Nine Steps for Editing Your Novel
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
After months of forcing yourself to write regularly, pushing through writer’s block, reconsidering plot points, and diving deep into your characters’ lives, you have a finished first draft of your novel.
You haven’t touched the file in a few days, weeks, or maybe even months. But now that you’ve had a break, you know what comes next: editing.
While editing comes naturally for some, others struggle to find the stamina to revise their work, and still others don’t even know where to begin. Facing a rough draft of 50,000 words or more can be pretty daunting. But, just like writing your first draft, approaching this stage with a plan of action can help you navigate your revisions with confidence.
Let’s look at nine steps that will give you a clear route toward your edited novel.
1. Choose Your Tools
Regardless of how you wrote the first draft of your novel, you have several options available for editing. Explore your options and settle on what’s going to make the editing process work best for you.
The industry standard, this program offers Track Changes, a valuable feature that tracks your editing. Track Changes makes it easy to see your revisions (or hide them)—a big help when you’re a hundred pages in and second-guessing your decision to switch to third person.
With Office 365, you can have the most up-to-date version of Microsoft Word for $7–10 a month. You can also use a basic version on their website for free.
Google Docs offers easy integration with other Google products, such as Gmail and Android systems. It offers version history, where you can see versions of your document by time stamp. Unfortunately, Google Docs does not have all the functionality that Microsoft Word offers, and their spell-check leaves much to be desired.
Google Docs is free to those with a Google account.
Many serious writers own Scrivener, a word-processing program that offers extensive organization and outlining tools. While its learning curve can be steep, most users swear by its usefulness.
Product licenses cost $38–49, though you can do a thirty-day free trial first to make sure it’s right for you.
Grammarly and ProWritingAid
These services offer plug-ins that work within your word-processing software. Both will check for grammar errors and style issues as well as redundancy and other speed bumps that affect your readers’ experience.
2. Read through Your Draft
Now that you’ve chosen your tools, sit down and read through your first draft. Get a sense for how it flows overall. Does the story make sense? Are there any leaps in time or perspective that are just too big? Does your conclusion feel satisfying?
At this point, don’t worry about fixing anything; just focus on getting a big picture of your work. Make a list of any major issues, such as plot holes, tense changes, mix-ups in character names, etc. You can address them later.
3. Edit Your First Draft
It’s a good idea to save your file under a different name before you start editing (e.g., MyNovel_version2.doc). But be careful to edit the correct version! You may even want to add DO NOT USE to your first draft’s file name.
Whatever you do, don’t get rid of your first draft. Even if your first draft is so rough that you’re embarrassed, you’ll likely want it later for reference—What was that deleted character’s name again?—and it might contain some dazzling sentences that you’ll want to reuse down the road.
Now, with your new file open, take out that list you just made. Go through the issues you need to fix, addressing them one at a time. (It might even feel rewarding to print out the list and cross off items as you go.) Rewrite any sections that need more extensive work. If you find more big-picture issues, add them to your list and attack them when you’re ready.
After you’ve gone through all these edits, run spell-check. Fix problems that pop up. It’ll make your next steps easier.
4. Repeat Steps 2 and 3
At this point, your novel probably looks quite different from your first draft. This is a good time to become reacquainted by rereading it.
Keep a running list once again of any big problems you want to fix later. If you find any small errors this time (a wrong name, accidental British spelling, a missing word, etc.), feel free to fix them as you go. After you’ve made it through the document, go back and edit from your list.
You can keep doing this as many times as you feel you need to, but for your own sanity, you should probably limit yourself to three drafts. The more you read and edit your own work, the closer you’ll get to it, which will make it harder for you to view it objectively.
6. Get Feedback
As the above step involves repeating two steps, we’re moving on to step 6, which is to get feedback. Of course at this point you have a pretty polished document, but are there any glaring problems you don’t notice? You need outside opinions.
If you have two or three writer friends you trust, ask them to beta read your novel. Make sure they’re the type of people who won’t be afraid of hurting your feelings—you need honesty if you want to make your work as great as it can be.
If you don’t have friends like that or would rather not work with people you know, consider hiring a professional developmental editor. He or she will give you an overview of what does and does not work for your novel as well as qualified advice for what to do next.
Once you’ve received feedback from beta readers, make a list of their advice and sit on it for a few days. Giving yourself time and space will ensure you can address their comments without emotions getting in the way. When you’re ready, assess their comments with an objective eye. Though not all feedback will be completely accurate, if someone’s bringing it up, it is a potential speed bump for your reader and should be considered.
7. Edit (Again)
Take the feedback from your beta readers or developmental editor and edit again. Start with the bigger issues or ones that were brought up by multiple readers—you might end up fixing some of the smaller problems in the process.
You may find that your novel requires more extensive edits and you need to repeat steps 2 through 5 yet again. If that’s the case, take heart—all writers have been there. Reward yourself for your hard work this far with a break or a small treat, and then get back to work. You’ve come this far, and you will still finish strong.
8. Read through Your Polished Draft
Your novel should be fairly clean by now, as you’ve addressed many of the big and small issues. You’re almost done!
Print out your document. Find a secluded space and read your work aloud, making edits with a colored pen or pencil as you go along. You’re much more likely to find small errors if you’re looking at paper and listening to your own physical voice reading. And besides, it’s satisfying to see your work in print!
Once you’ve finished, open your digital copy and go through your paper edits. Hopefully, you’ve only found small errors, so it should go pretty quickly at this point.
9. Move on to Proofreading
Now you have a well-edited novel. Congratulations!
It may be tempting to call it good and move on to self-publishing or querying publishers or agents, but hold off. Even the best writers and editors won’t catch 100 percent of their errors, and you’re no exception. If you want the most success for your book, hire a professional proofreader to catch any last-minute mistakes. You’ll be glad you did.
Your Finished Novel
Editing your novel requires a lot of hard work and outside help from friends and professionals. But you already persevered through writing that first draft, so isn’t it worth the extra effort to make it shine? We think it is! So, regardless of how much editing your novel needs, stick with it, and you’ll have a pristine final copy before you know it.