How to edit a novel? It’s the stage of working on a novel that most of us dread. Some of us skate over the surface rather than taking it seriously and barely make any real changes – while others completely lose themselves in it, and the novel disappears into a ghastly rewrite vortex and is never seen again … You know what, though? Great novels are made in the rewrite. I’ve said it to students countless times, and it’s pretty much my mantra. Hardly anyone manages to write perfect first drafts, and – painful though it may be – it’s a hugely important part of the process to take the time to figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and then to really roll up your sleeves and go delving in to fix everything you can fix for yourself.
What I’m talking about here is the structural edit. The polish (which is where you go all the way through your almost-final manuscript, working into it sentence by sentence and word by word to make it really shine) comes later. There’s no point just yet in spending time finessing the prose of scenes which may potentially end up on the cutting room floor.
The good news (because there IS good news here) is that once you’ve started, the editing process can be rather enjoyable. The knowledge that you already have a whole draft in hand is reassuring. You’re unlikely to have so many crises of confidence in the rewrite as in the first draft because you’ve already succeeded in the really huge challenge of writing that novel and getting all the way to the end – and the feeling that you’re properly sorting out your novel is a good one.
Start by reading and reviewing your draft – you can check out my blog on how to do that here. Take all the time you need to reflect on what’s there on the page, and to figure out the big picture issues that you need to be tackle a big structural edit. Before you return to your manuscript it’s a good idea to write down everything you can about what’s working and what’s not working in your draft – big and small. Ask yourself all the questions about your story arc and characters that may be relevant – and see if you know the answers. Most particularly make sure you know the answer to the question, “What is at the heart of my novel?” Consider for yourself whether the answer is still the same as it was when you first started writing, and how you feel about that.
We have oodles of advice on all aspects of the editing process in our 6-week online Edit & Pitch Your Novel course (jus’ sayin’) – including a detailed explanation and work-through of the Rewrite Doctor – my own method of interrogating your material scene by scene and producing a detailed plan to use in your rewrite. But whether you’re using my method or not, here are some tips to help you launch in …
Ten tips on editing and rewriting
1. Write a plan and use it to guide you along
The really key thing, in my opinion – is to plan your rewrite in detail, to give yourself a guide track and ensure you don’t lose your way. However you like to set it out – from excel spreadsheets to lists to post-its on your wall – I’d strongly recommend you do write a plan, even if you’re not a writer who likes to plan your novel at first draft stage.
2. You don’t need to work sequentially when rewriting
You shouldn’t have to edit your novel in sequence from the beginning through to the end (though you can, of course!). For example, if you have lots of new scenes to write, or a whole new section or narrative strand, you might find it helpful to start by writing all the new material, and then make the necessary changes to the remaining material afterward in order to bring it all together. Work on it in whichever order is right for you.
3. Leave the opening until last?
It can often be good to finish your rewriting process by reworking your opening. You’ll already have looked at your opening and tweaked it so many times that you’ll quite possibly have lost all perspective on this crucial bit of your novel. The opening can be like an anchor during the writing of the first draft – but sometimes it’s only when you’ve written the whole thing that you can see what the right entry point for your story is. In a general sense, I’d say start the novel as far into your story as you can – jump right in there. I’d definitely recommend experimenting with new openings as part of your rewriting process, even if you end up returning to your original beginning.
4. The story doesn’t need to be told chronologically
Something many writers forget is that you don’t have to show events in your story in chronological order. If you are struggling to solve big-picture problems, think about the effect of changing the way you tell it – for example cutting back and forth between past and present (rather than moving steadily towards the present day). The order in which you place material can make a huge difference to your narrative, and now is the moment to play with that.
5. Don’t be afraid to make radical changes
Sometimes it’s through wild experimentation that you can sort out the problems and refine the plot points in your novel. Solutions can come from left field. My approach, on the whole, is methodical – working to a plan – but if it’s all feeling dead and dry, move away from that ailing draft and try some free experimentation with your characters and ideas. This can take you to unexpected places and unlock things when you’re stuck.
6. Experiment with voice
A rethink of the narrative voice and perspective(s) from which a novel is told can really bring the novel to life (by which I mean, for example, a change from third person to first – or indeed the reverse). This is a really major rewrite so it’s not to be tackled lightly. But you can play with voice in a small way (eg in a scene or two) and then consider the full consequences for your story of implementing this throughout your novel. Be wary, though, of making the narrative voice(s) of your novel more complex than is necessary. As a rule of thumb, I would say don’t think you can solve plot holes by adding a new narrative voice. If there’s a problem with your story, you need to return to analysing its fundamental components in order to sort it out.
7. Do you really know your characters and settings?
Reflect on whether you have sufficiently developed your characters. For example, if you have a love story in your novel, is your protagonist’s lover fully individuated or are they merely an idealised attractive person? Think about smaller characters as well as your main ones. Do you find yourself relying on well-worn stereotypes – the harassed housewife; the grumpy plumber; the ditzy hairdresser etc? Use this opportunity to revisit your characterisations, take time to get to know your characters more and eradicate those stereotypes. The same is true – actually – of settings. Vivid individuated settings can add so much to your novel.
8. Save all drafts and back up your work
Save all your drafts and label them so you know which is which (using dates or perhaps a numbering system). That way you can return to an earlier draft later if necessary, or you can lift out passages or scenes to meld with your new material. Occasionally when we rewrite, we react strongly – and perhaps too strongly – against what we’ve already done. We ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ in our attempt to fix problems, and later we need to shift very slightly back again to get the right balance. So keep those early drafts! Also, be sure to back your work up at the end of each writing day. You can use Dropbox or an online archive site, email the draft to yourself or just use a memory stick. I’m constantly hearing of writers losing big sections of work when a computer has broken down. Don’t let it be you!
9. Hold on to your guiding star
Keep in mind at all times the idea or question that is at the heart of your novel and that drove you to write it. It’s good, when editing, to allow yourself to loosen up as a writer and explore possibilities, but don’t lose your way. Remember what your novel is, in the most fundamental sense; its identity. And hold on tight to that.
10. Set yourself a deadline
It’s a good idea to aim at finishing by a specific date. Might help you stay focused. But conversely, don’t let a self-imposed deadline grip you in a stranglehold. Ultimately it will take as long as it needs to, but for many people, it’s helpful to have a deadline to work to – particularly if your tendency is to be slow and meandering in your writing, or if you have trouble letting go of your work and deciding it’s done. Other sorts of objectives/goals that might help you would be to decide you’re going to deal with a certain number of scenes in your novel per day or per week – or goals around numbers of words produced and/or rewritten. Do what’s right for you to keep yourself motivated throughout.
A last thought – cutting can be fun!
Good luck – and if you would like more help with your editing process, take a look at our online Edit & Pitch Your Novel course.