how to edit a novel

The subject line is a phrase I googled in desperation after I wrote my first one and realized my usual technique of “read it a lot and poke at the sentences with a sharp stick” doesn’t work as well when you have 90,000 words to go through and have to think about things like Theme and Structure and Plot with a capital P. And also you’re on chapter 9 and you’ve forgotten what happened in chapter 2.

Someone asked me about editing recently, so here’s my basic plan.

1. steal underpants

2. ?????

Wait, wrong plan.

highlighted printed out editing notes

Blurred out editing notes, since I assume you don’t want to know the entire plot of Singing in the Wilderness before you read it.


1. read through briefly and make a list of all the scenes, broken down by chapter so I know what happens when

2. note as I go through what I think of as open doors – things that raise questions or create expectations in the reader’s mind. These need to either be followed up on later or cut.

3. note also anything obvious that needs to be fixed (timeline contradictions, bad transitions) or that needs to be fact checked (can you actually cook liver like that???).

4. look at the open doors. Go through and either remove them or make them go somewhere, tie them into the plot if they’re not already.

5. look at the scene list and the overall plot structure. Decide if that works, if there’s sufficient tension and if it’s in the right places, if the climax is climaxy enough and so on.

6. make a to do list with all the things so far that I know need to be changed, starting with very large changes and going down to smaller ones.

7. fix those things!

8. once the major changes are done, I read it over and fix awkward sentences and poor word choice and dialogue like I mentioned above…probably like three times? Until it reads smoothly and nothing makes me cringe.

9. send it off to be betaed and fix everything they tell me to fix

10. go over it again at least once more, probably twice, because there is always something else – more adverbs to remove, sentences that can be shortened, words that aren’t quite right. And for the stuff I’m selling where I can’t afford typos but also can’t afford a proofreader, I have my computer read it out loud to me to catch stuff I won’t catch when I’m just reading it.

Most of the above is basically what Rachel Aaron recommends in her book 2K to 10K, and I wish I had read the book before painfully working it out on my own – it’s only 99 cents and the section on editing alone is more than worth it. (She also recommends making a timeline, which I should definitely start doing but haven’t yet.)

Anyone who got to the end of this is probably either editing something or avoid editing something and in need of a cup of tea, so here is Heloise to make you some. With death spoon.

 small blue hippo with tea being scoop in a spoon shaped like a skull