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:

EDITING

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.

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4 thoughts on “How to edit a novel

  1. Kathleen

    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.

    Reply
    1. Philippa Jane Keyworth Post author

      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.

      Px

      Reply
    1. Philippa Jane Keyworth Post author

      Hi June,

      Yeah – well it was actually Bennetts’ idea and it’s served me very well 😉

      And thank you for encouraging me to edit in the first place June – you’re a legend!

      PJK x

      Reply

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