6 Tips for Editing Your First Novel
Okay, so you’ve created your character mood boards. You’ve outlined your love triangle subplot. And you’ve finally hammered out the first draft of your novel after months (maybe years) of working on it.
It’s time for the very vague and arduous editing phase.
For some this might come naturally – but for a lot of us it’s difficult to know where to start and a lot of people give up here. I’ve worked on plenty of drafts where I had no idea what to do next so I abandoned the story only to work on another one and end up in the same place again!
It helps to have a foundation so you know where to start, what your problem areas are, and how to tackle them. So, pour a hot mug of coffee and grab a fresh notebook and get started.
1. Go back to the basics
After finally finishing your first draft, it can feel like you’ve covered the main bases. You’ve got your three-act structure sorted out, every chapter has a cliffhanger, and your antagonist is chasing your main character down every twist and turn. What you need to edit is the sentence structure – right?
Probably not. There were times where I had someone beta read my work and I thought I had my bases covered, only for them to come back and ask me where the antagonist is. The antagonist! Such a main and obvious part of a story. I focused so much on other things I somehow forgot it! Solid story structure is really important and no matter what stage you are in during your writing journey it doesn’t hurt to double check.
Check out my post here for a list of books on writing including Story, Character, and Dialogue.
2. Make a checklist
The editing process is quite long and complicated. Your end goal should be to make the best piece of work you possibly can before sending it out to an agent or self-publishing. Chances are, (even when you’re sure there’s nothing else to change, update, or take out) it will need more work later by a professional editor.
I used to dump all of my editing notes in a Word doc and blindly update scenes and random bits of dialogue. It didn’t work and got confusing later on. So this time I made a checklist for each chapter and I divided it by stages: structure, character, dialogue, and then line edits. This helped me focus on one thing at a time and not get distracted by trying to edit a million different fixes at once.
3. Plan it out
Planning out everything you need to do during the editing process (dialogue, scene structure, etc.) will keep you organized and tame the anxiety of such a big project. Once you know what you need to do, break it down to the smallest piece and start from there. You will get more work done and be more effective if you follow your plan and adjust as necessary.
My first edit is usually structural: reading through it linearly, getting a good sense of the mess I just created, and flagging any glaring issues. Then after that I look closer at my characters. Are they consistent? Do the subplots add to the story? Are their goals clear?
Dialogue is something I haven’t quite mastered yet so I made a separate section just for that. I find line edits are the hardest for me, so I make sure to leave lots of time to work on that.
4. Have a schedule and take breaks
I’ve found that breaking everything into cycles has helped me a lot and makes it more manageable. Every cycle is about 6 weeks: 3 weeks for editing and 3 weeks for a break.
Here’s what some of my schedule looks like for my YA fantasy manuscript:
Cycle One: High level read-through of the manuscript and looking for things like plot holes, boring spots, set-ups and payoffs, etc. Then I take a few weeks off and let it settle. During this time I sometimes like to work on other projects that are different from this one like this blog, short stories, a script etc.
Cycle Two: This is where I dive into scene edits but still work from a structural aspect. I will look at things like: is there a hook at the beginning of each chapter, is there info dump in this scene, are the goals consistent for each character in this scene, is there enough setting description. After three weeks, I take another break.
The next two cycles are dialogue and then line editing. Originally when I began my process I wanted to finish all of this editing and then send it to beta readers, but instead, I sent my entire manuscript to one beta reader and then sent the first couple chapters to my writers’ group. This helped immensely as I was able to see a lot of patterns of problems I was missing that I can now fix a lot faster instead of waiting until the end.
5. Be flexible with your plans
If you have an A-type personality like me, schedules and plans and deadlines are important. In March of this year, I thought I had it all organized: Finish writing the first draft by the start of summer, finish all of my editing and beta feedback by September, and then send it out to agents in October.
It is now the end of August. My editing journey has only really just begun to make progress after editing for the last two months and I realize now just how far I have to go. At first, I was anxious that I wouldn’t make my deadline but then I remembered that my goal is to create the best story possible and to do that I need to take time and properly edit this. Deadlines can help keep you on track, but sometimes things change and it’s okay.
6. Give yourself permission to learn
For a lot of us this is new and even doing it a few times doesn’t make you an expert! It’s going to be hard and we’re going to make mistakes and it won’t come out perfect. But every time you edit you’re going to learn a lot and get better and be faster next time.
When I first started writing, my structure was all over the place and the scenes weren’t related and characters were doing random things and it wasn’t very good. Then I started reading more books and getting feedback from my friends and peers and things began to click into place. I’m nowhere near perfect now, but every time I make a draft I learn so much more and become a better writer.
How do you deal with writer’s block?