Editing your novel is a fundamental part of the writing process, and yet so many authors find it intimidating and overwhelming. I admit, it lacks glamour. Who wants to go back over what they’ve written? To find gaps and holes and work out solutions and rewrite scenes that took a long time to write in the first place? But while it might not seem as thrilling as that first flash of inspiration or the romance of getting to know your characters, I think it’s ultimately more satisfying.
Before I joined CBC, I was an editor at the Orion Publishing Group. I loved working closely with authors, posing questions and offering advice and support, as they honed their ideas and characters over multiple edits, getting closer with each draft to the vision in their mind. And I think they enjoyed the process too. Because it’s during the edit that a book really takes shape. I always tell writers that writing is rewriting and not to worry too much about their first draft – it’s never going to be brilliant, but that’s OK – it’s just not ready yet.
A metaphor I draw on frequently is that of a lump of marble. Imagine that your first draft has been lifted away from the rockface – it’s beautiful in places but rough in others, a little bit too heavy, with some jagged edges and an uneven pattern. Only by taking a hammer and chisel and chipping away at the rock, carving out a clearer shape, smoothing the edges, adding some fine detail and polishing the surface, will you attain perfection.
In short, editing is a craft: it requires technique and dedication and practice. Over time, you will discover what works best for you, but for writers grappling with an unwieldy first draft, this is my method.
1. Take a fresh look
It’s important to step back from your material, so you can return to it with a critical eye. Put it away for a little while but not too long. Then approach it as you would another writer’s work. You might like to print out your manuscript and go and sit somewhere quiet where you can work through it, page by page. A change of scene can be good. If you wrote it at the kitchen table, you could take it to a library, or the park. Arm yourself with a pen and highlighters and post-it notes . . .
2. Then read slowly, and to the end
It helps to set aside a chunk of time of editing – at least a few hours rather than twenty minutes snatched here and there – so you can focus on the novel as a whole. Think about your original intention, the heart of your book, the question you want to answer. Perhaps write it at the top of the first page of your manuscript. Keep this in your mind while reading through. Have you achieved your objective, and if not, why not?
3. Consider what genre your book is and who your readers are
If it’s a thriller, is it gripping throughout? Does the pace lag at all? Are there enough twists and turns? If it’s a romance, does it end happily ever after? What tribulations are you going to put your protagonist through in order to get to that point? Are they emotional and dramatic enough?
4. The big picture edit
The first edit – the ‘structural edit’ – is concerned with the big picture. By which I mean the story and characters, voice, perspective and pace. Absolutely highlight spelling mistakes and clichés and repetition, but don’t get distracted by the little things. There’s no point correcting all of your punctuation or agonising over tiny sentences if you end up cutting great swathes of text! For more tips on the structural edit check out Anna's guide to the big picture edit.
5. The story arc is a great place to start
Have you ordered the events correctly? Do you need a new narrative strand? Are there any scenes missing? Any gaps in the reader’s understanding? Remember you don’t have to tell the story chronologically – could a flashback help? Or, conversely, perhaps you’ve spent too long in the past, and as a consequence your pace is flagging. Do you need more tension to build towards the climax? Is the resolution satisfying?
6. Examine your characters
How well do you know them? To be believable, they need to be fully rounded with complex desires and motivations. They need to be consistent, and active rather than passive. Are you happy with the size of your cast? Could you cut or amalgamate any characters? Or perhaps your narrative feels too static, in which case you might want to insert someone new, an antagonist or confidant?
7. Who’s telling your story?
Is the point of view consistent? Does your first-person narrator ever reveal something they couldn’t possibly know? Is your third-person narrator too greedy, hopping from head to head in a confusing way? If you have multiple voices, are they vivid and individualised? If there’s anything that pulls the reader out of the story, that disturbs their understating of the story as reality, now is the time to fix it.
8. Show don’t tell
You might find that some scenes in your first draft are sketched in rather than fully formed with action and dialogue. This is the point to bring them to life. Think about how you can create the emotion you desire in the reader. You might want to draw on all the senses, exploring what the characters can smell and hear and taste, not just what they can see. Make sure your description is precise and atmospheric and immersive. Tell us enough but not too much!
9. The line edit
When you’re happy with the big picture, you can start going through the manuscript line by line, making sure you’ve chosen the right words and placed them in the right order. If you’ve packed too much information into a sentence, perhaps you need to break it up to allow the ideas to breathe. Look out for repetition of certain words and phrases, clichés, too many adverbs, similes and dialogue tags. Read speech aloud – does each character sound like themselves? Now is also the time to kill your darlings. It might be a beautiful sentence, but does it serve a purpose?
10. Take your time
It’s a good idea to have a schedule in mind but remember that the editing process can take a few drafts to sort out all the problems. You might want to work in stages, tackling character in one draft and pace in the next. Every draft will be a little bit better than the last. And when you feel that you can’t do any more editing and your manuscript is the best you can make it, then – and only then – is it time to send it out into the world.
Good luck, enjoy, and if you would like a little more guidance with your editing process, take a look at our online Edit & Pitch Your Novel course.