Seven top tips to help you edit your novel

Since I submitted the third draft of my novel last week, I’ve been pondering a lot about how I finally got there. It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.

I was optimistic when I first got started on the whole redrafting process back in September, but it wasn’t long before I started to flounder. I got things back on track, and completed the second draft almost within my self-imposed deadline.

I knew there was still work to be done at that stage, so it was no surprise when I had to start work on draft number three in January. I had some great feedback to work with, and slowly but surely a third draft began to take shape.

I’m not saying that’s perfect either, but in getting to that stage I’ve learnt a lot about how to go about editing and redrafting a novel: and that is what I want to share with you here.

Tip One: Don’t rush it

It’s easy to get impatient when writing a novel. After the first flush of excitement even getting to the end of the first draft can feel like a slog at times, and that is absolutely nothing in comparison to the arduous process of getting your head round the edit.

Having said that I found that it all came much easier when I was ready. I think you have to trust that if it just doesn’t seem to be working when you’re explicitly focusing on it then maybe your brain just needs a bit more mulling time.

But having said THAT…

Tip Two: Set yourself deadlines – and stick to them

This might not be the way you work, but for me my procrastination skills are so finely tuned that unless I have some sense of urgency I could just drag a task out forever… Especially one as tricksy as this.

Editing deadlines

I found it really helpful to decide on an overall deadline (both times round I gave myself around two months to get the edit done), and then to break it down into daily goals. Those were a bit more flexible. I aimed for a chapter a day, and sometimes I did more, sometimes less. Sometimes I redid what I’d done the day before. Sometimes my brain had been whirring so effectively in between editing sessions that I whizzed through several chapters. But I generally had a sense of where I was at and could therefore balance things out to make sure I got to the end pretty when I wanted to.

And along the way, remember…

Tip Three: Listen to your characters

In my first draft, I think a lot of the details in the story were driven by what I thought the characters might think, or say, or do. But really I was just getting to know them – I had to make presumptions and fill in the gaps because there just wasn’t time to stop and focus and listen.

The bits where I’d just swanned on through were blatantly obvious when I came to look at them later – what was not so obvious was what to do about them. But then I remembered that I wasn’t actually doing this alone. In the process of writing the first draft I’d created several companions to my task – and now they were there, ready and waiting for me to breathe fresh life into their story, I really needed to listen more acutely to them and where they wanted to take things. Even if it wasn’t strictly where I’d thought I wanted to go.

Which brings me to…

Tip Four: Listen to your readers

It goes without saying that you need to find someone you trust to give you feedback at each step of the writing and redrafting process. Preferably more than one person, and preferably people who are avid readers – even better if they enjoy the particular genre that you’re writing in.

But once you’ve found those all-important beta-readers, it can be incredibly tempting to pick and choose what bits of feedback to listen to. It’s your novel after all, right? And if you don’t agree with what they say then it’s your prerogative to ignore it, right?

Except they are in a much better position than you to measure how your novel will be received. Because they are readers – and readers are what it is all about.

There is a big gulf from the novel in your head and the novel that people will read, and that gulf can only be crossed by getting the right words on the page. If you think you’re communicating something, but your readers are telling you that you’re not, then you need to ask yourself why.

Though you mustn’t forget the most important thing…

Tip Five: Trust yourself

This might seem to fly in the face of everything I’ve just said, but it really doesn’t. You may well receive conflicting feedback, or feedback that really doesn’t sit comfortably with what it is you’re trying to achieve. And if you do the you need to remind yourself that, ultimately, you are the author of this work.

As long as you don’t dismiss things out of hand, as long as you really consider how you might be able to make the changes people are proposing, then it’s ok to stick to your guns and find a way to make your way work.

Just remember…

Tip Six: It’s ok to get rid of stuff you like

Writing a good novel is not just about good writing. It’s about how all of your words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters sit together to create people and worlds that are meaningful to your reader.

Some of the bits you end up cutting might be pieces of writing you love. Keep them! Just don’t be afraid to recognise that they might not work in this manuscript, here and now.

Editing a novel

And whilst we’re on the subject of fear…

Tip Seven: Don’t be afraid to experiment

Once you’re past the relatively liberating stage of writing the first draft, you might find a desire for perfection creeping in around the edges. You might feel like you have to get your next draft just right – perfect, in fact. And that – I speak from experience here – can be pretty paralysing.

The only way I was able to move forwards was by freeing myself up to experiment. To try things out, even if I wasn’t entirely sure they worked. To take things in a different direction. For me this was especially true of the second draft. I got rid of lots of those experiments by the time I got to draft number three, but the residue they left behind had undoubtedly made the manuscript stronger.

And that’s it!

There are other things, too. I’ve already written about the more prosaic things that kept me going when the going got tough. But for me the thing that really helped me bring these edits to a conclusion was getting myself into the right mental state. And it is that I hope these tips will help with.


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7 thoughts on “Seven top tips to help you edit your novel

  1. maddy@writingbubble

    Thanks for sharing this Sophie, these tips are really interesting and useful (and I know ‘interesting ‘ and ‘useful’ are unimaginative words but I was just on my way to bed when this post appeared in the linky and I couldn’t resist reading it even though I’m really tired!). Tips 4, 5 and 6 really ring true with me and my recent picture book editing – I hated it when my husband said the third manuscript wasn’t a patch on the first two but he was so right… and then I had to trust myself to make the necessary changes without listening too much to him, just keeping his comments in mind. And I cut some of my favourite lines that had been in there from the start which pained me but I’m pretty sure it was the right decision! Fab post. Thanks for linking to #WhatImWriting xx

  2. Dana

    What a great list Sophie! I’m racing toward the end of my draft (second but more like a first since I wrote the initial one over 5 years ago!) but I will hold onto this advice, especially about making deadlines because clearly procrastination is a problem for me!

  3. Nicola Young

    Fab tips Sophie. I agree with you about trusting yourself though. Although it’s great to have beta readers, everything is so subject and where one doesn’t like something another may love it. There is an element of picking and choosing what to change and leave in.

  4. morganprincecom

    Some really great tips Sophie! I’m bookmarking this so that I can re-read it over and over again when I need it! 🙂

  5. Emily Organ

    I like these – good advice! Something I tried for editing was printing the whole thing out (two pages on A4 double sided so I didn’t use too much paper!) and then going off to a coffee shop or somewhere and reading as much as I could. I found the change of scene and a break from the screen helped my edits. The only downside in using pen and paper was then coming home and typing it all up! It helps keep your mind fresh though. Definitely shouldn’t be rushed.


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