How do you edit a novel?

Editing a novel is different from editing non-fiction. With practice, you can pretty much do the whole non-fiction editing shebang yourself. Fiction? Not so much. Novelist, self-publisher and former newspaper copy editor Patrick Sherriff explains three approaches to editing a novel.

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A Novel Reader by Vincent Van Gogh

Editing a novel is a bit different from editing a blog post, a news story or even a non-fiction book. In non-fiction, you can’t go far wrong with four read-throughs: once to focus on the message, once to focus on the details and once to check for typos. Oh, and a final read-aloud as a last-gasp proof-read to catch by ear what your eyes have missed. With practice, you can pretty much do the whole non-fiction editing shebang yourself with good results. Novels? Not so much.

There are three broad approaches, at least as I see it, you should take to turning your manuscript into a publishable novel. They are (from the general to the specific) developmental editing; line editing and copy editing, with proofreading coming in for an honourable mention.

1. Developmental editing

This is the scariest and maybe for that reason the most skipped form of editing by self-published authors on a tight budget. But it’s the first and most important line of defence against bad writing. In developmental editing, the editor is not even looking at the words especially, the editing is all done on the level of the story, not the text.


Another way to look at it is that the primary concern in developmental editing is trying to work out if the story works (not if it is any good, necessarily). Here are four key points I look for during the developmental edit.

  1. Character arcs. Every story is a journey. For a story to have meaning, there has to be change. Characters start out one way, they experience difficulty or, as the novelist calls it, conflict, until by the end of the story they have changed. That basic pattern — starting with a goal in mind, dealing with conflict, changing — should be present in the novel as a whole and within each scene and for every major character.
  2. Structure. There are many ways to structure a novel, but I only know one basic pattern if I’m honest, and that is the three act, hero’s journey structure. Act I is where the reluctant hero tootles fairly happily along but is faced with a problem that can’t be ignored. The moment he or she is pushed or jumps into the adventure and can’t go back, that’s Act II. OK, and then it’s one obstacle after another progressively more difficult obstacle our hero must overcome until there’s a moment of no return, a do-or-die moment. This is the doorway into Act III, the no-turning-back from the final confrontation.
  3. Voice and point of view. This is how you tell the story, what vocabulary you use and who is telling the story, what tense and all that. It doesn’t really matter whether you choose a first person present tense (“I open the door and try to scream but no sound comes out” , third person limited past tense (“He opened the door and was about to scream but he lost his voice. He could see something, but what was it?”) and third person omniscient (“He opened the door and saw the ghost which had been waiting for him for 10 minutes. The ghost zapped him with a voice-stealing spell.”) Of course, it does matter a bit how you choose to tell the story, but the key is to be consistent. If it’s told from one person’s point of view, you can’t then hop into the head of another character, or have one character telling us stuff that he couldn’t possibly know.
  4. Do you know your tropes appropriate to the genre and sub-genre? For example, if this is a whodunnit, is there a murder committed? If so, is this a cosy or hardboiled mystery? Is the target reader a teenage girl in a big city subway train or a middle-aged Englishwoman on a rainy weekend in a cottage in North Wales? You can break genre conventions, and probably should, but only if you know what they are in the first place. Any missing scenes? Any superfluous scenes need killing?

2. Line editing

So, the story works, now it’s time to start looking at the text, but not dotting i’s or crossing t’s yet. It’s time to go through the story, scene by scene. Every scene should conform to the four elements of the developmental edit as spelled out above, but with an additional focus on the following three points:

  1. Show don’t tell. There are occasions where it is OK to just tell some necessary info, but as a rule, telling is much more of a non-fiction tool. Showing is what gives readers enjoyment, trying to figure out for themselves what the meaning is. That is, if you want readers to be immersed in a feeling or a story, don’t tell them it was hot, show them the sweat trickling through a character’s hair, dripping down her temples. Showing invites immersion into the story. Telling is summarising, not experiencing, and invites a yawn.
  2. Hook the reader with implied or even stated questions. Will our hero make it? Will she find love? Will the conflict end in disaster or victory? Always, what will happen next? And put these hooks at the ends of your scenes and chapters. Answer them in a timely fashion, but always have another question left unanswered. This encourages readers to keep reading and what, if you do it well, will result in your book being described as a “page-turner”. Are the chapters the right lengths?
  3. Focus on the words used. Who is telling the story? If it is a 13-year-old farm girl from Ibraki or a 55-year-old Oxford don, this will necessarily affect what words you can use and what imagery is appropriate to tell the story.

3. Copy editing

The story is done, all the big and most of the small decisions have been made. Now, it’s time to focus on the smallest issues. Fix any spelling mistakes, kill echoes (accidentally repeated words) reconstruct clunky sentences and tidy up sloppy grammar. Is everything consistent, following the same style? Are we done yet?

… don’t forget proofreading

Not quite. Proofreading is the last stage. Read through everything, and best to read it aloud. What the eye misses, the ear inevitably picks up. Fix any sentences or words stumbled over. This is also the last chance to check that the editor hasn’t added more mistakes than he or she’s removed. We are all human after all, even editors.

Can I get just one type of editing? Or do it all myself?

Of course, but with two big caveats. Firstly, edit in order of priorities. That is, fix the biggest problems first. You don’t want to spend time and money to have a typo-free manuscript that then needs to be ripped apart and rewritten because your story doesn’t work. But if you know your story works, and your scenes are all faultless, sure, a copy-edit and proofread will do. But, secondly, are you really sure your story does work? Did you catch every mistake? Are you even aware of the mistkes you make? And remember, it’s hard to know if you have adequately moved what was in your head into your readers’ unless you ask one.

Might as well make sure the one you ask is an editor.

*  *  *

Patrick Sherriff publishes a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. He lives in Abiko with his wife and two daughters.

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