Self editing your novel

Self Editing Your Novel

There are two main ways of self editing your novel. You can edit as you write, a chapter at a time, or edit the whole book after completion. I know writers that do both, but each has its own pros and cons.

Self Editing Your Novel after Each Chapter.

The pro, is that you have already done most of the editing by the time you have completed your novel. The con, is that you may lose the flow of your writing. You may get to the end of a chapter eager to write what happens next, but stop writing and start editing what you have already written.

Self Editing Your Novel after Completion.

a novel after you’ve completely finished writing it. The pro, is that nothing disturbs the flow of your writing. You have things in your mind and you get them written as quickly as possible whilst they are fresh in your memory. The con, is that when you’ve finished the novel, you’ve still got a huge chunk of editing in front of you.

The choice is yours

Depending upon your temperament, some writers will prefer to get the editing done as they go, whilst others will prefer to edit everything at the end. I’m in the latter camp, but that won’t suit everyone.

There are two important things you need to know about editing.

Not about the editing itself, but about the time it can take you.

Editing a novel can be as time-consuming as writing a novel.

Some of you may cringe now. Perhaps you have been writing your novel for a couple of years, and the thought of another couple of years editing your book is soul destroying. Why does it take so long? If you’ve been writing your novel as things occur to you, it will seem alright as you wrote it, but looking back at it afterwards you will see many errors that you weren’t aware of before. When you are writing, you are too close to the action. Editing entails standing back and taking an in-depth and more critical look.

Editing a novel requires you to distance yourself from your writing and to view your work as a reader.

That takes time. I would recommend, whichever method of editing you use, that once you have finished your editing, you put your finished novel in a drawer for at least a month, and preferably two. You’ve finished your book, and you want to get it out for all the world to see. Putting it in a draw and not looking at it for weeks is completely counter-intuitive, but you will thank me for the suggestion.

When you return to a book after a few weeks, however painstaking your previous editing, you will notice new and glaring mistakes and wonder why you hadn’t noticed them before. The reason. You were too close to the characters and too close to the novel. You read what you intended to read, and your eyes skipped some obvious mistakes without being aware of them.

Some of you reading this will think of employing an editor, but there will still be editing for you to do. If an editor is going to charge you for their time, it makes sense for you to take out the more obvious errors first. If an editor is going to charge you on a per character, per word or per line basis, it makes sense you remove all unnecessary words and characters from your manuscript first.

Editing a novel: The basics

Spelling and grammar are two of the obvious things you should check yourself when self editing your novel . Microsoft Word will automatically check both, but you need to ensure it’s checking the correct language. Word gives you a choice of template, US English is usually the default, so if you intend publishing in the UK you will need to change the default setting.

Editing a novel: The length

Readers like chapters that are similar in length. They don’t have to be exactly the same length, but it would be unusual to have half your chapters with about four-thousand words, and the remaining chapters with around ten-thousand words. Readers don’t start reading a chapter wondering how long it is, but they do often start reading a chapter wondering how long it will take to read. ‘Will I have time to read this before my favourite TV programme starts?’ or ‘will I have time to read this before I fall asleep?’ There will always be exceptions to the rule, but readers feel happier with a fairly consistent length of chapter.

The length of the novel itself? That’s probably one of the most frequent questions asked by new writers. Whilst it’s possible to give some guidance, there are well known exceptions in every genre, some longer and some shorter. If you intend self-publishing, then the length of a novel doesn’t matter so much. Self publishing has blurred the boundaries. However, if you intend seeking a traditional publisher, they will usually look for a traditional length. They know what length of novel each genre of author is expecting, and which length sells. It is possible to be an exception to the rule, but it is virtually impossible to publish a first novel traditionally that does not comply with expected norms.

Here’s a rough guide:

Up to 500 words – flash fiction
Up to 8,000 words – short story
8,000 – 18,000 – novelette
18,000 – 40,000 words – a novella
40,000 – 60,000 words – small novel
60,000 – 100,000 words novel
100,000 – 110,000 words – large novel
110,000 + – epic

Within that rough guide, different genres of novels have their own ‘sweet spot’. Crime novels, for example, are usually smaller than fantasy and SF novels.

The ‘sweet spot’ or Goldilocks zone for different genres is generally considered to be:

50,000 – 100,000 Romance
70,000 – 90,000 Crime / Mystery / Thriller
90,000 – 120,000 Historical/Sci-fi/Fantasy

There are good reasons for these word counts, but they are historical and usually connected with the cost of producing paperback books of differing lengths. There are three important things you need to remember about novel length. The first; there have always been exceptions. The second; if you are self-publishing, the length is not as important as it once was. The third; if you are traditionally publishing, most traditional publishers are still looking for books of traditional lengths.

Editing a novel: Dead wood

A novel has to move forward towards a climax, and anything that slows the story down or which doesn’t move the story toward that climax should be cut out.

Is something irrelevant? Cut it out.

Is something repeated? Cut out the repetition.

Is there too much back story? Cut it out.

Is a sentence too long? Shorten it.

Does every word in your novel have a purpose? Is every sentence necessary? Is every paragraph required? The answer to each of the above three questions should be ‘yes’.

The mechanics of Self Editing Your Novel

The above paragraphs provide an outline of some of the things required, but what do you physically have to do and what is the best way of actually self editing your novel ?

First edit:

On-screen. Read through your novel in the format you’ve written it in. If it’s on screen, which these days it almost always is, then read it through on-screen and do your first edit on-screen. Spell checkers and grammar checkers should be your first line of attack.

Second edit:

Print it out. If you haven’t got a printer of your own, beg, borrow or steal one (don’t quote me on the ‘steal’ bit, I will deny having written it). You really need to print your book out. No matter how diligently you edit your masterpiece on screen, once you print it out you will find more errors. I can’t give you a reason why, but we seem to go screen blind. Once your novel is printed out and you read it in print instead of on screen, you will find more errors. I guarantee it.

Third edit:

Read it out loud, or have it read to you. On my MS Word document there is a ‘Review’ tab. Clicking on that tab reveals a ‘Read Aloud’ button, and it reads my document out when I click on the button. By now, you may be asking, “What’s the point? I’ve done two edits already.” The point is, just as reading the printed word reveals edits you’ve missed online, listening to the text being read out loud reveals edits you’ve missed in print. I guarantee this too. You will always find something more. You will have typed the same word twice or omitted a word you thought was there, but there will always be something obvious when you listen.

Final edit

Three edits should be enough? Not necessarily. Now is the time to hide your book away for those one or two months. You’ve done all you can. You’ve checked the editing online, in print, and by ear. Forget about it. Get started on your next novel. Get a life. Go on holiday.

In a couple of months, do those three checks again. You will usually find more errors. Then you’re good to go. Almost. Your book is ready to send to an editor, send to a publisher, send to a literary agent. It’s even ready for you to submit it for self-publishing.

The ‘Almost’ in the above paragraph is because I recommend one last course of action. It’s not really editing, but something closely related to it. I recommend you send your fully completed and edited novel to a beta reader.

Beta Readers

The phrase ‘beta’ reader has been taken from the world of software development. When companies develop new software, the first version is an ‘alpha’ version. This is the very first unfinished version of the software. It usually doesn’t work properly, and there may be several ‘alpha’ versions before they get to a ‘beta’ stage. The ‘beta’ software is the finished version of the software, but the only people that have used it are the people who designed it. Before they sell the software, they need to know it will work in the real world. They produce the ‘beta’ version and send it to their early adopters with specific instructions. “We think this works OK but there may still be a few snags we haven’t found. Here’s a free copy for you to use. Let us know how you get on, and if there are any problems, let us know.” The early adopters use the software, and either report back that it works as expected, or report back that they’ve had a problem. This gives the developers the assurance the software works correctly, or gives them the opportunity to correct any snags before they finally put the software on the market.

Beta readers have the same function regarding your book. Prior to your editing, your book was in the pre-production stage. Whilst you were editing, your book was in the alpha stage. Once you have edited your book, it is in the beta stage. You have completed your book, and you are ready to go. You just need one or two people to test it out.

You don’t need editors (you’ve done that) or publishers (that comes later) or booksellers (that comes later too). What you need are a couple of readers. A couple of people who usually read your genre of book, and whose judgement you trust.

Give those ‘beta’ readers a free copy of your finished book, and ask them to read it and give you feedback. Remember, these are not editors. Make sure they know you are not asking them to go line by line through your book looking for spelling mistakes or mistakes of grammar. These are readers. Ordinary readers. The type of ordinary people who, you hope, are going to buy your book in the future. All you need them to do is to read your book, and to tell you if they enjoyed it. That’s it. That’s the information only a ‘real’ reader can provide you with. Did they enjoy your book? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’re good to go. If the answer is ‘no’, then you need to know why, and you need to do something about it before your book is published.

You need to find ‘beta’ readers whose judgement you trust enough to act upon their recommendation. Readers are your consumers. Readers are the group of people who are going to be forking out good money for the words you have produced. If your story works, you can market it with confidence. If your story doesn’t work, then you need to know now, before publication, whilst you’ve still got time to do a final edit and get things right.

You think your book is excellent, and a best seller in the making, but you are too close to your story. In the same way that you missed all those editing faults, it’s easy to miss the errors in the larger picture.

Is the start of your story gripping enough? You need to know. Is your story too slow and boring? Is your main character unbelievable? Was the reader disappointed by the ending? You may not want to know, but you need to know. Hopefully, your novel will be fine, but if not, take the advice on the chin, and re-edit.

One final qualifier. We all have different tastes. Get five people together who like crime novels, and they will name five different authors as their favourite crime novelist. You need to select your ‘beta’ readers wisely. One good reader is better than half-a-dozen poor ones. Your chosen ‘beta’ reader, or readers, has to be someone whose judgement you trust. If you don’t trust them, there’s no point.

That’s it! You’ve finished self editing your novel. Your book is finished, edited, and tested by a reader, and you are ready for it to be published.

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