It has been said that writing a novel is like running three marathons; the first is writing it, the second is editing it, and the third is marketing it. But why should editing a novel be as significant as writing it?
Quite simply, writing it (or writing the first draft) is about discovering the story. Pantster or plotter, it might not be the story you thought you were writing when you started. But having discovered the story, now you must tell it well.
First, while there are many people with books or web sites telling you how you should write, there is no one true way. Becoming an author is about discovering what process works for you. Certainly, you should check out all this advice on how to write, but take it all with a pinch of salt and be prepared to set aside anything that doesn’t help.
But you do need to set realistic expectations on where the effort will go. Most people think it’s mainly in the writing, with editing and publishing as just short bits at the end of the process (see Fig 1). However, it is much more likely that these three phases will take a similar effort (see Fig 2).
Regardless of how you write, the initial writing is about discovering what your story actually is (which might not be what you thought the story would be about when you started).
The editing phase is not about fixing typos, it’s about telling that discovered story well. (This may or may not require you to write a new draft inspired by the old.) Think of it as like sanding down wood: start with coarse changes, then get finer and finer. (There’s no point in correcting the words of a scene if you then decide to cut the scene altogether.)
Finally, whether you decide to self-publish or be traditionally published, there will be a lot of marketing required. Most books sell less than 200 copies … mainly just to friends and relatives. Some never sell a single copy despite being good.
Forget, for the moment, how something is written and just focus on the story. What is the story about? What is its concept and premise? And this should lead to the core dramatic question: What must the protagonist achieve? (Note this is not “What is the desired outcome?”)
- Is your story idea strong enough? What can come of it?
- Is there a conceptual context to it that is, in itself, compelling?
- Does that concept inform a premise that meets the criteria and does so in a highly compelling way?
Answer these questions: Why will readers be drawn to your story, and why will they love it once they get there?
If you don’t have solid answers to this, you haven’t finished drafting.
Once you have confirmed you have an amazing and compelling story, break it down into the primary plot and any secondary plots. Write a synopsis for each. Does each hang together without any plot holes?
Does the protagonist (or central characters, if plural) suffer and struggle?
- Great characters suffer and lose things. There is a cost. Without it is okay … but not memorable.
- Great characters have great struggles.
Look at the arcs:
- Each main character should have an arc. They should not be unchanged by events but be transformed by them. Maybe grow, maybe broken, maybe both.
- If the story is episodic, each episode should have some sort of dramatic arc.
- And the story as a whole, whether episodic or not, should have an overall arc.
Next, look at each scene. What is its purpose? What would happen to the story if that scene was removed?
If your chapters have multiple scenes, make a grid of main characters by chapter and/or episode. For each character, note down how many scenes in each chapter that character is present. Does a character disappear for part of the book for no reason other than you forgot about them?
Take a blank page for each character and, as you read through the story, note down each and every item of character-related trivia on the appropriate page. Eye colour, favourite food, birthday, what they are wearing at any one time, whatever. Any contradictions?
There’s a lot I could say on the next level of editing, but that would be redundant: Simply get 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by C. S. Lakin and follow the checklist therein.
Split your novel into chunks 8K-10K words each. Run each chunk independently through the Hemmingway Editor. You want to keep factors like the number of adverbs, the amount of passive voice, etc (and thus overall readability) under control and consistent throughout your story.
My last novel used the chapters as a unit of story strategy, and thus had 12 chapters of a suitable length.
- Adverbs = 73%-100% (average 88%)
- Passive voice = 22%-30% (average 25%)
- Phrases with Alt = 5-16 (average 11)
- Hard to read = 7%-10% (average 8%)
- Very hard to read = 2%-3% (average 3%)
Which resulted in a readability score of 4th Grade for each chapter … except the 9th; which, being a more action-orientated chapter, came in at 3rd Grade.
Spelling and punctuation edit
First (and especially if you are submitting to an agent or publication), understand the ‘requirements’. Use the appropriate standards: This might be the Oxford English Dictionary for spelling and New Hart’s Rules for punctuation, or the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary for spelling and the Chicago Manual of Style for punctuation, etc. And whichever standard you follow for your manuscript, it must be consistent throughout.
There are many other techniques and tools you can use in the editing process. Far too many to outline here. But hopefully, you will find this overview of some use.
Note: The links above are to the latest editions at the time of writing, not necessarily the editions I currently own. Additionally, links should auto-converted to your local Amazon site. Also, these are not affiliate links or anything like that, I get nothing from them.