Upgrade Your Editing and Maximise Your Results With This 3-Stage Plan
I’ve spent years working on the preliminary drafts of my first novel, and this week, I’m putting the finishing touches on my final draft, so I can start pitching it to agents and publishers. This is the three-step process I’ll be using to get the best out of my writing and maximise my results.
In my last writing article, which was all about the mistakes we can make in the writing process, I talked about keeping your writing and editing separate so that your brain can focus on one thing at a time. That same idea applies to how I’m approaching my editing, because there are three different types of editing, and they each require three different approaches to writing.
The vast majority of my editing is complete, and I wrapped that up a couple of months ago. After that, I left my novel be, and spent the time since then thinking about how to really streamline the narrative and keep the sense of mystery going from start to finish.
Phase One: Streamlining Your Editing
A big part of streamlining my novel in my initial edits involved “closing” my ending, because it was originally written as part of a trilogy with the ending of book one leading directly into book two. With the realities of the publishing industry — especially as a lot of people have much less disposable income to spend on entertainment than they’re used to for the foreseeable future — I had to make my novel work as a standalone story, with potential for a series later if the book does well.
A lot of people have much less disposable income to spend on entertainment than they’re used to right now.
But now that my novel works as a single narrative, in my final edit it’s really important to focus on making that entire narrative as cohesive as possible. That means reading through your work, identifying plot holes, and filling those holes in so that your readers aren’t left unsatisfied, and with a heap of unanswered questions. As I’m writing for the mystery genre, it means making sure that the ultimate answer to my mystery makes sense, and providing enough clues and red herrings to make that possible in hindsight while also keeping readers guessing before the big reveal.
Streamlining your narrative also means making sure all of your characters are there for a clear reason. If erasing one of your characters from existence and giving their plot to another character will help readers follow your narrative, and provide you more space to build up the characterisation of just a core set of characters, then it’s time to say goodbye. At the same time, if one of your characters has so much going on that they feel lost and don’t have a distinct identity, it could be time to give them the new brother or sister they always wanted.
In terms of my book, I’m using this final edit to add in key clarifying scenes that make the motives and personalities of my characters much more distinct. But, I’ll also be making a few of my characters much more suspicious, as the key driving question of my narrative was originally a closed “yes” or “no” question that was answered before the end of the book; streamlining my narrative, defining my characters, and making readers invest in a more open ended question will keep them engaged and hopefully, entertained.
Phase Two: Streamlining Your Scenes
Now that I’ve finished my narrative edit, it’s time to get more focused in phase two. This next phase of editing is all about getting specific scenes to feel cohesive. This means turning your attention to dialogue; making it feel natural, and making sure it’s like how an actual, real-life human person would speak. It’s making sure that your dialogue serves a purpose, either to progress the story or to define your characters identities.
However, don’t have your characters discuss things that they both already know about just to reveal something to your reader, because that definitely isn’t realistic. In real life, would someone randomly say to their friend:
“Hey, Johnathan, remember that dead guy who I hit with your car last summer who we buried in your backyard together because you didn’t think the cops would be convinced it was an accident because he cheated on your sister who doesn’t talk to you anymore because of your unresolved anger management issues? It sure would cause a lot of problems for both of us if someone found him, considering that I’m an accomplice and I already lost my licence because of all my drunk driving to due my continued struggles with the alcoholism that runs in my family that led to my parents murder-suicide.”
No, because most people only have one or less dead people buried in their backyard, so there would be no need to clarify.
But seriously, it’s really important to make sure that your dialogue isn’t clunky and that you’re not using unnecessary exposition as a crutch for lazy writing, because I have seen dialogue written like that before!
This scene-level editing also means taking a look at your use of description. Are you taking ages and ages to describe something that could just as easily be conveyed in a sentence or two? Are you providing details that your readers care about? It’s important that your description flows, and that make sure your sentence structure is easy to read. It shouldn’t feel like you’re working at reading what you’ve written, but that your sentences have a natural flow to them that make your scenes easy to digest.
If your sentences stretch for more than a line and a half, it’s definitely time to consider breaking it up into two. And it’s also important to make sure that you’re writing in active voice and not passive voice. For example, saying “Sally stabbed Johnathan,” instead of “Johnathan was stabbed by Sally.”
One of those takes a lot less words to say, and flows so much better. Sentences written in active voice — where you put your subject that performs an action before the verb — are also so much easier to comprehend, which is good news if you’re revealing an important detail your reader needs to remember for later.
On the other side of things, your description shouldn’t be so streamlined that you’re just outright telling people what is going on. Sentences like “Sally is nervous,” aren’t fun to read, and telling your readers about your story — instead of showing them through describing specific details so they can make their own inferences — treats them like they’re stupid, and robs them of actually experiencing your story. If you write something like “Sally’s palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there’s vomit on her sweater already, mom’s spaghetti,” it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that “Sally is nervous.”
Phase Three: The Grammar Edit
The last phase of your editing is exactly what you think of when you think of editing in the first place: making sure your spelling and grammar is absolutely perfect. This phase of the editing process is also why I need to finish my edit this week, because my Grammarly subscription runs out on Friday and I do NOT have the money to renew it.
It’s really important to leave this phase until last; no cheating. Because if you change-up a scene after you’ve just gone through it correcting all the grammar, you can’t be sure that you haven’t just made another typo that you now have to fix. So don’t waste your own time by doing this bit first, because you’ll end up undoing all your fine level grammar editing and have to do it all over again anyway.
In addition to making sure all your words are spelled correctly and your punctuation is on point, it’s also important to make sure that it’s consistent. For example, how are you writing times? Are you writing your a.m’s and p.m’s with dots or no dots?
It’s time to make a decision about these stylistic grammatical choices, and it’s time to commit. Once you know what kind of presentation you want to go with grammatically, it’s pretty easy to use “Find and Replace” in Pages or Word to make sure everything matches throughout your book.
You Can’t Rely on Robots…
Unfortunately, spell check and services like Grammarly can’t pick up everything just yet, so it’s important for you to read your novel through to catch any typos your tech may have missed. To make sure you get absolutely everything, change the font of your book to Comic Sans and get a head-start on your audiobook deal by reading your novel out loud.
Comic Sans may look really cartoonish and ugly, but the actual letter-forms that the font uses are really distinct, and are extremely helpful for people with dyslexia. Changing your writing to an unfamiliar font and reading it out loud also forces your brain to work harder to actually comprehend the writing, and not just gloss over your mistakes using the context it already has.
Set Your Book Free!
Now that you’ve completed these three stages of editing, your narrative should be cohesive, your scenes should flow, and your grammar should be absolutely perfect. Your work is now the best you can make it, and now it’s time to show to some other people for some last minute feedback, or take the plunge and start sending off pitch letters. It has all led up to this moment.
But my advice isn’t the be-all and end all of editing. Lots of people have their own editing rituals and hacks that really get results for them, and as I’m currently in the middle of a very hectic week in the editing of my own novel, I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got an editing tip you’d like to share. So, feel free to leave a comment below to pay it forward and help out your fellow writers!