You finished NaNoWriMo! Now you have a 50,000-word novel stored safely on your computer. You’ve spent a couple of months celebrating your accomplishment and relishing the sleep you’re now getting.
But what now?
Whether you intend to pitch your novel to traditional publishers, self-publish, post it in a blog series, or simply share it with friends and family, you should be editing your novel now. If you wait much longer, you’ll run the risk of losing steam and putting it off indefinitely. And your story is worth being shared!
If the idea of self-editing your novel leaves your hands frozen, don’t worry. I can help. Let’s look at some ideas for approaching your first round of NaNoWriMo editing.
Summarize Your Story in a Tweet
Of course, your story is more complicated than 280 characters can explain. But boiling down your plot to a tweet is a great exercise to focus your story before you start editing. It prepares an answer for when people ask, “What are you working on?”—or when you pitch your story to a publisher.
Summarizing your novel can also refresh it in your mind. It’s probably been a while since you first came up with your story idea. Revisiting plot essentials reminds you of why you started writing it, which energizes your creativity for the long work ahead.
Don’t worry—you don’t need to actually tweet your summary. Of course, if you have a Twitter account and you’d like to share your ideas with your followers, this can be a great way to drum up excitement for your work. Your followers may even keep you accountable when you don’t feel like editing. But this is your novel, so you can share as little or as much as you want.
How Do I Edit My Novel?
So you’ve pulled up your file (or notebook, if you’re old-school), and you’ve summarized your story. You’re now excited to revisit your characters and scenes. What next? Decide on a strategy. I’ve found the following two approaches to be effective, but they’re not the only methods. You can even pick and choose elements of both, and you’ll likely switch between approaches for different editing rounds.
Approach 1: Read and Then Revise
Often the best first step to editing is to reread what you’ve written. This is particularly helpful if you wrote your novel without an outline or if it has been sitting for some time. You can’t edit effectively without a good idea of the material you have to work with. Take the following steps:
Print out your novel. Yes, that’s a lot of pages, but it’s worth it. You’ll have a better idea of the reading experience, and your eyes will be less strained than if you were simply reading on-screen. Reading a print version also has the bonus of keeping internet distractions at bay!
Don’t edit on your first reading. It may be tempting to rewrite particularly troubling chapters, but your goal here is to get an overview of your work in its current state. You’ll have plenty of time to revise later.
Write a scene-by-scene summary of your story. This will give you a good overview of high-level problems, such as plot holes and pacing issues. This is especially beneficial for those of you who wrote your NaNoWriMo novel in “discovery mode” (without an outline).
Make a list of identified problems. Tackle the problems one by one. You’ll be less intimidated if you’re addressing a problem with one scene’s dialogue rather than trying to fix all dialogue at once.
Approach 2: Jump Right In!
If you finished your NaNoWriMo novel in the last two or three months, stuck closely to an outline, or reread your novel recently, then you can jump right into editing. Follow these steps to maximize your efforts:
Print out your outline and keep it nearby. If you started November with an outline, keep it handy. If you still don’t have an outline, write one. It’ll keep you focused on the trajectory of your plot, and you’ll be able to evaluate how each page serves your purpose.
Edit as you read. You’ll find plenty of edits to make as you reread your work. Feel free to change things as you go along, keeping in mind how your revisions will impact the bigger picture.
Leave yourself comments for bigger edits. If an edit will require extensive rewriting, write yourself a comment within the document (Microsoft Word and Google Docs have great commenting tools for this). Then, when you’ve finished going through the whole document or when you simply need a break from smaller edits, you can return to those bigger issues.
The Next Step
Regardless of which editing approach you take, the next step is the same: repeat the process. Most novels will require multiple drafts, so don’t be disheartened if you find yourself in your umpteenth round of editing. (Author Terry Brooks can write a novel with one draft, while Patrick Rothfuss goes through 50 to 300 drafts!)
Once you’ve edited as much as you feel you can on your own, you’re ready for beta readers. Pick friends who are also writers and readers, or choose a professional developmental editor to help you at this point. Listen to their suggestions and feedback without defending yourself—even if they’re ultimately wrong about a weakness, you’re learning how readers might take your work.
Go through the editing process again, keeping all feedback in mind. You might be tempted to close the laptop and forget about your novel at this point, but keep going. You’re getting close!
You may need to repeat the editing steps again and again, but you’ll eventually be satisfied with your work and want to share it with the world. At that point, send it to a professional proofreader to iron out any wrinkles, such as typos, factual errors, and inconsistencies, ensuring that your work is as clean as possible.
And then? You have a finished novel!
Don’t Let Your Story Sit
Writing a novel is a lot of hard work (yes, that’s an understatement). But you started this adventure because you had a story, and that story was worth sharing with others. Don’t let your words just sit on a hard drive or in a notebook. Take them, mold them, and polish them until they’re at their best. Your story is worth it.