually look like a blue-ink mess. This makes me happy. I can see the story becoming stronger.

I enter all these edits into the computer, then move to the next step.

Editing for Words

As much as I try to make the previous draft perfect, there’s room for improvement. Doing a lot of edits can blind me to smaller problems, word echoes, or minor pacing flaws. Now that the story is close to being set, I can read faster, more like a reader. This helps me pick out flaws I missed the first time. This is also a great time to check chapter breaks; the original breaks might no longer make sense now that pacing has changed.

MouseIn this stage, I also use my writing program to conduct searches for the following overused words:

  • felt (is it needed, or can I describe what’s being felt? is the phrase passive?)
  • was (sometimes was is necessary, sometimes it indicates passive verbs)
  • that (that sneaks in all over the place, and about 40% of the time, it isn’t necessary)
  • just / only (rarely necessary)
  • suddenly (I’m good at not letting this word in when writing, but it’s still on the watch list)
  • watch (usually can be deleted)
  • look (generic)
  • very (rarely necessary)
  • thing (find a better descriptor)
  • still (rarely necessary)
  • I knew (writing from the first person makes this redundant; the whole story is from the character’s voice, so of course whatever she says is what she knows)
  • there was (passive!)
  • seemed (rarely necessary, usually weak)
  • nearly (weak)
  • a little / almost (weak)

I also check words specific to the unique world. For example, for Madison Fox novels, I make sure all atrum and lux lucis instances are italicized. This is also the time for spell check.

Dialog Realism

Before entering these edits into the computer, I find it helpful to read out loud only the dialog of each chapter. It makes me sound like a spaz, but it helps pinpoint characters who don’t sound like themselves, too many instances of filler words (well, um, so, etc.), and general stilted exchanges. Writing dialog as people really talk doesn’t work, but writing dialog that reads like prose doesn’t work either. Hearing it helps me find the balance. Once I’ve noted these changes, I go back to the computer and enter my edits.

A Note on Trimming

I’ve yet to write a book that didn’t go over word count, so at every step of the editing process (and outlining and writing), I’m looking for ways to cut text. This takes the form of cutting individual useless filler words (like that) and slashing scenes and dialog. I’m always searching for more succinct ways to convey the story. 

Edits continue until the book is as close to perfect as I can make it. I don’t strive for true perfection. That thinking chains books to hard drives.

There will always be room for improvement, and stories I thought were perfect will seem juvenile years later, when I’ve matured as a writer. For now, if I feel I’ve polished my novel to the best it can be, I stop.

Seeking Professional Help

This is a personal decision and a book-by-book decision. Depending on what you think of your story, your writing, and, frankly, what your budget is, it might be time to send your novel to someone who can give you a professional, unbiased opinion of flaws and improvements to make. I have published novels without this, and I’ve used substantive/content editors. No matter what, feedback is essential. If you have some great beta readers, use them. If you’re in a writing group, awesome! If you’ve got a super-critical literary friend, kidnap her for a day. Writing in a vacuum doesn’t often create high-quality stories.

Not everything others believe needs to be changed will ring true for you. My first response to critiques is typically denial, but once I give myself time to think over the proposed changes for the story, I tend to agree to make about 80 percent or more of the changes. Don’t alter your story to suit every critic, but don’t scoff at good advice. Trust yourself; you know what’s best for your story. (Besides, if you thought it was perfect, you wouldn’t bother asking for feedback, right?)

The edits from this round of feedback will vary by novel. It might require you to start at square one with another list of issues, or it might require a light massage of a few scenes.

Editing for Publishing

The importance of a clean copy can’t be stressed enough. Most traditionally published novels are edited by the author, the editor, the copyeditor, and the proofreader. Occasionally, an additional overreader is used for a final polish. That’s a lot of trained eyes on a project, and mistakes can still make it through to print. Don’t rely on just yourself! Hire someone with keen grammar skills and make sure you’re putting out a flawless novel.

The Final Step

Here’s the most important step of the process (and if you’re an aspiring author and have only one takeaway from this post, it should be this):

The moment I hand the manuscript over to my copyeditor, I begin the process for the next book that’s looming in my imagination, ready to pounce onto the page and into reality.

*All pictures sourced from

9 Responses to How I Edit a Novel

  1. WOW, that is a long thought out process! Like I keep saying and thinking, I will never look at a book the same way ever again. We are so excited for you. Congratulations! I hope you give your eyes and wrist a break before the next project.

    I love all your animal pictures too. I saw the bunny’s picture earlier today and then there is was in your post. (no it is not on my manifesting list)

  2. Your nephew and I cracked up for a good three minutes straight over the bunny photo. Where, oh where did you find it??? I MUST have more!

  3. Hey Rebecca, great post! I love the idea of printing it out and making your edits there. My first draft probably needed far more edits than I could physically fit onto the paper, unless of course I used a magnifying glass to read them later! I also have a question and I’m wondering if you’d care to chime in, or maybe write a post on the subject?
    I’m working through my second draft of my WIP, and I definitely want to do a sequel because I know there’s more to the story. I could even stretch it into three because the “bigness” might allow it, but I’m afraid of getting burnt out on it. I know its advantageous (and also kind to readers) to release books in a series close together so people dont forget about it or have to wait forever, but I also have other ideas brewing for unrelated books which sound immensely fun to write.
    Whats your opinion on two-book series? Or rather, having a book and then its sequel? Do you think those are as marketable as long series with three, four, or even five books? As you know I’m a younger, inexperienced author and I’m not sure I have the stamina to push out three books in this story, although I think it could certainly be done and done well. Hopefully that wasn’t too long a comment. Thanks for all you do, you are very inspiring!

    • Great questions, Kayleigh! I think the average reader expects a new book in a series every year. It’s wonderful when authors pump out books faster, but 1 year is the gold standard. If you think you’re going to take longer to write a sequel, I might hold off on releasing book 1 until you’re within that year range for book 2—if you’re main focus is reader experience/happiness. If you just want to publish to have published (and I understand the appeal of that!), publish book 1 when it’s ready and hold off on major marketing of it until book 2 is closer to being done.

      As for a two-book series, I think readers expect a trilogy if there’s a series, but if you’re upfront with them and make a large emphasis that book 2 ends the story, you won’t end up with disappointed fans. Plus, after both books are out, you can create a box set of both books as a “get the whole story in one swoop” sort of deal.

      It is by far a better money-making strategy to produce books in a series. You build a fan base, and those fans put your series on auto-buy, theoretically making it easier for you to have higher sales numbers with each release. Plus, there’s the psychological aspect: readers see a whole series of books available online or a chunk of space taken up on a retail bookshelf and (1) are more likely to notice you because they’re seeing more of you, and (2) are more likely to make an investment in your and your series, because if they like one, they know they have more books to look forward to.

      That said, if sticking to a series will burn you out, or if you simply have more inspiration for other stories, write those. People will find your stories and might hop from one to the other, and they might not, but you’ll be happy having gotten to play in multiple worlds.

      Two final thoughts: 1) If you’re going the traditional route and looking for an agent, it might be useful to write a couple novels NOT in the same series. That way, you increase your odds of piquing the interest of an agent/editor with one of them. You can always write a sequel to the story that sells, but you could be wasting time on a sequel to a story that’s not catching attention (though this is less true now that you can self-publish and find your own fans).

      2) If you’re self-publishing, there is a proven sales tactic of releasing 3+ ebooks at once, usually with a 4th following a month later. This pops you up on all kinds of lists, radar, and general awareness, gets more buzz going for you, and people who like your first book can zip through all the rest, giving you reviews and increasing your overall online presence. Of course, holding off to have that many books ready can be hard.

      Let me know what you decide!

  4. Wow what a great and thorough response! Thank you so much!

    I am definitely more inclined to the self-publishing route I think, because I don’t want to have to wait for acceptance from an agent and a publishing house, and I do enjoy having absolute creative control over the things I work on.

    I think I will just keep plugging away with this series, because it really is fun! And maybe work on some other projects in my spare time. I already plotted out the second book and started writing some of the scenes from it (I have my handy scrivener file all dialed in with named chapters and everything, just waiting for the text pages to be filled) so I know I will move forward with that and plan on extending the series for a final third book. That one will be for the (hopefully existent!) fans, haha.

    It is tempting to wait until I’ve written all three and then publish them at once like you mentioned, but that must take a lot of patience and discipline. I am already itching to just finish my edits and get this first installment out there. Are you doing a third in the Madison Fox world?

    Thanks so much for your detailed reply and for sharing everything you do on your blog. I’m not on social media or anything right now so I haven’t been connected with that many writers, except I did go to some Writing Meet-ups in Grass Valley, which was fun. Your blog has been such an inspiration to me. I’m writing full time now and it can feel quite solitary!

    Thanks again! And happy writing!

    • I like your plan—whatever keeps you inspired to stay at your computer, putting words on the screen is what’s important. There are a few online groups you can join if you like feedback or online camaraderie. I enjoyed the Online Writers Workshop ( for feedback on my writing and learning how to give feedback. (It’s pretty cheap, too.) Depending on the elements of your novels, there’s also RWA, which has local meet-ups as well as online interactions.

      There will definitely be a Madison Book 3. I have a few ideas for it and more brewing. Despite my advice, I’m bouncing between series. I’ll work on the sequel to Magic of the Gargoyles before Madison 3, and before both of those, I’m releasing a magical realism romance.

      Best of luck with your novels!

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