Editing Your Novel Q&A

Editing Your Novel Q&A


Editing your novel can bring a host of its own challenges, concerns, and questions. Many of those questions are ultimately the same questions you ask when writing:
How to properly structure a story? How to create a strong character arc? How to write a sentence that makes sense?

But some of those questions are unique to the editing process, including questions such as: How do you stay motivated while editing (when you’d really rather be writing)? How do you know when to edit and/or how much? How do you know when to trust what your beta readers and editors tell you?

All of these questions, and more, are among those you’ve been emailing me over the years. Today, I decided to share some of the most pertinent questions, along with my thoughts on their answers.

How Can You Stay Motivated While Editing?

Q. I’m working on editing my novel and it’s been hard going lately. I’m doing a lot of rewrites which is time-consuming in and of itself, but I’m also spellchecking and all that other fun editing stuff. But I’ve found that, since it’s more of a chore than anything else, I’m actively avoiding editing/writing altogether. Used to, I’d write every day, and feel bad if I didn’t. Now, I procrastinate and actively avoid it, even though I know it needs to be done. Any advice to get me motivated again?–R.D.

A. Most writers have a hard time summoning up the same amount of enthusiasm for editing as they do for writing the first draft. Usually, I find this happens when the edits lack focus. Try sitting down and identifying all the problems you know you have with the story. Address every little brain niggle telling you something is wrong. Once you have a list of problems to work on, start brainstorming solutions. Fortunately, the brainstorming is just as fun for editing as it is for writing! Then, once you have a clear path forward, the edits often become much less daunting.

Should You Edit as You Go?

Q. I am constantly reading and rereading what I have written, editing as I go, I guess. Do you just let the story flow without worrying about the edits and then edit at the end?–Cindy H.

A. All writers have to find the rhythm that works for them when it comes to editing. Personally, I like to do a little editing as I go. My process looks something like this:

1. At the beginning of each writing session, I will read back over what I wrote the day before. This allows me to polish it a little, get rid of major typos, and ease myself back into the flow of the story.

2. Every quarter of the story, I will stop and edit the entirety of the book up to that point. Again, this helps me polish things a little and also keeps me fresh on everything I’ve written up to that point.

One thing I don’t do (or try not to do) is edit during my actual writing session. When I’m writing, I write. I try to write as quickly as possible to keep myself from going back and obsessing over each paragraph. I’ve done that in the past and found it very destructive. More on that in this post: Are You Overthinking the First Draft?

Should You Stop to Rewrite Partway Through a Faulty First Draft?

Q. I am at a point where I have written a first draft that contains about 20% of my novel. I would like to continue writing the rest of the story, but I have uncovered a few things that I would like to change in the 20% that I have already written. These are not major changes in the plot or overall structure of the novel, but part of me wants to go back and correct them.

I feel that I am at a crossroads: either I can continue writing the remaining 80% of the novel and (FINALLY!!!!!) have a completed first draft OR I can go back and edit the first 20%, then continue with the rest of the book. Given that you do not know the specifics of my story, from a high-level, what do you think is the preferred way to go in this type of situation in general?–Mike M.

A. There are pros and cons to both approaches you’ve described. Personally, I prefer to stop mid-draft and fix major issues in the earlier part of the book. Primarily, this assuages my general perfectionism (for better or worse). But also, it ensures the beginning of the story will be properly setting up the latter part. Sometimes if you go back to change the early part of the book after having finished the rest of it, those earlier changes end up creating a domino effect that cause the need for more changes all the way through the book.

However, the major pitfall of stopping mid-draft to rewrite is that it can become a procrastination technique. If you feel that stopping now will cause you to lose your current momentum or that (if you’re being honest with yourself) it’s really a delaying tactic because the edits are easier than forging ahead—then I definitely wouldn’t risk stopping now. Go ahead and finish the draft, since that’s most important anyway. Then go back and tweak the early edits.

How Do You Know When You Should Cut a Scene in the Second Draft?

Q. How do you determine a scene needs to go while writing a book? You see I have been stuck on a scene—a dream sequence—that I can’t seem to finish with real purpose on my second draft. I thought it was a beautiful scene on the first draft but now, I can’t justify its presence. –Alberto L.

A. In general, there are two criteria I rely on to determine the validity of a scene’s presence in my story.

1.  Gut Instinct. If I’m feeling a general unsettledness about a scene, that’s almost always a sign something is wrong. This doesn’t mean that “something” can’t be fixed. But it could be the whole scene just needs to go.

2. Scene Structure. If I’ve made sure all my scenes adhere to the cycle of proper structure and are bumping one into another like a seamless row of dominoes, it becomes pretty easy to identify when a scene isn’t flowing well with the rest of the book.

On a more specific level, dream sequences are almost always suspect. They’re very tricky for a number of reasons, not least the fact that they’re at a remove from the rest of the story and are often lacking in conflict or anything that drives the plot. When in doubt on a dream, I would always recommend cutting it.

Are You Rewriting Your Story Too Much?

Q. I have several pieces in the works, one series I have been working on for six years but the problem I keep having with everything I write is all of the possibilities, all of the “what if this happened instead” which leads to a complete overhaul and rewrite and then I never seem to finish anything because I keep making changes. I feel like this is a complete amateur mistake, and maybe if I had gone to school I would have learned how to avoid this pitfall. All I want is to finish something. To hold a complete story in my hands. Do you have any advice for this? It’s possible I just think too much.–Bethany W.

A. First of all, this isn’t an amateur mistake—this is something many authors struggle with. And second, it’s not necessarily even a mistake.

We’re all in pursuit of the perfect story. Sometimes that means overhauling a manuscript many times to make sure we’re presenting the right plot and characters to take full advantage of a premise idea. This only becomes a problem when:

1. It turns into a procrastination technique keeping you from moving onto the next phase or project.

2. You’re not really improving the story, just changing it.

The first thing I’d have you ask yourself is “Why are you changing it?” Are you changing it because you’re identifying and correcting legitimate story weaknesses? Or are you changing it just for the sake of change?

If the former, keep at it (you’ll find that future stories will require less and less of these major overhauls as you grow in experience).

If the latter, then, yeah, that’s something you probably want to address as its own problem. Set the story aside for a few months. Work on something else. Then return to the first story with fresh eyes and evaluate where you’re really at with it.

What Are Beta Readers and How Do You Use Them?

Q. Please tell me the advantages and disadvantages of having beta readers. Do you pay them? What qualifications do they have? How do you find them? How do you know when they are right? What if they disagree?–Terence Y.

A. Good questions, all! The basic (and crucial) advantage of using beta readers is that they can bring a fresh, objective perspective to your work. It’s almost impossible for authors to be 100% objective about their own work or to spot all the mistakes after becoming so familiar with the story. Beta readers can help you understand how actual readers will react—and how to correct problems before they get started.

You don’t pay them. (You would only want to pay a professional freelance editor.) Beta readers are either other writers (with whom you’ll probably swap critiques, repaying them in essence by reading their book in return) or casual readers who are willing to read and respond to your work.

I’ve written quite a bit about beta readers, so to answer the rest of your questions, I’ll direct you to some of my posts:

Should You Accept All Your Editor’s Suggestions?

Q. I am looking for a copy editor for my first novel and am coming up against the question of where the line is between good copy edit suggestions and edits that change my voice and style. I realize this is something that is likely different for every author, but I was wondering if you could give me any advice on the subject?–Trish H.

A. You’re right about the answer to your question being subjective. It depends on to what degree the editor is correct, and except in matters such as grammar, that’s ultimately a decision only you can make.

I recommend reading all the suggested changes, then sitting with them for a few days to try to gain as much objectivity as possible. If you still feel the suggested changes violate your personal vision for the story and do not improve it in a logical way, then feel free to reject the suggestions.

Another rule of thumb I employ as a safety net is the “two people must agree rule.” This means that if I initially reject one editor or critique partner’s suggestions, only to have that same concern brought up by someone else, then I know the concern probably isn’t subjective and is something I need to re-evaluate.

How Long Should the Editing Process Take?

Q. Although I am also rather a perfectionistic person, I was nevertheless amazed at just how involved your editing process is with all the beta editors, etc. Is this “standard,” or are you also inclined to perfectionism? Frankly, if I were to do all this, it would take me two or three years more to get my novel finished.–Manuel D.

A. First thing I’ll say is that, it does take me several years to produce a book. But I believe this extended timeline is important in producing a quality product, not just because it allows for the in-depth editing process, but also because the length of time itself contributes to better objectivity toward my work on my part.

There really isn’t an industry standard for editing anymore. Some people whip out a book every year. But I highly recommend that authors slow down and take as much time as they need to produce a quality book. Very few books by very few authors are going to be ready to take readers by storm after less than a year.

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In so many ways, being a good editor is really about being a good question-asker. If you can figure out the right questions to ask about your manuscript, then you’re more than halfway to figuring out the right answers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your burning questions about editing your novel? Tell me in the comments below!

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