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5 Tips for Editing a Novel

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EJ Allen is an author of fantasy novels and loves to read well crafted stories in many genres. Find him on Twitter or his website!

Editing a Novel Means Many Things

There are many types of editing out there, and each has its own definition and process.

Developmental editing is one of the first things you'll want to do after your initial draft is completed. This is big picture editing and covers everything from your characters to the plot and pacing.

Line editing is done after the development of the story is basically done, and the language needs to be smoothed out and polished. This is sentence and paragraph level editing, where word usage and sentence structure really come into play.

Copy editing is one of the final trips through the manuscript, where each and every word is examined, as well as spelling and grammar. Copy editing is text editing, and it's a fairly 'zoomed in' method of manuscript polishing.

Proofreading is the final check on everything from typos to formatting issues. This is usually the last step before publishing the novel, or calling it 'finished'. You should not get your novel proofread until you have done all the other steps and believe it's as done as it's going to get.


#1: Wait Until the End

In the article I wrote about writing a first draft, I advised against editing until the story is done. Here's the main reason as it pertains to an actual editing tip: many things will change with every revision and rewrite.

As we share the writing with others and work our way through the story in its entirety, big chunks of the original first draft will become completely different or nonexistent. It is a huge waste of time editing the first few chapters if they're the only parts you've written. Those chapters may be merged, modified, or removed altogether as you see the story unfold.

It isn't uncommon for first chapters to be rewritten a dozen times or more. I've even heard authors say they don't write a 'first chapter' until they've written the whole book.

Of course, wherever they start the story could be considered the first chapter, but their intention is to just begin and then go back and write an actual first chapter which will be a sparkling opening to their now complete novel.

There are character motivations which change and evolve throughout the story, and plot lines which will sneak up on even well planned writers. Wait until you've seen all of that before you consider edits and you'll save yourself a tremendous amount of time and energy.

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#2: Use Online Novel Editors

There's no reason to rely only on yourself as you edit your novel, as there are actually some pretty good online editors available out there for very reasonable prices.

My favorite is ProWritingAid which lives inside of Microsoft Word and checks for problems when I tell it to. It isn't the detection of mistakes that I value the app so highly for though, it's the advice I get for making the story better. It can check for overused words, redundancy, writing style, passive language, and it has an excellent thesaurus option which highlights all the common words and suggests alternatives.

There are many other programs like it, such as Grammarly and After the Deadline, though I haven't used those nearly as much. It's worth a few dollars for a great program like these, as they will enhance your writing as you go and help you edit when you're done. They are not a substitute for a real human, but every little bit can be helpful when you're writing a novel.

#3: Find Beta-Readers

Beta Readers are a must for every serious writer. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your readers:

  • Make sure your novel is as good as you can make it before you send it. With any luck you will form a relationship with great beta readers and you can work with them on future projects as well. This is much more likely if you're sending them good quality work that's actually fun for them to read, not early drafts.
  • Don't pay too much. I think beta reading is worth its weight in gold, however there is no reason to pay an arm and a leg for the service. Many beta readers will do it for free because they love to read or with an agreement that you'll beta read something they've written. There are also freelance beta readers out there who will give you great advice for under $50, you just have to look around.
  • Take what you can use, leave the rest. Not all advice is going to be helpful, and it's okay to ignore some of it. As a writer you typically have a 'feeling' about certain parts of the story. Perhaps it doesn't connect well, flow correctly, or feel very well written. See if the beta readers catch on to those things and consider the advice they give to fix it.
  • Use more than one. One beta reader is great, and several are even better. When you have more than one reader sending back advice it allows you to chart out the feedback and look for patterns. If one reader doesn't think you developed a character well enough, it might be true or it might be they just didn't like the character. If three readers say the same thing, it's much more reliable.

#4: Print Your Novel

One of the hardest things you can do as a writer is to stare at the electronic screen for days on end, trying to see something different. There is something about the computer screen which provides a special challenge when it comes to editing.

It is not always cheap to print your novel, but it's worth it. Go to a store which does printing (FedEx, UPS, any copy store) and have the whole thing printed. Looking over the pages of paper and ink will dramatically change the look and feel of your manuscript. It will be like reading a completely different work than the one on the computer.

I also find it's easier to visualize the pages, see words that are repeated too often, and read for flow much easier than on the computer. I hesitated to print my first few manuscripts because of the time and cost, but it has become one of the best tools I have for editing a novel.


#5: Save Money on Editing Your Novel

Professional editors can be very expensive, but they're not the only option when it comes to hiring somebody to edit your work. There are many sites out there now where you can hire a freelance editor.

The two most popular sites are Upwork and Fiverr, though there are others. The old saying, "you get what you pay for" applies, though there are many great options out there. Editors that can work on your novel without giving a cut to their agency can drop their prices quite far, which is great news for authors with no money!

Do your research and always test the editor on a smaller job if possible before you hire them for the full manuscript. Better yet, maybe even have them beta read for a small fee and see what editorial advice they have for your story. There are many options when it comes to finding good editing partners, and many of them will do a full novel for a fraction of the professional cost.

© 2018 EJ Allen

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