How to edit a novel

My goodness it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. It’s all that editing I’ve been busy doing. It always takes longer than you think and though enjoyable it’s even better when you’re done. I say that knowing full well I am not done yet. I have finished my second draft though, and the novel Miss Rotherham is officially novel length and looking much better which is always a good thing 😉

Miss Rotherham Novel by Philippa Jane Keyworth
Miss Rotherham MS

My second draft is now printed and being scrawled across by an infinite number of coloured pens ready to be transformed into the third draft. Now, about the title of this post, and what a big title it is! I don’t mean to give you a definitive guide by any stretch of the imagination. Editing a novel is an individual thing with individual preferences. However, I was thinking that for those writers out there who are writing their first book, or maybe have already written it and want to know what the next step is, I have the answer:


You see, I probably spend the same amount of time writing a book as I do editing it. Any writer who has gotten themselves published will have edited their novel. In fact, it was only after a verbal bash over the head from a friend of mine that I actually started editing The Widow’s Redeemer. I hadn’t even bothered looking at the story since writing it, naturally believing it was perfect and didn’t need anything changing.

Miss Rotherham Regency Romance by Philippa Jane Keyworth
Miss Rotherham MS

How wrong I was. Different people write books differently. I for one, get an idea, get the bit between my teeth and don’t look back. I race ahead, spewing out the words regardless of plot-holes, historical inaccuracies and character name changes until I come with an exhausted smile to those lovely words: The End.

Except that’s not the end, because like I said, I write with plot-holes, historical inaccuracies and character name changes half way through! I’m willing to say with 99.99% certainty that almost everyone who writes a book can improve it by editing. So what exactly is editing? Well, it’s fixing all those errors or problems or even just improving what you started with.

And I’ll let you in on another shameful secret to go alongside my terrible first-drafts – I tend to write novels as little as half the length they should be. Yep, that’s right, The Widow’s Redeemer started off at 39,000 words and ended up after about 8/9 edits and with the help of my publishing editor at the grand total of 86,000 – to all those who write far longer books than me, and there are many of you, please don’t take away from the word count I revel in 😉

The way I edit goes as follows. I finish the book and put it out of sight and mind for a few months, maybe longer. Yep, that’s right, I do diddly-squat and just go on with my life.

Then I go back to it and edit on-screen. My first edit usually addresses the numerous spelling mistakes, confusing sentences, obvious plot inconsistencies, character inconsistencies and generally smoooooothing the story as well as adding lots more words. I like to think of writing my first draft as creating a skeleton and my edits as putting on the muscles. The problems I’ve discussed might sound like writer lingo so here’s a little explanation:

  • Spelling mistakes – pretty obvos, like if you spell ‘someting’ like that rather than like this = ‘something’
  • Confusing sentences – if it’s an uber long sentence, or you can’t tell which ‘he’ the narrator is on about, or it just plain doesn’t make sense – remember the reader isn’t inside your brain. (That was a confusing sentence FYI).
  • Changing character’s names half-way through – now this is more my problem than anyone else’s. I tend to come up with a character name and go along with it until I think of something better 15,000 words in, and decide to change it. This means I have to go back and make them all the same 🙂
  • Character inconsistencies – when you have a moody guy who keeps smiling, or a frightened girl who suddenly does something bold – that’s not that believable and, to be honest, it will just confuse the reader and pull them out of the story
  • Plot-holes – like if you have your character travelling somewhere which should take him several days but he arrives in 45 minutes.  This brings me on to…
  • Historical inaccuracies – if you are writing historical fiction and aren’t sure of something then research it. Most people do this before hand, but if you’re excitable like me you carry on regardless and worry about it later – well editing is later, so time to worry about it.

Then, after finishing that first edit which takes a while, hopefully I’ve reached my word count for a real length novel and it’s readable. I then print off my novel as I like to do the next edit by hand. This is because I find it easier to spot the smaller mistakes on a hard copy and I didn’t print the first draft because, let’s be honest, printing off a manuscript is expensive. For the hand editing I do what my good friend M.M. Bennetts suggests and I get a boatload of different highlighters and red pens and create a pretty key for myself of all the things I’m going to edit. My current key for Miss Rotherham looks like this:

  • Yellow = A section that needs re-writing – usually larger than what I can do by hand
  • Green = Plot holes that need fixing
  • Pink = Character inconsistencies
  • Blue = Historical accuracy needing verification – yep, that’s right, I get carried away writing far to much to stop and research – very bad!
  • Red Pen = All the small corrections to spelling & grammar as well as adding in words & sentences

The highlighting of passages allows me to go back to them on screen and play around with them, rather than trying to cram huge plot changes into the margins of my pages.

Miss Rotherham Novel by Philippa Jane Keyworth
Miss Rotherham MS

The most difficult part of editing for me is when I realise I have a plot hole that needs to be fixed that will require changes across the whole manuscript. The reality is, however, that if you bite the bullet and make the necessary changes you will have a much stronger MS in the long run.

Then…yep that’s right, not done yet, I re-edit either by hand or on the computer depending on what I think it needs, as many times as I can until it’s up to a standard that I reckon a book from a book shop would be at. For those writers wanting to get published, the truth is, that if a publisher sees your work isn’t up to scratch, they will rarely look at it again. For those of you who aren’t looking to get published, editing is still a way to seriously improve your work.

Another way I like to think of it, and something I realised while editing The Widow’s Redeemer, is that your characters go from the 2D versions of themselves that you first imagined, to 3D people who have their own personality, past and little habits.

Anyway, I hope this has maybe helped people who haven’t really thought about editing or have been wondering where to start. I just thought I’d share what works for me and see if it helps people. The thing I’ll leave you with is that writing is an individual thing, that’s the beauty of it and the reason that there are so many books available today, because everyone tells a different story. So when it comes to editing, be honest about your work, be consistent with changes, plot & character, work hard and remember to do what works for you.

Published by Philippa Jane Keyworth

Philippa Jane Keyworth, known to her friends as Pip, has been writing since she was twelve in every notebook she could find. Originally trained as a horse-riding instructor, Philippa went on to become a copywriter before beginning a degree in History. A born again Christian, Philippa lives in the south of England with her handsome husband. Philippa has always written stories and believes that, since it is one of her loves and passions, she always will. In her early writing career, she dabbled in a variety of genres, but it was the encouragement of a friend to watch a film adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that began her love affair with the British Regency. Since then, she has watched every Regency film and TV series she could get her hands on and become well acquainted with Georgette Heyer's novels which gave her the inspiration to write her own. Both as a reader and a writer, Philippa believes it is important to escape into a world you yourself would want to live in. This is why she writes stories that will draw you into the characters' joys and heartaches in a world apart from our own. Her debut novel, The Widow's Redeemer (Madison Street Publishing, 2012), is a traditional Regency romance bringing to life the romance between a young widow with an indomitable spirit and a wealthy viscount with an unsavory reputation. The novel has been received well by readers and reviewers who have praised the heartfelt story and admirable characters. Her second novel, The Unexpected Earl (Madison Street Publishing, 2014), explores another romance in the Regency era when an impetuous young woman has her life turned upside down by the reappearance of the earl who jilted her six years ago. So, what are you waiting for? Get swept away into another time with characters you will learn to love, and experience the British Regency like never before.

4 thoughts on “How to edit a novel

  1. Do you feel emotional about the changes? Does your work feel like your child? I think that would be difficult, especially if the revision is requested by someone else.

    1. Hi Kathleen!

      I think I can be emotional about it if someone else is asking for the change. Usually I get upset, take some time out, and then I can decide rationally whether or not the change is essential. Generally I agree with the suggester, very occasionally I’ll stand my ground. If it’s a plot change I’m definitely less inclined to yield.

      Thanks for reading.


  2. I like your colored pen idea. I usually just use one red pen for everything so it does tend to get hectic!

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