Essential tips for editing your own novel

Back to the Future was nearly called Spaceman from PlutoToy Story’s initial storyboards cast Sheriff Woody as a sarcastic bully who picked mercilessly on Buzz. In Melville’s first draft, the opening line of Moby Dick was ‘Call me Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock.’

Okay, the third one isn’t true, but the point stands―it always pays to edit thoroughly.

The first thing to say is that I love editing. Really love it. I love examining sentences like they’re troublesome pistons, tweaking and finessing their actions before laying them back, purring, into the novel’s engine. That part is bliss―far more luxuriant and pleasurable than the hard graft of hewing out words in the first place.

So I approach edits with something of a song in my heart, and I would suggest that this is the first thing needed to be successful in editing one’s own work―the moments when your readers raise issues with your novel should be looked on as gifts. Even input that might seem to be a commercialised threat to your immaculate vision must be embraced and delighted in―viewed as an artistic challenge rather than an affront. Rather than fear the changes, we must think: ‘this is going to make my novel better, how amazing and exciting!’

If you’re serious about writing for publication rather than as a pastime, you must understand that you are producing a commodity for sale and its being judged in those terms can be clinical. Faced with this, you will almost certainly abandon or give up on several novels in your journey: and you will gain something from every project. My debut novel, Riverkeep, features two characters swiped from a half-complete draft of an earlier work, a monster from a short story that was never read by another human being, and a structural device from a novel I wrote nearly a decade ago.

Accepting that a particular project hasn’t worked is not a defeat―it is an exercise in the development and refinement of your talent and voice in which you should delight. Each project you set aside takes you a step closer to the one that will work beautifully, and it will stand more strongly on the shoulders of those previous attempts. Think of the abandoned drafts as a Shed of Wonder, to which you can wander and tinker when in need of inspiration.

This applies equally to the process of killing your darlings in an edit.

Be honest and brave. Neil Gaiman said that when a reader identifies a problem they are almost always right, and when they suggest a solution they are almost always wrong. So listen to your readers and find your own answers. What needs work? Dialogue? Pace? Are you rushing to the best bits and need to let the reader breathe? I habitually overuse words. I like ‘flesh’ because of its immediacy and intensity, which is great―but when it pops up on every page it rather loses its impact. I also overwrite in first drafts, but while I love some of the phrases and little pearls of detail in these chewy, looping paragraphs I know they are standing in the way of my story, and interrupting the rhythm I need to bring the reader into my world. They have to go. And when they do my book will be better―a good 1000 words will be a great 850. Rejoice! Hazzah! Cut cut cut!

And every little gem that is bravely cut goes into the Shed of Wonder.

I have some processes for my edits.

Big Picture, Wee Picture. Don’t go straight for the commas (which, as a general rule, I reduce by about a third in a second draft). Instead, start to mould your story in broad strokes. What themes and ideas have emerged in your writing that you didn’t plan or expect? Are there any points where you got carried away with a plot line, leading to an over-exposure of certain characters at the expense of others? Is there a symbol you could introduce to help intensify your thematic intent? Once you’ve slapped on or trimmed the bulky clay, then it’s time for the wee picture: individual sentences, phrases, paragraphs and commas. Bliss.

Highlight (credit Sara Grant for this tip). I highlight the words I overuse, characters’ names, paragraphs I know don’t scan well when reading aloud, colour-coding for clarity. As well as making them easier to find (and impossible to ignore), it’s a quick way of scanning to see proximity and frequency and sits well alongside…

Playing the numbers game. Using the Find function on Word lets me check how many times certain words or punctuation marks appear (I’m a devotee of semi-colons; I must rein this in at all times). How many pages appear between characters’ appearances? Too many? Is the reader going to forget people or events as a result? Is one of your minor characters popping up too frequently and threatening to take over the story? Or are they not mentioned enough and fading into the background? I used this to edit Riverkeep so that a particular plot strand occurred more evenly, and I know that the gaps between its appearances are 20, 30, 40 and 30 pages―far more regular and reader-friendly than before.

Making tables to dissect challenges. This is a huge help to me. I am a disorganised person, but I find order in edits. When faced with a seemingly major edit, I pondered how to solve it by making a two-column table of all the offending thread’s appearance, and detailed a possible solution beside each one in isolation. By looking at it coldly, away from the manuscripts momentum, it was easy to see how it might be implemented, and far more manageable than scrolling back and forth through the text in a panic.

Change the appearance of the text. You’ll be so familiar with the manuscript by the editing stage, that it’ll slip over your eyes, unseen and ungraspable. So print it off, change the font, change the size, change the margins―anything that will render your words slightly unfamiliar, allowing you to edit as though reading the work of a stranger.

These all help, and you’ll find your own as you work―but the main thing is the mindset. The edit is where your novel goes from good to great―where you learn your own foibles and develop your skills. It is where serious writers are made, and great works born.

So thicken your skin, build your own Shed of Wonder and edit coldly in the pursuit of brilliance. And sing songs of joy as you go, for those hard, clinical editorial notes are truly the greatest of gifts.


Martin Stewart