11 Tips for Editing Your Novel

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11 Tips for Editing Your Novel

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 7 “Revision” – Section 7 “Editing”

Words are the coins making up the currency of sentences, and there are always too many small coins.” -Jules Renard

Once you finish with the drafting phase of writing your novel (the process of perfecting the plot elements and making the text mostly perfect through the process of many rewrites), you will reach the editing stage. Editing is the point in the novel-writing process where we begin to fix all of the technical errors and try to make each word, sentence, and paragraph perfect for publication. Ideally, all of the devices in the story (such as plot, characters, progression, etc...) are perfect by this point, and no longer need to be adjusted very much. So all of your efforts can be spent on cleaning and polishing your already amazing story into something clear and aesthetically beautiful. (If you haven't already, please go back and read the chapter on Drafting for more insight into the difference between it and editing.) Please note that these are higher points in editing, meaning that you shouldn't feel bad for finding them in your work or feel that it reflects badly on you as a writer. If it makes you feel any better, know that each of the problems I will mention was derived from test-reader criticisms of my most recent draft.

Section 1: General advice for editing.

Tip 1: Print the story out and revise it with a red pen.

I'll admit, the color of the pen doesn't really matter, but using red make it look like your novel bled, further drawing you into the dark side. In all seriousness, however, I have found printing and physical mark-ups to be tremendously valuable to my editing. But can't you revise without printing? Yes, you can and you should; but there is a tremendous difference between the two. When you print out a physical copy and mark it with a pen, you know that you cannot revise or fix any problems. All you can do is mark every problem you see. As a result, your brain never enters a revisionist or drafting mode; and all your energy becomes completely devoted to identifying problems and jotting down notes for potential solutions later. Additionally, you are much closer to being in the position of the audience, when you cannot effect any immediate change—meaning that you will have an easier time identifying subtle problems like flow and pace.

Tip 2: Edit the story on your computer.

Once you have edited a story with pen and paper, go back over it on the computer. When you edit with the computer, your revisions will be much more studious, complete, and precise. Why is that? It's because, when you edit on a computer, you have complete liberty to play with the paragraphs, sentence structures, words, etc... Not only can you revise them, but you can copy and paste to see paragraphs and even scenes in different orders. I got this idea from looking at old drafts of Eudora Welty's work at her home, which has been converted into a museum. Of course, she wrote in the day of typewriters, so her copy and pasting involved actually cutting her own type-written books into tiny squares containing single sentences or paragraphs, shifting these around into a better order, and taping or gluing them into place on a new page. With a computer, you have the added benefit of being able to easily undo any edits you decide that you don't like (especially if you save every version of your draft). And when the revisions in a paragraph or sentence are finished, you can reread to make sure it is perfect before you move on.

Tip 3: Use both forms of editing, together.

In my experience, both forms of editing are tremendously valuable and work hand-in-hand to make your revisions effective. If you would like to steal my method (please do, if you wish), I will share what I find to be most beneficial. I print out my entire novel, marking it up, making notes, and not turning on my computer for any writing-related reason. As I mark up my novel, I make a list of the most common mistakes and errors, as well as any common critiques my test-readers may have for me. I then go through a single chapter, without the mark-up, and make revisions, keeping those common errors in mind. I wait one night and then go over the exact same chapter, with my mark-up (and any test-reader mark-up) in hand. This method usually results in diverse revisions, and I've found that I identify very different problems both times I go over a chapter. This method has drastically improved the quality of my editing “drafts,” and I highly encourage you to try it.

Tip 4: Read the story aloud.

When your story looks like it's almost perfect, start reading it aloud. Even if you are only whispering, reading a work aloud allows your brain to hear the structure and flow of your work. If a sentence comes out a little wonky, your subconscious will often pick up on it and let you know that something is off. This is particularly useful for finding run-on sentences, bland text, and problems in flow and rhythm. These are usually problems where the text is not objectively “wrong” or “incorrect” but perhaps not as strong or smooth as you want it to be. If you want to reach an entirely new level of editing prowess, read in front of an audience. When you get a friend, family member, or writing partner to listen as you read them the story, you will suddenly become a lot more self-conscious and aware of all the problems in your text. It's sort of like the difference between watching a raunchy comedy by yourself and watching it with parents or children around. When you watch by yourself, some of the innuendos completely go over your head and you don't even notice them. But when someone else is in the room, you suddenly become a lot more aware of every sex joke, expletive, and sample of fan-service.

Section 2: Looking for ways to improve your sentences.

(Click here to check out my tutorial on tools for building sentences.)

Tip 5: Look for anthropomorphized inanimate objects

Sometimes, when I am drafting, I start to get sick of the standard sentence format of using a character's name and then the verb that they do. When this happens, I've found that I purposeful try to mix things up. One of the not-so-good ways that I do this is by anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. This usually means that instead of saying something like, “Blake reached for his cat,” I'll say something like, “Blake's hand reached for his cat.” The problem is that it is factually incorrect to give human attributes and autonomous action to an object. A person reaches for a cat, using his/her hand. And it may not seem like such a drastic problem, but it really muddles up the clarity and style of the story when you use it repeatedly throughout your novel.

Another anthropomorphism comes from my more novice drafts, and fits of lazy writing (usually when I was doing everything in my power to combat writer's block). I find, when revising my own work, that I got tired of actually describing things (like a wrinkled brow, or a brewing storm) or wanted to over-romanticize my descriptions so that they'd be fancy. In those cases I lazily describe a person's face as happy or wise. Again, this is a problem because faces can't be wise or happy, they can only make the expressions or carry very specific details that make them appear so—like a smile or wrinkled eyes. Additionally, it's a violation of the show-don't-tell rule, as you are telling your audience how people and things look, instead of showing them.

It may seem that some of these technical details are just nit-picky rules for writers. But the truth is that every time you use this lazy form of description, you miss out on an opportunity to make a truly beautiful and unique description. Imagine, for example, all of the power and beauty that could have been lost in the following sentences if Rowling had simply described Dumbledore as a wizard with an old, wise face.

His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man's name was Albus Dumbledore.”
(Rowling, J. K. Chapter 1Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. N.p.: Scholastic, 1998. N. pag. Print.)
  Likewise, faces don't look mean, storms are not angry, and swords are not cruel. So check for all of the anthropomorphisms in your novel and fix them. Then, create purposeful variations in your sentence structure, using the sentence-building tools listed in the link above.

Tip 6: Make sure that your narrator's voice remains constant.

Another problem that comes from attempts at variety or romanticized voices in your story, is a problem of narration. I mean, after reading some Shakespeare, Bram Stoker, or some work with a unique voice that you love, anyone would want to incorporate that into their novel. I know I did, and I love a great variation of story-types. But the result was that half the time my narrator sounded like Anne Rice, with vampire dialogue; other times it was cartoonishly funny, like the Narrator from George of the Jungle; and only occasionally did my own narrator's voice come through.

There is nothing wrong with trying new styles and emulating your favorite writer, but the narrator of your story should be a character (or several characters). As such, there should logically be a consistency that allows readers to immerse themselves into the story without a jarringly strange change in tone that occurs randomly and for no real reason. Also, unless you are writing a genre hybrid that you keep consistent throughout the course of your story, adding a tone from another genre (like a funny narration for a horror story) simply does not contribute to the audience's immersion into your world. So look for words, phrases, and tones that don't belong to your narrator or to your genre.

Section 3 : Looking for how to optimize the way you use words in your sentences.

(Click here to check out my tutorial on word usage.)

Tip 7: Delete any words and phrases that don't contribute to the meaning of the text.

One of the trickiest parts of editing is finding words and clumps of words that aren't necessary and don't add anything to the meaning of the text. The reason it's so difficult is that there is nothing actually wrong with those words. They don't harm the sentence and they don't bother the reader. So what's the problem? Remember that this is not the drafting stage, where we are focused on writing a dynamic story. This is editing, where we are trying to take our story from being technically publishable to a place of technical excellence. Part of that process is to cut out anything that is unnecessary, in order to create crisp and rich text that is free of bland filler. I'll give an example of my own work below.

The second poster [that he read] was an advisory to stay indoors whenever possible.”
The second poster was an advisory to stay indoors whenever possible.”
As you can probably tell, from the two sentences above, the section in brackets is unnecessary. It's not wrong, it simply isn't necessary because “that he read” is quite obviously implied (particularly since it is previously established that the story is being told by through that character's POV). You can cut out a good number of these, just by looking at every sentence which has the word “that”. It won't always need to be cut out, but it's a helpful indicator that there might be something unnecessary in that sentence. Likely, there will be two or three unnecessary clauses (and a few scattered words) that you can cut out from each paragraph that you write. So, though each individual deletion of unnecessary text may not feel all that significant, it will add up immeasurably throughout the course of an entire novel.

Tip 8: Weed out words meant to singularly create pace.

I've talked in the past about adjusting the pace of your novel (and will be redrafting an old tutorial on the topic soon, so there's no need to look for the old one). I mentioned using sentence length, paragraph length, verb types, and a few other methods for adjusting how your audience perceives the flow of time in your novels. But before we really learn how to use those tools for pacing, beginning writers use words to try to do the same. Beginning writers use adverbs such as immediately, suddenly, slowly, etc... in order to communicate to their reader how quickly the story is going.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with using adverbs or these particular adverbs (though you generally want to use them as rarely as you can). For example, there is nothing wrong with saying that, “The cat slowly shut her eyes.” The problem arises when we try to use those words to dictate the pace of a scene. An example would be: “Slowly, everything moved around him while he looked down at his feet.” Or perhaps: “Suddenly, the hero unsheathed his sword.” When we use those words to dictate pace, we are telling our audience how to read a particular scene, instead of taking the time to adjust the pace ourselves. And, as we have discussed, telling an audience how to read your work will come off as stylistically lazy.

Tip 9: If possible, avoid labels and use names as often as possible.

Going back to my tutorial on words, you'll remember that many words carry denotation (a dictionary definition) and a connotation (ideas or emotions associated with that word). Few words have such strong connotations as labels. When I say labels, I don't even mean derogatory terms for people groups (though you should probably avoid those as well). I mean labels like “boy” “girl” “man” “woman” “teenager” etc, when you are referencing certain characters (e.g. Blake looked at the woman). People have used labels negatively for so many years that the connotations associated with them are likely irreparable. And by using these labels, even innocently (e.g. The teenager walked across the street), you create tones that don't want in your story.

In my own story, one of my POV characters is a serial killer who greatly dislikes humans and does not consider himself among them. So when he comes across a female security guard at one point in the story, I have him “punch the woman across the jaw before she could say anything.” The tone and imagery that my test-readers received from that, was that of an abusive male punching a woman before she could speak (an unfortunate reality that has attributed to negative connotations in the word “woman”). Now, this imagery would be fine, if my serial killer were a misogynist woman-beater. However, he dislikes both gender equally and was not inflicting violence to assert his dominance in a cruel way, but actually to knock her unconscious before she could raise an alarm. So it's not a matter of political correctness, it's a matter of precision and not creating confusion through connotations that are beyond your control. My label created a connotation of sexism that did not function for that character, and so I had to change the way that I phrased the scene, by removing some of the labels.

Like so many other mistakes, we often use labels in order to vary our sentences as much as possible. We don't want to use the name of our character repeatedly, so we use labels innocently in order to vary our sentences up. In my case, I was trying to create a label to reference an unnamed character that only appeared once in the book. And sometimes, we have no choice but to use labels (in fact, if you are trying to create a sexist character, or one who hates teenagers, or despises elves, labels are extremely useful for subtly showing that). But you should be aware of the connotations you may not want to create, and fix them where applicable. Additionally, it is possible to vary your sentences with proper names and pronouns alone, it just takes practice.

Tip 10: Remove unnecessary modifiers.

Unnecessary modifiers are those that we use to create emphasis but which really don't mean anything at all. The most common problem modifier is the infamous “very” but also include most adverbs and adjectives that communicate anything that is not definitive, visible, or quantifiable. For example, we can imagine a [green] car; so that is a useful modifier. Though less helpful, we can even imagine a [fast] car. What we cannot imagine is an [awesome] car—making it an unnecessary modifier unless used in dialogue.

Removing the [super] - [useless] word modifiers is [very very very] essential to [completely] cleaning sentences and [greatly] picking up the pace of your [awesome] story, as well as for making your writing [more] professional.
Removing the word modifiers is essential to cleaning sentences and picking up the pace of your story, as well as for making your writing professional. Your sentence will lose no meaning without them—and will likely even be strengthened.
Mark Twain had some advice on the topic of unnecessary modifiers, that you may find useful.
Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” -Mark Twain


Tip 11: Remove melodramatic modifiers.

Melodrama words a sub-category of unnecessary modifier (and I use them much too often), but they're a little more difficult to spot. I'll share another one of my terrible novel sentences below, to illustrate.

Draft 1
Wiry, chin-length brown hair stuck out [all over his head,] and a twig was [even] nestled in [the mess].”
Draft 2
Wiry, chin-length brown hair stuck out on his head, and a twig was nestled in it.”
Draft 3
His wiry chin-length brown hair was caught in tangles; and a twig dangled below his ear.”
Notice that the bracketed section are unnecessary modifiers, but they have touches of emotion in them. These melodramatic modifiers are fueled by an unwarranted sense of wonder over a description that is really not all that impressive. The character has long and tangled hair, so what? You can even use your imagination to pretend like the first sentence was spoken like a five year old who saw a hiker for the first time. (Go ahead, and feel free to chuckle. It is rather funny.) Again, we aren't usually aware when we use melodramatic modifiers, we just do it in order try to create an aesthetic before our writing becomes professional and we learn how to do that in a better way. Note that the second and third sentences may not be poetic or perfect, but they give the description in a way that does not draw unwarranted attention to itself.

Write-a-Novel Exercise 7.7


Choose a single chapter in Act I of your novel which best exemplifies the pace and tone of the rest of the story. Keep in mind when choosing this chapter, that it will be the one critiqued by the group, the one you will use in all of these exercises, as well as the one you will use to cross reference with the rest of your novel when you work on your next draft (in order to transfer the same types of edits to those chapters as you have done to this one). Once you have chosen a chapter, use the tips listed above to redraft it.

Please do not participate in this exercise until you have a complete first draft of your novel. Criticism, given before a first draft is completed, has a powerful discouraging effect for the writer. Also, please abstain from making other sorts of edits to your chapter, as we want to make our focus as specific and precise as possible with each exercise.

For those critiquing, please make you suggestions only relevant to the topic at hand. We will be going through a large variety of editing exercises, and your critiques will serve best when given at the appropriate time. As always, please make your critiques honest and hold nothing back, while remaining polite and uplifting. We want to encourage one another to succeed by telling them the truth about their flaws while uplifting their strengths and potential.

Writers, I advise you to always keep a copy of every draft you've ever written, no matter how bad. The contrast is important for seeing your own abilities grow, as well as for teaching others later down the road. Additionally, having a backup copy of the original file will make you subconsciously feel free to redraft, cut, and change the text, as the original will always be there if you decide you liked it or some element of it better. So keep a record of all of the many drafts you will create.

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A Personal Update: I'm still in Arkansas, but have been unable to do much hiking or anything but writing. I have a recurring minor health problem that requires bed-rest for me to actually feel better (nothing grave or worth much thought, don't worry). But I've been feeling able to walk since yesterday, so I might take a few little walks, catch some pokemon, and see how much my muscles have atrophied, haha. By the way, thank you guys so much for all the positive feedback on my last tutorial; it was very encouraging. I enjoy discussing these topics, and always get awesome ideas for new topics to discuss (and ways to improve my tutorials) from all of your notes and comments.

Feel free to comment with other suggested resources. Any questions about writing? Things you want me to discuss? Comment or send me a message and I will be glad to reply or feature my response in a later article. If you enjoy my reviews, please feel free to share my articles with friends, add it to your favorites, become a watcher on my page, or send send a llama my way!

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kimyunalesca's avatar
BananasTouching's avatar
I always read my chapters out loud after I make them to make sure it flows. Sometimes I catch myself sounding redundant. Great job on the tips! 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
It's tremendously helpful to me as well. Thank you :)
Leopold002's avatar
As always, food for thought.
Graeystone's avatar
Have somebody you can trust do the editing. Someone else is more apt to spot the plot-holes and grammar/spelling errors. My hard-rule in letting others do the editing/proof-reading is; don't let the editor fix the dialogue. That is something that I've always done.
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