You’ve done it! You completed your novel and now you’re ready to publish it. But wait! Before you start sending manuscripts to publishers or contacting agents, you need to revise and edit your novel. You might be anxious to move things along, but you shouldn’t send your book proposal until it’s polished and complete.

AUTHOR NOTE: I pay the bills as a Senior Technical Writer at a Fortune 500 Top 20 Tech company. There, I regularly pass work to an editor before I publish it. I’ve been there for two years, and I know my stuff. But having an editor means another set of eyes to look for typos, spelling, or grammatical errors. He provides fresh perspective when we work on a complicated feature, so he can point out areas where I don’t explain something well enough. He helps me approach ideas from a different direction. He helps me be clear and only include information that is necessary. At this point, I haven’t been published as a novelist, but I already understand the value of editing passes.

Contents: [toc]

Starting Your First Editing Pass

If you’ve just written your novel, you need to put it down. Everything is too fresh in your mind and you’re heavily invested in your plot and characters. How long you wait depends on how well you remember the events in your book. You want to be surprised by the dialog. You should think, “I don’t remember writing that. It’s AMAZING!” You might remember your overall plot, but not the details. That’s the goal. The most-recommended timeline across the internet is one month. It also depends on how recently you wrote your book.

For example, if you wrote the entire novel in three weeks, such as for NaNoWriMo, and you have a great memory, then you might need to wait longer to edit it. In that case, you should wait several months to read it again.

Alternatively, if you started the novel six months ago and have a terrible memory, then you haven’t seen the contents of chapter one in a long time, and you can start revising right away. Probably, you’re somewhere in the middle. So wait a month before starting your first editing pass.

Planning the Editing Pass

When you are ready to review your completed manuscript for the first time, consider your reading format.

  • On Paper – For most people, it’s a good idea to print your book on paper to read it for the first time. First, it’s very satisfying. Use a hole punch and put it in a binder. Then hold the fruit of your labor. Feel its heft. You accomplished this. Now pick up a red pen, some colored highlighters, and get started.
  • On Your Computer – For the few folks that are used to doing heavy work on a computer and abhor the thought of sitting with a ream of paper, you can do edits on the computer. Save your book to a software that supports change tracking, such as Microsoft Word. You can add comments and colored highlights and keep moving through your manuscript.

When you’ve decided on a format, plan what issues to look for. In this first pass, you must consider the big picture first.

Potential Issues

  • Plot – Does your plot build quickly enough? If you include multiple, simultaneous plot lines, are they all moving along without obvious gaps? Do you give your audience too many hints to give away the ending? Or do you give so little information that your audience might be confused? Do you introduce information and not follow up?
  • Character – Do you provide enough character building, without being boring? Do you describe characters too much? Do you have too many characters or characters with similar names? Is the dialog repetitive or boring?
  • Environment – Are there areas where you over- or under-describe the surroundings of your characters?
  • Miscellaneous – Any other potential rewrites, such as confusing sentences, or voice/tone errors fall under this category.
  • Typos and Grammar – If you spot an obvious typo, misspelling, or grammatical error, don’t try to fix it. Just make a note or highlight it.

Planning Your Edits

You have your novel, and you know what to look for. Now you need to decide how you’re going to evaluate your novel.

You should take notes and mark up your novel.

Make Chapter Breaks

Logically break up your novel by scene. In your novel (on paper or in your software), make a note of the location of each Chapter break. For example, “CH 1” and “CH 2”. In your notes (paper or software), keep a list of the chapters with their page numbers, and brief summary title. When you get to a good stopping point for the scene, add this information to your note. Use a summary title that makes sense to you, and if you’re writing it on paper, leave several lines between entries for notes later. You can rename the chapter later for your readers. For example, “CH 1, PG 1, Back to School”. You can use this later to evaluation your scene lengths and check the pace of your book. You can also use it to find the pages where something happens.

Highlighting Your Novel

You should highlight your pages to note areas that need changing. For example, you can use the following colors:

  • Plot
  • Character
  • Environment
  • Misc.
  • Typos

Adding Comments

With the highlights in your novel, add comments to indicate what the issue is. For example, “Sue acts like she knows Bob, but there’s no explanation of how.” Or simply, “Rewrite sentence.”

Taking Notes

In addition to making a Chapter outline of your book, you should take additional notes, depending on how complex your story line is. Sometimes, it’s necessary to note what information your character learns, and in what order. Depending on your novel, you know what the tricky points are. Make notes of them so you can keep track.

Read Your Novel

Set aside a significant amount of time to read your novel. Find a place where you can spread out without being disturbed. You need to focus. If you can read your novel in one day, do it. Otherwise, make sure that you have large chunks within several days set aside to read.

Move quickly through your novel. Don’t stop and ponder how to rewrite a sentence. Make a note of anything odd you discover and keep going. You need to get a feel for the pace of your novel.

Make chapter breaks, highlight, add comments, and take notes using the methods that you have planned. If you run into an exception, deal with it quickly (mix highlighter colors?) and move on.

Review Your Notes

You’ve read your novel from beginning to end. How was it? Were you excited to turn the page? Were you impressed with your previous cleverness? Did you realize that you left gaping plot holes and your characters were inconsistent? Or, most likely, was it all of the above?

When you’re ready to review your notes, start with the following tasks:

  1. Look at your Chapter outline. Is your story in a logical order?
  2. Evaluate your notes and make a visual pass through your manuscript and look for plot and character issues.
  3. View your Chapter outline again and make notes within that outline for major plot issues. For example, does Chapter 6 need to come after Chapter 9? Perhaps the character was kidnapped in Chapter 12, and that’s when they need to find the special ITEM.
  4. Use your Chapter outline as a to-do list for what needs to be changed. Add all of your important notes there, starting at the top of the list: plot, character, environment, miscellaneous, and typos. Add the same color-coding.

Implement Your Edits

Finally, implement the changes that you noted in the review. Start with the plot. Sometimes, when you fix your plot, you delete changes with other areas you needed to fix. The plot is always the most important, followed quickly by characters.

When you finish with your edits, put down your manuscript. (Now’s a good time to work on the outline for the sequel!) Then do another editing pass. And another. Until you’re happy enough with it that you’re willing to let others see it. But do set a time limit, like 6 months. It’ll never be perfect, but you can improve it every time you read it.

Next Steps: Getting Feedback

After you implement all of your edits, you’re ready to pass your manuscript to others to read. For more information, see Getting Feedback for your Novel.