‘How To Edit Your Novel’ is a guide designed for writers who have completed a long-form work of fiction and want to edit, polish and perfect it as much as possible.
It’s all about providing you with the information, tools and advice you need to take your first draft to the next level, transforming it into a manuscript that’s ready for submission or self-publication.
The guide includes lessons on everything you need to get started: an overview of all the different types of editing, instructions on how to distance yourself from your novel, and more.
Once these preparations are complete, it’s onto the actual editing process. We’ll delve into all the aspects of structural editing, copyediting, and working with beta readers, providing in-depth instructions and advice every step of the way.
Finally, we’ll talk about completing a final read-through and proofread of your novel – perfecting all those little details that will get it ready to send out into the world.
This guide is designed for you to use at your own pace. You can complete it entirely in your own time, picking and choosing lessons according to your own experience and progress with your novel.
The Writer’s Edit team has drawn on its collective industry knowledge and experience to develop the ultimate course for writers editing their first novel.
With our instruction, advice and support, you can give your novel the professional edge that’s needed in today’s competitive publishing landscape.
Don’t have time to read the whole guide right now?
No problem. Let us send you a downloadable PDF so you can read it when it’s convenient for you…
Lesson 1: Distance Yourself
By now, you’ve spent a lot of time working on your novel. You’ve mulled over plot points, argued with your characters (and yourself), you’ve talked to friends about it – it’s taken up many of your waking hours.
In other words, you’re very close to it.
Throughout the editing process, it’s important that you gain some much-needed distance from your book. You need to be able to examine your characters, story and setting objectively and critically in order to improve it.
What do we mean by ‘distance yourself’?
We mean, take some time away from your manuscript after you’ve finished the first draft.
The optimal length of time varies from writer to writer. Some give it a weekend, some leave their manuscript for up to six months.
We recommend putting it in a drawer for two to four weeks. Treat these weeks as a holiday – a reward for working so hard on your book.
It’s just the right amount of time where you’ll be able to come back to your novel, refreshed and with the ability see the flaws, while also not being so long that you lose momentum.
Task: While you take two to four weeks off before starting the actual editing stage, you should be thinking about the areas you already know need improvement.
Without looking at your manuscript, write down any areas that you know need work.
Is there a character who’s underdeveloped? Is there a chapter where you recall the setting wasn’t particularly strong? Does your book lack lyrical description because you were too eager to get to the action while writing?
Over the course of your writing break, consider these issues and any others you can think of off the top of your head.
Note these down in an initial edit list, which you’ll come back to later.
Lesson 2: Understand The Different Types Of Editing
While you’re gaining some much-needed distance from your manuscript, let’s learn about editing itself.
Just as there’s an art to writing a novel, there’s also an art to editing one.
Editing is often a lot more in-depth than most writers realise. For example, did you know that there are various types of editing that a novel must undergo?
These include substantive/structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading.
Structural editing, sometimes also called substantive or developmental editing, is evaluating the novel as a whole, and determining how well its components deliver its message/theme/narrative.
In other words, structural editing looks at the ‘big picture’ and asks, ‘Does this work as a book?’
Here are the main areas a structural edit will address:
- Plot – Does this make logical sense? Is it realistic and believable? How does it leave the reader feeling? Satisfied? Frustrated? Wanting more?
- Characterisation – Are the characters authentic and well developed? Are they true to their personality throughout the novel? Are their relationships believable?
- Point of View – Is the current POV the most appropriate choice for this story? Is it consistent throughout? Does the POV change too much or unnaturally?
- Pacing – Does the story progress at the most appropriate pace? Does the pacing suit the genre and target reader? Can anything be cut without affecting the story? Is there enough build-up? Enough action?
- Dialogue – Is this authentic? Does each character have their own distinct way of speaking?
- Readability/Flow – How does the story work as a whole? Are there sections that jar or contradict others? Does it digress too many times? Are there places where the author has ‘info-dumped’?
- Themes – Are these appropriately handled? Do they suit the genre and target reader? Is there more the author could do to develop them?
These are all issues of concern that a structural edit would address.
Note that a structural edit does not fix spelling and grammar errors. It is a much broader examination of the manuscript and its elements.
In recent years, publishers are less and less likely to sign a manuscript if they have to do a structural edit, as these can be rather costly.
Nowadays, the responsibility of a structural edit often falls to the author.
We’ll be addressing how you can do this yourself in a few lessons to come.
A copyedit is an examination of the manuscript on a sentence level, and only occurs once a structural edit has been completed.
A copyedit corrects grammar, spelling, and syntax. It also makes sure the manuscript follows a house style guide.
If you’re signed with a publisher, they’ll have their own style guide. Alternatively, you can create your own (we’ll get to this later).
This type of edit corrects inconsistencies in punctuation and verb tense, as well as flagging any copyright issues and sentences/paragraphs that need further reworking.
Depending on whether you copyedit yourself, or whether you hire a professional, a copyedit can also involve fact-checking and flagging issues with POV, character, setting etc. that may have been missed.
Only once the structural edit and copyedit have taken place does the proofread occur.
Proofreading is the checking of the final product for errors and typos that may have been missed or that have occurred during the production process.
There is no revision during a proofread, only correction of minor errors.
Traditionally, the proofread occurs in-house at a publishing house using a printed out ‘proof copy’ of the novel. Final corrections are made before the book goes to press.
However, as an author, you will still need to proofread your manuscript before submitting it to publishers.
Optional: Manuscript Assessment
In addition to the different types of editing outlined above, there is also the option of a ‘manuscript assessment’ or ‘manuscript appraisal’, which many authors purchase without knowing exactly what it entails.
A manuscript assessment is where a professional editor – usually someone who has previously worked in a publishing company – reads your manuscript and prepares a report outlining the strengths and weaknesses.
These assessments can be helpful to new authors who don’t have much experience in novel writing just yet. However, they are not to be confused with the different types of editing above.
A manuscript assessment is usually a one-off period of contact between the author and appraiser, which generally occurs after the author has attempted their own editing.
Once the author receives the report back from the appraiser, it’s up to them to address the issues raised with rewriting and further editing.
Lesson 3: How To Approach Structural Editing
In a nutshell, this means:
- The way the overarching story unfolds
- The way your characters develop and change
- The way you build your world and present your setting (be it contemporary or entirely fictional)The way you present all this information (chronology, tense, point of view).
But your book is over 60,000 words long!
How can you look at all these factors in one sweep? Yes – looking at structural issues in a manuscript can be daunting.
By now, though, you’ve had some time away from your manuscript, and you’ve come back to this course (and your novel) feeling refreshed.
Here’s where we get stuck into the nitty-gritty and inevitable problems with your novel.
No first draft is perfect; it’s important to remember this. That’s why they’re called first drafts.
The Best Approach
We’re firm believers in non-chronological revision for structural/developmental editing.
What we mean by this is that we don’t recommend writing the last line of your book and then flipping back to the beginning to revise from page one.
Why not? Put simply, the issues you’re going to be addressing aren’t going to be listed chronologically, or from big to small in your book.
You need to be able to address the structural issues before you can start from the beginning.
Step #1: Create chapter maps
‘Chapter Maps’ list the core elements (who, what, where) of each chapter on an index-like card.
You can do this on index cards, or sheets of paper. It’s important that these are loose-leaf, though, as you may want to move them around later.
You should use one index card per chapter, and it should include the following information:
Who: Which characters does this chapter feature? Are we being introduced to someone new? Who do the featured characters converse with?
Where: Where is this chapter set? Does it change location half-way through? Don’t just include the big details like ‘London’ or ‘New York’ or ‘Sydney’; be more specific! For example: ‘Protagonist’s bedroom, moves to Protagonist’s boss’ office’ etc. Where do we move to throughout the chapter? List these settings.
What: What is the core purpose of this chapter? What is it following on from in the previous chapter? Is it an answer to a cliffhanger? Is it a build up to a cliffhanger? Does this chapter present consequences? What does it lead to?
Step #2: Lay these out
In their current order (the order in which they occur in your manuscript), lay your cards out on a table, or on the floor if need be.
You want to be able to see the events and characters of your novel unfold as they do in your current draft.
Step #3: Next lesson
Let’s go through to the next lesson to examine these issues and how to identify them in more depth.
Lesson 4: How To Find The Structural Issues In Your Novel
In our last lesson, you revised/created chapter maps to represent your manuscript in its current form.
Now, we’ll be using these chapter maps to find the main issues within your manuscript. We’ll be studying these maps and looking for plot holes, illogical sequencing, missing details, and more.
This method is a lot faster than reading through your entire manuscript without knowing what you’re looking for. So, what are you looking for?
- Would these events really happen?
- Does the inciting incident happen early enough to grab the reader?
- Are there errors in the chronology of events?
- Are you able to trace the plot arcs throughout the whole manuscript? For example, is there a storyline that just drops off mid-way through? Can you follow all your subplots to the end?
- Are the events well-linked? Are there any holes in the plot that need to be filled?
- How is the manuscript structured? Chapters, parts, various different sections? Is it working in this format? Can something be done to strengthen how it’s presented to the reader?
- Is there enough conflict?
- Have you made the stakes high enough?
- Why are these events happening? Have you adequately described what set them in motion?
- Does each individual event progress the story?
- Is the plot complicated enough to sustain the story until the last page?
- Is the plot too complex?
- Whose story is this? Who is telling it? Is it engaging enough?
- Do you believe the characters’ motivations? Are these clear enough?
- Are the support/minor characters sufficiently developed? Is there a character you’d like to see become more prominent? Is there room for a new subplot or point of view? How would this affect the current structure of your novel?
- Is the development of your characters limited by the point of view you have chosen for your novel? For example, if you’ve used a child’s point of view but need to explain something complicated, how can you resolve this?
- What are the reasons behind your protagonist’s decisions? Do these link back to their original motivations?
- Do the characters talk in a believable way? Does this reflect their upbringing and background?
- Is the reader given enough reason early on to care about your characters and what happens to them later?
- Do your characters change and develop in conjunction with their experiences?
- Does the reader see your protagonist at their best and their worst?
- Have you made your characters as in-depth as possible? Where could you add in more backstory?
- Do the backstories of your characters affect the plot? How? Make sure this is worked in throughout the novel.
- Do the relationships in the narrative progress realistically over the course of the novel?
- What else can you do to make things difficult for your protagonist?
- Does the reader experience a range of authentic emotions due to the characters and their interactions?
- Would the character really react in this way to an event?
- Is each character the appropriate choice for the role they play in the narrative?
- Do you have both likeable and unlikeable characters?
- Is your protagonist active enough?
- Are the traits of your characters distinctive and consistent throughout the novel?
- Are the descriptions of the characters consistent throughout? For example, you don’t want a character’s hair to be red in Chapter 1, but blonde in Chapter 11 without any reason.
- Is there a strong sense of place? Are there elements of history and culture? How can these factors be developed further?
- Does the setting suit the events that are occurring?
- Does the setting create a sense of intrigue? Enough that the reader wants to spend time here?
- Are the settings described using multiple senses? E.g. Sight, sound, touch, taste, feel…?
- Do you favour one sense in particular? Make sure you even this out with the other senses.
- Are the settings logical in terms of their relation to one another?
- Are the details of the setting such as climate and conditions realistic? Does more research need to be done?
- Does the setting require fact-checking?
- Would a different setting be more effective?
- Are the settings consistent throughout the novel? Such as the number of rooms in a house, or the position of a window?
- Consistency of pacing: do the subplots, climaxes and tension work in their current order?
- Is the speed at which events unfold suitable to your genre and target reader?
- Are the major events in the novel given the weight they need and deserve?
- Is there enough description in the manuscript that the reader feels grounded within your world?
- Is there so much description that the story lags?
- What are the turning points of the narrative? How can the tension be built further in these sections?
- Examine the beginning and end of the manuscript by themselves: are they gripping enough? Do they convey enough information without giving everything away? Are they effective in terms of the author’s intentions?
- Are there too many action scenes in a row?
- Are there passages bogged down by too much detail?
- Is the story accessible to the reader? Can the reader relate?
- Does each chapter start and end with a hook?
- Are the tone, content and language appropriate for the target reader?
- Is the point of view maintained throughout the various scenes? Is it consistent?
- Is there one element of the story that overwhelms the rest? Try to even things out.
- Are character thoughts, actions, and dialogue balanced out with setting and description?
Task: Remember that initial edit list you wrote while you were taking a break from your manuscript? Now it’s time to build on it.
Using the questions listed in this lesson, examine your chapter maps and identify 20 issues with your manuscript, from biggest to smallest.
Use the headings we provided in the lesson and write these issues down in the appropriate sections.
This master list is what we’ll be using to rework your novel.
Lesson 5: How To Address Structural Issues
Now that you have your list of issues to fix, you may feel a little overwhelmed.
This is completely normal, but also unnecessary.
If you can write a book, you can edit one. And we’ve got some quick (yes, quick!) solutions for the most common problems writers find during their structural edit.
1. One of your characters is flat, and lacks drive
If this is one of your concerns, you’ve probably missed one of the crucial steps to creating this character: giving them a motive.
A motive is what drives every character (even the minor ones) through the narrative.
Has this character got a motive? Yes? Make it an obsession.
Without overpowering the rest of the story and characters, turning the motive of a flat character into an obsession can do a number of things for your book: ramp up tension, create inner turmoil, provide comic relief, and change a boring character into a favourite.
2. You need to convey a lot of information, but don’t want to info-dump…
You don’t want to bore your reader with chunky paragraphs of text about something that happened 80 years prior to the events in your novel.
But at the same time, the reader needs to know this information in order to understand the plot progression…
The answer? Dialogue! Dialogue is a great way of masking the ‘info-dump’ as well as developing your characters at the same time.
The simplest way to convey your information is have two characters discussing or arguing about it. Paragraphs of information can be conveyed in a quick conversation.
Don’t feel that you have to give the same amount of detail, though! Remember what makes dialogue authentic.
Alternatively, you can include an interior monologue from your main character.
Perhaps they’re mentally going through all they know about a particular event, or are trying to decide on a course of action based on their own knowledge and experience.
3. Your ending feels forced
The ending is one of the hardest elements of the novel to perfect, so don’t worry if you’re not feeling so crash-hot about yours just yet. Great endings take time and lots of revision!
First of all, you need to identify what’s not working in your ending.
Most commonly, it’s the author trying to tie up the loose ends of a complicated plot in a rush.
Examine your ending closely.
How many storylines does it resolve? Does it tie every plot point up neatly – perhaps too neatly? Are there any instances of deus ex machina – that is, overly convenient plot devices that ‘save the day’ or bring the story to a close unrealistically?
The key here could be as simple as leaving a few loose ends unresolved. Often this feels more realistic to the reader anyway, and makes the storylines you do resolve all the more meaningful.
If you’re writing a series, an effective ending is even more important than it is in a standalone novel. The ending of each book in a series needs to make the reader desperate to read the next instalment!
Try to approach the ending from the reader’s perspective.
Have you left enough of the story open to be continued in the next book? At the same time, have you brought this volume of the series to a satisfying close within itself? Is it complete and well-rounded as its own individual book?
If something doesn’t feel quite right, it could be because you haven’t achieved this balance.
Look back at all the storylines you’ve covered, choose a couple of minor arcs to resolve so readers have some feeling of satisfaction, and leave the rest open and intriguing to entice people to read the next book.
4. You’ve forgotten to include a vital piece of information that affects the whole plot…
Surprisingly, this is quite easy to do! As the author, we know our story so well that sometimes we think we’ve included something when actually, it’s remained in our heads.
First, you need to identify what you’ve missed.
Perhaps your heroine was meant to find a magical locket halfway through the book? Perhaps your hero’s mother was supposed to go missing, and never did? Perhaps there was meant to be an avalanche to bury some evidence, but it never happened?
Retrace your steps using your chapter maps and locate where this event or scene was meant to happen. Write it in.
Next, trace your steps forward again and locate where this scene should be referred to as the story progresses. Add these references in too.
5. You’ve included too much action and not enough depth…
In a bid to make your story fast-paced and gripping, you’ve provided tonnes of action, but have forgotten to develop the rest of your story and characters.
The story might be so fast-paced that it actually isn’t effective, because you’ve got no slower scenes to contrast.
So, how do you slow things down so that your action scenes are really gripping when they occur?
Include some description!
Whether this is painting a portrait of the setting, or a passage of exposition describing some of the events unfolding, description gives the reader a chance to breathe and recharge before they’re thrown back into the action.
The slower scenes are also important in grounding your reader. They need to know where they are in the story, and the context of the situation.
6. You’re concerned your dialogue’s not working…
Dialogue is definitely one of the more trickier elements of fiction to master. More than anything, it just takes practise to get right.
So, let’s practise!
Take a section of dialogue from your manuscript that’s not working and examine it. Why isn’t it working?
Is the dialogue itself stiff and unnatural? Are the dialogue tags interrupting the flow of the conversation? Have you used dramatic beats correctly? Most importantly, does the dialogue suit the person speaking it?
Read your dialogue out loud. By doing this, you’ll stumble over what’s not working, and will gain a better understanding of how it should sound, and therefore, read.
Still not working?
If there’s a section of dialogue that you just can’t get right for whatever reason, scrap it. Note down any important information or character development contained in the scrapped section, and try to work it in elsewhere.
While we’re on that note, be sure to examine all your dialogue in the context of its purpose.
What function does it serve? Does it provide readers with information important to the story? Does it develop or provide insight into a character? Does it examine or further the relationship between two characters?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, you should strongly reconsider that particular passage of dialogue. If you can truly justify its inclusion with a valid purpose, that’s fine; but if you can’t, be brave and brutal and get rid of it altogether.
7. You’re worried the manuscript is too boring…
Just so you know, this is probably not the case.
You’ve been working on your novel for a while now, and you’ve thought about it from so many different angles that it’s possible you are bored of it – or, probably more accurately, just tired of it.
However, manuscripts can sometimes be boring. That doesn’t mean they’re not salvageable.
In addition to the main goal of your protagonist (this should be super clear to your reader from the get-go and throughout), you should also ensure that in every scene, your characters have goals.
In other words, they need to be active – whether mentally or physically is up to you. But each scene should be propelling the narrative forward, and this means ensuring characters have something they’re trying to achieve in each scene.
Raising the Stakes
Often, events in novels can seem boring when the stakes aren’t high enough. Your characters are active, working towards their goals, but your reader still doesn’t care – why?
Because you haven’t given your character enough to lose, or to gain.
Not every scene or action should be life-or-death, but there should always be consequences, whether those be minor or major.
If you raise the stakes, you also raise the tension and the reader’s care factor.
Another reason for reader apathy and therefore boredom is a lack of strong characterisation.
There can be goals and high stakes, but the reader doesn’t care because they don’t care about your protagonist.
Examine your main characters.
Have you given the reader enough reason to care about them? Have you developed their backstories and motivations adequately? Have you fleshed them out enough that they seem like a real, complex, living, breathing person?
Revisit your character profiles and ensure that you’ve included enough detail about their personalities, their histories and their relationships.
Identify which aspects of your characters readers might sympathise or empathise with, and ensure these are woven throughout each character’s development within the novel.
8. One of your chapters stalls…
Often chapters stall because either the author didn’t know what should happen next, OR they were too eager to get to the scenes that happened afterwards.
Either way, a chapter that stalls isn’t in anyone’s best interests.
First, you’ll need to consult your chapter maps, and work out what happens before this chapter and after it.
Is it between two big action chapters? Is it from another point of view? Is it a flashback?
Here, you need to identify what about this chapter is preventing it from working.
Next, you’ll need to brainstorm. What else can happen? Is there something you wanted to include but didn’t know where to put it? Do you want to explore another character?
9. You’re feeling defeated about the whole manuscript…
Trust us when we say: we’ve all been there.
Even the best of the best have at one point or another thought ‘This book is a pile of rubbish’.
What you’re probably doing is comparing the first draft of your novel to the novels of published authors – books that have gone through hundreds of rewrites, edits, and proofreads by professionals.
Still feeling awful? Here’s how to get through it.
The best thing to do first is take a step back. Take a break. You can’t let negative thoughts about your writing consume you, or you’ll never pick up a pen again.
Talk to another writer
We’ve all been through it, and talking to another writer about it helps so, so much. Just being able to feel as though you’re not alone in this is a beautiful thing.
Yes, outside – out into the real world, away from your computer.
Whether you go for a walk in your local park, go see a movie, or park yourself in the nearby beer garden with some friends, going outside and experiencing life again for a little while can sometimes be all you need to come back to your novel feeling refreshed and more down-to-earth.
Find inspiration in other art
Are you at the point where reading other novels only makes you feel worse about yours? Totally normal.
Why not try seeing a movie instead? Or going to your local art gallery? Or dancing to your favourite Madonna track at a dodgy bar? How about picking up a paintbrush or a ball of clay and immersing yourself in a different kind of creative pursuit?
Expressing your creativity and admiration for arts in other ways can really help bring you back from that sad, writerly void in which we all find ourselves sometimes.
Task: Start to work your way through your list of issues, from the biggest to the smallest.
Take your time. Many new authors try to rush through the editing process as they’re eager to submit to publishers or publish the work themselves.
Don’t rush – the work you put into your manuscript now will save you many, many hours further down the track.
Use our advice from this lesson to help you identify what’s not working.
If you’ve identified the issue, but don’t know how to fix it, take a step back. Brainstorm different outcomes and solutions. Sleep on it; the answer is usually closer than you think.
As we’ve stressed, this process takes time, and that’s okay!
Take as much time as you need to work through the structural issues in your book.
Lesson 6: Update Your Manuscript
At this stage, you’ve identified the main issues in your novel, and you’ve worked out how to resolve them.
Now, it’s time to update your manuscript.
Remember, this should be a separate document to your first draft (you’ll want a record of the original manuscript later).
As we mentioned earlier, the easiest way to do this is to copy and paste your entire first draft into a new document and make the changes to this version.
Save it as ‘TITLE-DRAFT-2-DATE’, so it’s clear which is the current version of the manuscript.
Apply all structural changes to the current manuscript, save it, and back up this file in the cloud or on your hard drive.
Lesson 7: How To Do Your First Read-Through
So you’ve done your first major structural edit. That’s pretty amazing. Virtual high-five!
Now’s when things start to get really exciting. The finish line is slowly but surely appearing on the horizon…
Now, we head back to page one.
Here, you’ll be doing a read-through of your whole novel from start to finish.
Either print out your manuscript or copy the file so you have access from a tablet, iPad, or e-reader.
Have a notepad and pen ready.
It’s important that you get away from your computer and desk, so that you can experience your book as a reader would.
Although you’ll be making occasional notes, you should treat this experience as though you are reading for leisure.
Throughout this reading, you’ll be wearing two metaphorical hats…
1. Reader Hat
First and foremost, you are going to attempt to read your book as a reader would.
Make a tea, sit out in the sun, and do your best to get lost in the story and characters you’ve created, as though it’s the first time you’re meeting them.
2. Editor Hat
During this reading, you shouldn’t be scribbling corrections on every page (that’s what a copyedit is for).
However, it’s worth noting down when you come across something that doesn’t quite make sense – these errors are often created during the structural edit.
You may have moved a chapter elsewhere, or gotten rid of it completely, but forgotten to delete references to it.
And that’s fine! Don’t pull yourself too far out of the reading experience just yet.
Simply note down the page number, paragraph number and issue in your notebook, and continue reading.
It’s important that you don’t fixate too intently on righting errors or rewriting scenes at this point. Your job at this stage is to experience your novel as a reader.
- Does the narrative flow?
- Are you left wanting more information on something?
- Does everything make sense now?
- Does the pacing work?
Most likely, these are issues that you addressed in your structural edit. You just need to make sure you’ve used the right remedy for them, and that the manuscript has now improved.
Pay extra attention to chapters or scenes that you recall changing significantly, and make sure they’re consistent with the rest of the novel.
Task: Using our suggestions from this lesson, take some time to read through your entire novel from start to finish, making notes along the way.
Lesson 8: Update Your Manuscript Again
You’ve finished the first read-through of your novel! How do you feel? Superb, we hope!
You’ve achieved so much already, and it’s only getting better.
From your read-through, you’ll have a bunch of notes in your notebook that will need addressing.
1. Copy and paste the text of your DRAFT-2 document into a new document.
Save this as ‘TITLE-DRAFT-3-DATE’, and be sure to back up your work!
It’s important to keep your drafts separate like this so that you can refer back to earlier versions any time you need.
2. Using the notes you made during your read-through, take your time to address each issue you find.
In some cases this may be a quick fix; in other cases it may take some brainstorming and rewriting.
Remember this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon – so taking additional time here will likely save you lots of headaches later!
If you need to, revisit our solutions to common problems. You may find that a few different ones apply to you now.
Lesson 9: How To Copyedit Your Novel
Remember, a few lessons back, we learned about what copyediting is? In case you need a quick refresher, copyediting is refining the manuscript at a sentence level.
Spelling and Grammar
These are the obvious corrections that need to be made, and will likely occur throughout your manuscript.
If you’re using a word processor like Microsoft Word, this will alert you to most spelling errors – however, don’t rely on it.
Use it as a guide only. A word processor won’t pick up on a lot of words that are incorrectly spelled in the context of a sentence, it won’t know if you’ve made up a word (such as in a fantasy or sci-fi novel), and it won’t know your preferred spellings for words with multiple spellings or spellings for different countries.
The best practice is to stick to a dictionary commonly used by publishers.
- USA – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- UK – Oxford English Dictionary
- Australia – Macquarie Dictionary
- Other English dictionaries include the Collins Dictionary, the Macmillan Dictionary and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.
Whether you purchase a hard copy or sign up for a subscription is completely up to you, but having access to a dictionary is essential.
If the dictionary includes multiple spellings of a word, the best practice is to go with the first one. That will be the most commonly used.
Note: One instance in which you can sometimes get away with misspelling words is in dialogue. If you have a character whose dialogue is phonetically reproduced – that is, written exactly as it sounds – then it’s fine to have strange or incorrect spellings of words. However, when you’re editing, you should be sure to check that any such misspelled words are still comprehensible to the reader.
Syntax is the way words are arranged to create a complete sentence. In other words, it’s the order and structure of a sentence.
The general order word order of an English sentence is as follows:
Subject + Verb + Object
However, in fiction, writers tend to bend the rules according to their writing style and what kind of book they’re writing.
So, without wanting to get too technical, the key to revising your sentences with syntax in mind is not necessarily that they fit the above formula, but that they flow.
The best way to test this is to read aloud. Anything that feels clunky or jars you as you’re reading is most likely an issue with syntax. Is there a better way of ordering the words in this sentence? Could you cut any superfluous words?
Note: While reading aloud, also ensure that you’re varying the length of your sentences. If all your sentences are the same length, or if a lot of them are too long, readers will be easily bored or confused. Try to create a mixture of short, medium and long sentences.
In addition to correct spelling and use of grammar, one of the most important tricks to polishing your novel for submission is consistency.
You need to ensure that details such as character names, place names, and chosen variations of spellings are consistent throughout the manuscript.
For example, don’t start out with ‘Tracey’ and later on change to ‘Tracie’. Inconsistencies create confusion for the reader, and irritation for the editor. Choose one variation and stick with it.
A helpful way to ensure consistency is to create a style sheet for your novel. Note down how you’ve chosen to spell names, places, and words with variable spelling, and refer to this list as you copyedit your novel.
Common Spelling & Grammar Errors
1. It’s vs Its
This is a massive pet peeve among editors because it’s such a simple fix.
‘It’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is’, while ‘its’ denotes possession. For example: ‘She stared at the horse. Its shimmering coat was beautiful to behold.’ In this case, ‘its shimmering coat’ refers to the shimmering coat belonging to the horse; the word denotes possession, and as such does not need an apostrophe.
If you’re unsure, ask yourself: what meaning are you trying to convey? Expand the word into ‘it is’ and see if it makes sense. (In the above example, ‘it is shimmering coat’ does not make sense, and does not convey the meaning of the sentence.) After this, you should be able to amend the sentence with the appropriate version.
2. Wrong Choice of Words
Often when you’re writing, you’re caught up in the moment and don’t necessarily realise when you’ve used the wrong spelling or variant of a particular word.
Look out for these common errors:
- a lot/alot
- into/in to
- onto/on to
‘Who’ is for people, ‘that’ is for things.
4. Incomplete Comparisons
‘The train was faster and lighter…’ – than what?
5. Possessive Nouns
In general, most possessive nouns will have an apostrophe. However, writers can get confused as to where this apostrophe goes.
- If the noun is plural, include the apostrophe after the s. For example: ‘the cats’ milk’.
- If the noun is singular and ends in s, you should also include the apostrophe after the s.For example: ‘James’ yellow car’.
- However, if the noun is singular and doesn’t end in an s, you should include the apostrophe before the s. For example: ‘Kristy’s yellow car’.
6. Use of Commas
Commas seem like a simple thing to use, but there are actually a few ways they can be used incorrectly.
Remember that a comma’s function is to indicate a pause between parts of a sentence (or to separate items in a list). If a comma is inserted in an awkward spot, it interrupts the flow of the sentence, creating an awkward jolt for the reader.
Perhaps the most common mistake involved with the use of commas is the comma splice. This occurs when you insert a comma between two independent clauses in a sentence. (An independent clause is a phrase that can stand on its own as a sentence.)
This is easier to see in an example:
The girl was a mess, her clothes were covered in dirt.
In this sentence, both ‘the girl was a mess’ and ‘her clothes were covered in dirt’ are independent clauses.
Since they’re separated by a comma here, what’s created is a comma splice.
Instead of a comma, there should be a full stop dividing the parts into two separate sentences: ‘The girl was a mess. Her clothes were covered in dirt.’
7. Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash
There are three types of dashes: a hyphen (-), an en dash (–), and an em dash (—). (En and em dashes may also be referred to as en and em rules.)
You’ll notice that a hyphen is shortest, an en dash is medium length, and an em dash is longest. In your novel, you’ll most likely only be using two out of these three types.
The first type will always be a hyphen. The hyphen is used to denote multiple words that have a combined meaning. For example, ‘She was consumed with self-doubt’; ‘He needed a pick-me-up’; ‘It hit with earth-shattering force’.
Tip: Whenever you’ve used a combined adjective, like in the last example above, you only need the hyphen if the first word does not end in -ly.
The second type will be either an en or em dash. These have the exact same function, and the one you use is purely a stylistic choice. (Publishers will usually have a preference, so check the submission guidelines
The function of these dashes is to indicate a break in a sentence, or – in cases such as this one – to set apart parenthetical statements (that is, statements inserted into the middle of a sentence that continues around them).
En dashes are spaced, while em dashes are unspaced. Compare them in the following sentence, which demonstrates the ‘break in a sentence’ function:
He called out, but it was too late – she was gone.
He called out, but it was too late—she was gone.
8. Incorrect Capitalisation
You should capitalise all names, place names, languages, nationalities and titles.
9. Using the wrong spelling for your country
Some words have a slightly different spelling depending on the part of the world in which they’re used. For example, ‘realise’ is the Australian/UK spelling, while ‘realize’ is the American spelling. Same goes for ‘centre’ (Aus/UK) and ‘center’ (US), ‘colour’ (Aus/UK) and ‘color’ (US), and many more.
Task: Copyedit the first three chapters of your novel.
In your notepad, jot down any recurring errors – perhaps where you’ve misspelled the same word, where you’ve favoured a ‘pet saying’, or where you’ve made a grammatical error such as ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.
We’ll use these notes on recurring errors shortly.
Lesson 10: How To Create A Style Guide
A style guide is a document that determines the spellings and editorial styles that a manuscript must follow.
A style guide can be broken down into sections that cover the following elements of a novel:
- Punctuation and style
- Speech/Dialogue/Internal thoughts
The guide will specify preferred location spellings (US or UK).
It would also specify the chosen spelling where there is more than one correct way of spelling a word, for instance, ‘focussed’ or focused’.
In the instance where a character’s name is unusual, completely made up, or has more than one way of spelling, this will also be specified – e.g. Shaun or Sean, Kirstin or Kirsten, Hermione, Celaena Sardothien, etc.
Punctuation and style
This part of the style guide includes things like the following:
- Minimise the use of semi-colons.
- Don’t add an additional ‘s’ after an apostrophe with a word that already ends in ‘s’. E.g. Tess’ scarf not Tess’s scarf.
Choose between double quote marks or single quote marks for dialogue.
Use curly quotes around speech (not straight quotes) and include punctuation within the quote marks.
For internal thoughts, use italics.
A style guide can be as basic or as extensive as you want, but having one helps create consistency throughout the entire manuscript.
1. Create a style guide.
Having completed a copyedit on your first three chapters, you may have come across inconsistencies in terms of style.
Use this opportunity to create your own style guide for the rest of your edit. Note down any preferred spellings, grammatical styles, and preferred dialogue styles.
2. Let’s look at the list you wrote while you copyedited the first three chapters.
Using the Control + Find function of your word processor, search your whole manuscript for the mistakes you’ve identified, one by one.
Correct them as you go. Do NOT ‘Find and Replace All’ or you risk making more mistakes along the way.
Treat each error individually.
3. Have your style guide handy for the next lesson.
Lesson 11: How To Ensure Continuity
So you’ve copyedited the first three chapters of your novel, and have your style guide handy.
Previously, we’ve spoken about the importance of consistency in your novel. While it’s relatively easy to establish consistency in things like spelling and word usage, there are other elements of your novel that need to be consistent, too – elements that can’t really be identified with a simple Find + Replace.
For clarity’s sake, we’ll refer to this type of consistency as continuity.
Continuity refers to the maintenance (or continuation) of certain details in your novel. Your characters, plot details, and setting all need to maintain the same details throughout the story (or else any changes made must be explained).
To use a simple example, if your character Wendy has blue eyes in Chapter 1, you must not suddenly describe ‘the depth of Wendy’s chocolate-brown eyes’ in Chapter 12. Similarly, if it’s established that Wendy is an only child, she can’t make an offhand mention of a sibling later on.
Continuity issues can become a particular problem in speculative fiction, where you’re building whole worlds from scratch without a real-world reference to ground you. The rules of the world and the magical/sci-fi elements within it must remain consistent – otherwise the world won’t feel authentic to the reader.
For example, if your story is set in a world with low or no gravity, nothing must ever be allowed to fall to the ground the way it would on regular Earth.
As you may have guessed, editing for continuity is more difficult than editing for things like spelling and grammar. However, there are a few ways to make it easier for yourself.
It’s a good idea to make up some simple reference sheets to keep with you while you’re editing. These can be things such as:
- Character profiles that list characters’ appearances and distinguishing details.
- Lists of rules about your world.
- A timeline of the basic events of your novel.
Having these on hand when you’re editing can make it easier to check small details and ensure there are no discrepancies of detail.
Finally, remember that some continuity issues might still slip through the cracks – and that’s okay. This happens to everyone!
Any remaining issues can be identified by beta readers and/or editors and fixed later on.
As long as you’ve got as many as possible out of the way yourself, you’ll be fine.
1. If you don’t already have them, make up a suite of reference sheets about characters, settings, timelines, and other details. Use these to take one more run through your novel, keeping an eye out for continuity errors and fixing them as you go.
2. Having copyedited the first three chapters of your book, and fixed up recurring errors, it’s now time to go back to the beginning of chapter four and continue to copyedit your manuscript to the end.
Lesson 12: Complete Your Copyedit
By now, you’ve done a massive amount of work on your manuscript. You should be able to see it really starting to improve and take a shape that’ll be closer to its final form.
So far, you have…
- Structurally edited your novel
- Read through your work as a reader
- Ironed out any continuity issues
- Copyedited your entire manuscript
It’s important that you don’t move onto the next lesson until these tasks have been completed.
Once these have been done, we can move on to using beta readers.
Lesson 13: How To Use Beta Readers
Whether you’re planning on traditionally publishing or self-publishing, making use of beta readers is something we can’t recommend highly enough.
A beta reader is someone who reads an unpublished manuscript with a critical eye.
Depending on what the author wants from the experience, a beta reader usually provides feedback on the overall story, elements like character, plot and setting, and smaller details such as spelling and grammar.
Why Do You Need a Beta Reader?
At this point, it’s most likely that you’re the only person who has read your manuscript. As scary as it may seem, that fact has to change sooner or later.
Rather than submitting your unread manuscript straight to editors and publishing houses, it’s best that you test the waters first.
A beta reader is bound to find things that you’ve missed. They might offer solutions to problems you haven’t even thought of.
Most importantly, a good beta reader will inevitably make your work stronger. You want your novel to be at its best before you submit it to publishers.
By now, you’ve lived in the world of your story and read over your manuscript so many times that it’s really difficult to distance yourself. There comes a time when you need to step away and entrust your novel to a fresh pair of eyes.
How to Choose a Beta Reader
The ideal beta reader is someone who both reads the genre you’re writing, and who also has good knowledge about writing as a craft.
Your beta reader needs to be a reader of your genre for a number of reasons, but most importantly because you need them to be from your target audience.
There’s no point in asking someone to read your high fantasy manuscript if they only read military fiction.
If they’re a reader of your chosen genre, they have a clear understanding of how the genre works. They’ll be able to figure out which parts of your novel work for the reader, and which parts don’t.
They’ll also be able to offer possible solutions to any issues they come across, as a result of their wide reading in that specific genre.
Knowledge of writing as a craft is also important, as it means your beta reader will also be able to specify what exactly it is about a scene or chapter that’s not working.
They’ll be able to help you address the writing aspects of the manuscript that need improvement.
The best way to find these multi-talented beta readers is to consider people in the profession with whom you’re already acquainted.
They might be people from workshop groups or writers’ centres, or even book bloggers you’re connected with on social media.
Who isn’t an appropriate beta reader?
Your mum. Your dad. Your best friend. Your partner.
All of these people are too close to you to be able to provide adequate and unbiased feedback.
By all means, let them read it – after all, you’re proud of your manuscript! You’ve been working on this for ages!
Where can you find beta readers?
If no one springs to mind from workshopping groups, writers’ centres, or the blogosphere, that’s okay! There are plenty of other options.
A number of now-successful authors, who were eventually signed by traditional publishing houses such as Macmillan and Random House, started by publishing their work on Wattpad and seeking feedback from other writers and readers. (In fact, even some highly successful established authors like Margaret Atwood use Wattpad!)
However, while these platforms can be a useful place for critiquing and feedback, you must treat them with caution and discretion. Plagiarism can be rife on the internet, and sometimes uploading your work to an open forum isn’t the best idea.
While your name will be attached to whatever writing you choose to upload, bear in mind that people may still copy and redistribute your work under their own names and on different platforms.
While this may not happen to you, it can cause a whole lot of hassle down the track if it does – hassle that you, as a busy aspiring writer, could really do without.
How many beta readers?
As you’ll very well know by now, reading and writing are quite subjective activities. Which is why it’s so important not to use one reader’s opinion as the be-all and end-all for your novel.
We think two to three beta readers is the perfect amount to secure a balanced overview of your novel.
How to approach a beta reader
The best way to approach potential beta readers is via a friendly yet professional email.
You can say something along the lines of:
Hope this email finds you well!
I’m currently in the process of securing beta readers for my manuscript Dawn’s Rising and have noticed you read a lot of high fantasy.
I was wondering if you’d be interested in reading my work and providing me with some general feedback? Here’s a little teaser:
“Dawn’s Rising is set in a parallel magical realm where the heroine, Dawn, must battle evil warlocks to save her kingdom from a terrible fate.”
Let me know if it tickles your fancy, and if you’d be keen to read!
No worries if not!
Note that we’ve kept this casual and short, and have emphasised that there’s no pressure to take us up on the offer.
The last thing you want it someone feeling obliged to read something they’re not particularly interested in.
If your acquaintance agrees to read your work, it might be a good idea to give them a few things to keep in mind as they read. These could be things you’re concerned about in your novel.
For example: whether a particular character is developed enough; whether the plot becomes too complex too quickly; etc.
However, you may prefer to let your beta reader ‘go in blind’, so to speak.
This way, they’ll be getting the sort of first impression a regular reader would, and can provide feedback as such.
If you put your beta reader on this approach, they may bring up some of the concerns you already have anyway, indicating the most important issues to address.
Task: Using your networks and the advice provided in this lesson, prepare a shortlist of potential beta readers for your novel.
Now, email 2-3 of these potential beta reader candidates.
You can choose to amend the template we’ve provided, or write your own email altogether.
Just remember to be friendly, polite, and professional!
Lesson 14: How To Master Beta Reader Etiquette
Just like any other relationship or work arrangement, there’s a certain level of etiquette that’s required between you and your beta readers.Here are some etiquette pointers for you to keep in mind when dealing with your beta readers…
Etiquette for Writers
Make sure your beta readers know how much you appreciate their time and input. Sometimes writers forget this, but it’s a big ask to get someone to read an entire manuscript and provide feedback.
It’s difficult and time-consuming, and there’s nothing worse than ending up with a beta reader who feels unappreciated.
Make sure you thank them constantly throughout the process. They didn’t have to do this for you.
The reader’s preference
Your beta reader has agreed to read your manuscript. It’s up to you to make sure this is in the format they prefer.
If they want a hard copy, pay to have it printed and bound. If they want a PDF, convert the file and email it to them. If they want it on their Kindle, convert the file so they don’t have to.
When you hand over your manuscript, be sure to give your beta reader some guidelines as to what sort of feedback you’d like from them.
Perhaps you’re worried about the plot and subplots; specify this to your reader. Ask them to pay particular attention to these aspects of the novel, note down room for improvement, and also make note of what’s working well.
You may want a general overview of how the story works as a whole. Make this clear to your beta reader.
If you’re not after something like a copyedit, make sure your reader knows this. There’s nothing more disheartening than having a manuscript littered with edits when it wasn’t ready for it, and all you wanted was a general opinion.
No first drafts
The reason our beta reader lessons are after the structural and copyedit lessons is because your beta reader needs to read the best possible version of your manuscript.
By sending a beta reader a first draft, you’re not only wasting your time, but theirs as well.
Take their time and their efforts seriously. Fix everything you can possibly fix in your manuscript before passing it onto them for feedback.
Don’t take offence and don’t argue
You are not going to like or agree with everything your beta reader says. And that’s perfectly okay.
You have to remember how subjective readers are – they have their own preferences when it comes to fiction, just as you do.
When they critique your novel (as you have asked them to do), it’s important that you don’t take offence. This is not a personal attack on you; it’s a comment on your work, which you can choose to take or leave.
Even when you don’t agree with a comment, don’t argue with them – no matter how much you may want to. You don’t need to defend yourself. Whether you choose to action this comment or not, thank them for their input and leave it at that.
Reading a book takes a long time. It doesn’t mean your book is awful, it doesn’t mean the reader isn’t enjoying it, and it doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten about it.
Do not hassle your reader for updates. Do not ask them for their opinion when they’re only halfway through.
Be patient. You want their overall impression of your novel; you don’t want to irritate them while they’re trying to read it.
Respect their time and other commitments.
Return the favour/pay it forward
It may be that your beta reader is a writer themselves. Make sure that when they need a reader for their work, your hand is the first up in the air, volunteering.
Process the edit over time
When your beta reader gets their comments back to you, make sure you take your time when addressing these issues.
Don’t rush through them in eagerness to finish your next draft. Treat each concern with care, and take the time to find the right solution, not just a solution.
That being said, don’t take so much time that the manuscript is no longer fresh in your beta reader’s mind. You may have questions for them, and you want them to be able to recall details vividly.
Task: Download the worksheet for this lesson here.
With the questions from this worksheet, and advice from this lesson in mind, brief your beta readers on what you’d like them to pay attention to during their reading.
You can even provide your beta reader with a questionnaire of your own.
Then, leave the manuscript with them and wait for their response.
Lesson 15: How To Handle Beta Reader Feedback
At this stage you’re probably no stranger to receiving feedback on your writing, so you’ll know that you might not always agree with what’s being said.
Receiving feedback from beta readers is no different. Regardless of how polished your manuscript is, your beta reader will find something to critique.
This is exactly what you wanted them to do, so don’t take it personally.
Have a look through their feedback.
Is there a common theme throughout? For example, do they mention a particular character frequently? This may mean that this character is underdeveloped. The same goes for plot threads and setting.
Try to go through their feedback within a week of receiving it.
Be sure to ask any questions you may have within this time, while the manuscript and its issues are still fresh in your reader’s mind.
1. Using the feedback provided by your beta reader, make a new list of issues that need to be addressed.
2. Make the time to meet with each of your beta readers, buy them lunch, a coffee, or a wine, and chat with them about the process and your book. Now’s your opportunity to ask them any lingering questions, or run ideas by them on how to solve the issues.
3. Take your time addressing these issues within the manuscript (if need be, return to the ‘How To Address Structural Issues’ lesson for solutions on how to handle common problems).
Lesson 16: The Last Read-Through
By now, your manuscript will have gone through a round of structural editing, copyediting, and further changes via beta reader.
What we recommend here is one last read-through to make sure that the numerous changes you’ve made all fit seamlessly within your manuscript and haven’t caused new issues.
This can be more of a ‘skim-reading’ exercise, as the final proofread is still to come.
1. Make a list of any potential issues that may have occurred while you made additional changes.
2. Have this list beside you for reference, and perform a quick read-through of your manuscript (how extensive or in-depth you make it is up to you). Look out for these issues and anything else that might need fixing.
Lesson 17: Complete The Proofread
The final proofread is the last stage before submitting your work to publishers. You want to make sure that you’re sending out the best possible version of your book.
Proofreading is checking the final product for errors and typos that may have been missed or introduced during the production process.
There is no revision of anything other than minor errors during a proofread.
1: Print out your novel (most writers find it easier to proofread from paper as opposed to screen). Alternatively, you can use Track Changes in Word.
2: Line-by-line, proofread your novel, amending any errors as you go.
3: Create a new document for your manuscript. Save this as ‘TITLE-FINAL-DATE’.
4: Make your corrections to this document and save.
Congratulations! You’ve made it through the complex process of editing your novel.Not only do you now have a completed and beautifully polished book – you’re also ready to start the submission process, or to look into self-publishing your novel.
Completing this course and putting time and effort into editing your novel has given you the best possible chance at successful publication. Whichever way you go from here, you can rest assured that your hard work has taken the novel to the next level. It’s now ready to go out into the world.
This is an incredible achievement, and you should be immensely proud.
But don’t jump into the next stage just yet. Take some time to relax, and to celebrate. You’ve earned it.