Preparing to Edit a Novel

It’s that time of year again. All the mistletoe has rotted and half of everyone’s New Year resolutions have already been thrown out the window. That first draft of your Nano–or whatever other project you’ve been ignoring for the last several months–has been sitting in its corner quietly collecting dust for long enough.

It’s time to pull that tome out and edit. It will be painful, it might be bloody–though I suspect you’ll go through more ink than actual blood–but it’s necessary. Trust me, your novel will look better without all those tangents and ten page character descriptions. They are extra limbs just getting in the way–I mean, spiders have eight legs but if a human had eight arms that would just be awkward, right? Think of limbs as sub-plots and character descriptions and then decide whether your book should be a human or a spider and act accordingly.

Anyway. Before you go into your word file and start messing around, there are a few things you really should do. These steps should help get you organized so that when you get to the novel to start messing around, you know exactly what you need to do and you don’t get discouraged.

1. Print it out. You’ll do all your actual tinkering inside word, of course, because that’s where you wrote it and that’s where the file is, but you have to print it out. First off, you tend to–and I do it too, it’s okay–skim when you’re reading on a computer. Printing it out slows down the reading process, which means you catch more errors. There’s also something about that black font on that crisp white paper that makes errors stand out.

2. Read it and take notes. Don’t go back into your word file until you’ve read THE WHOLE THING and taken notes on it. Some people suggest to read it really quickly and only to note how you felt about it overall the first time. I’ve never been able to do that. I’m anal enough to proofread my math tests and published books. I can’t imagine NOT crossing out words and fixing typos. But really, if you’re in one of your first few edits, those little things aren’t important–I’m not going to stop you from writing them down, but focus on the story.

One thing I’ve done, just as a quick example, is to write chapter notes at the end of each chapter. I write these on the back of the page where the chapter ends, and these are my story notes. Those are the notes I look at when going to the next step.

3. Make a To-Do List. Your to-do list starts with world building. Do you have any new questions about your world? Will you have to develop the world further to get a feel for a new subplot? I decided in this draft of Moonshadow’s Guardian to make politics more important to the story, which means I need to build the family trees of the politicians. That’s just one example of a number of small world building things I’ll be doing before I start my next draft.

Your to-do list obviously also includes any new scenes or subplots you need to add, characters you’d like to develop, writing exercises you’d like to do to master PoV, and any scenes or subplots you need to delete. Basically, even if it’s a separate short story that’s another exploration of your world or characters, include it on the list because it will in some way make your next draft more awesome. If in doubt, put it on the list. You can always change your mind later.

4. Do some writing exercises. Even if you didn’t put it on your list, do some writing exercises. Stay in the world you’ve already been working on and write about something in it or someone. Pick a famous object from your world and describe it. Write about the first time someone meets your main character–from that other person’s point of view. Put yourself into the head space of your novel by working inside its world for a little while before you actually dive into editing. That way you won’t have to spend time getting back into the flow when you’re actually in your novel file. Of course, this is also when you do any exercises you put on your to-do list and any world building.

These steps will prepare you to edit that monster first draft. Editing can feel overwhelming, but taking the time to read through and make a list of everything you have to do will make it a little less terrifying. At least now you know not just where you’re going, but–if only vaguely–how you’re going to get there, too.

Next week I’m probably going to talk about something totally random while the guilt about not doing anything on my MG to-do list eats away at me, but sometime soon we’re going to talk about first chapters.

How do you prepare to edit?

5 thoughts on “Preparing to Edit a Novel

  1. Excellent suggestions. I always print out a final draft and make edits on the page. It helps to see what the readers will see–much better than trying to do it on screen.

  2. Hi Ann,

    I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I love paper. I don’t write whole novel drafts on it or anything, but there are certain things I only do on paper, like world building.

    Thanks for stopping by,
    ~Dianna

  3. Dear Dianna,
    You’ve written really good ideas of how to revise your novel. Thanks a bunch.

    Do something fun to celebrate your willingness to do new things.
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

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