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Amy LeTourneur

Edit Your Novel in Nine Easy Steps

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Does the word “editing” make you cringe? Do you push your book aside when you get to the editing phase because you just…can’t…even? I get it, friend. But editing a novel doesn’t have to be as painful as a trip to the dentist. Read on, and I’ll share how to edit your novel in nine easy steps.

But first, I have to ask a super-important question:

Have you already revised your novel?

There’s a distinct difference between revising and editing. Revising deals with the novel as a whole—plot, foreshadowing, etc. Editing a novel occurs on a sentence-by-sentence basis, drilling down to the nitty-gritty details like grammar, word choices, and sentence structure.

So if you haven’t revised your novel yet, stop right here and read this post. Then go back and revise before you begin editing. Trust me. It will save you a huge amount of time and effort in the long run.

Let’s Talk Editing

When you edit your novel, I recommend you read it several times. Yep, the whole dang thing (so I hope it’s good 😉). Why? I find it best to focus on one element of editing at a time to prevent anything from slipping through the cracks. But if your brain multitasks like a champ (lucky you!), then you can probably double-up on some of the steps below to save yourself some time.

Step One: Use an Editing Tool

Think editing tools are a cheat? Not so! These tools can save you time, energy, and brainpower, so I highly recommend this as your first step when you edit your novel.

Screenshot of Editor in MS Word

Two of the best are Grammarly and the built-in Editor in Microsoft Word (not affiliate links). Both editors will check your work for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. And when you’re editing a novel, that’s half the battle!

However, take their suggestions with a grain of salt. Your writing voice is unique, and this can really throw off the editing gnomes checking your work. So accept the suggestions that strengthen your novel, and ignore those that don’t. (Your real-live editor will have the final say, anyway.)

When I’m stumped, I refer to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. However, other writers have told me many traditional publishers follow The Chicago Manual of Style. So if you’re going the traditional route, then do your research to find out which style your publishers-of-choice adhere to and follow it from the get-go.

And what about all those squiggly lines? Most writing programs check for spelling errors as you type. But slang, dialects, foreign languages, and informal speech (such as goin’ instead of going) tend to throw these editors for a loop. Also, some programs (Scrivener, I’m lookin’ at you) use British spelling rather than American. So don’t just blindly accept any spelling corrections these editing tools suggest. Double-check any you’re unsure of with a dictionary. (Word Hippo is my all-time fave.)

Step Two: Examine Sentence Structure

Every sentence in your novel should adhere to three rules:

  1. It serves a purpose.

Every sentence should serve some purpose—relaying exposition, developing a character, moving the plot forward, etc. Anything that’s just fluff should be cut.

  • Its meaning is clear.

Avoid using sentences that require a road map to follow. Run-on sentences should be split into two (or more) to save your readers from confusion. (They’ll thank you, I promise.) And things like misplaced or dangling modifiers and missing pronouns can muddy a sentence’s meaning, so check for those issues, as well.

  • Graphic with Gary Provost quote - Work in Progress blog by Amy LeTourneurIt enhances the flow of the story. 

As Gary Provost illustrated perfectly in his book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (which is short and sweet but utterly excellent, by the way), a good story has a certain rhythm, an ebb and flow. How do you know if your story has a good rhythm? Read it aloud. If something sounds a little off to you, then it will probably be even more pronounced to your reader. So tweak the length or structure of your sentences until the passage flows off your tongue.

Step Three: Act Out Your Dialogue

This step focuses on both the words your characters say and the action or dialogue tags you’ve used. To check your dialogue for trouble spots, act it out. Yep, out loud. Check to be sure:

  • Each character’s unique voice is maintained
  • The dialogue sounds realistic and natural
  • Any accompanying actions make sense within the context of the conversation, the scene, and the overall story
  • Every line of dialogue serves a purpose

I cover all this and much more in my blog series, How to Write Riveting Dialogue: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Step Four: Examine Point of View

First, second, third limited, third omniscient—whichever POV you’ve chosen for your story, it should remain consistent throughout. Comb through your novel to make sure you haven’t accidentally slipped into a different POV at any point.

Another headache to look out for is head-hopping. You can have multiple point-of-view characters in a novel, but each scene should be told from just one character’s perspective. Jumping from one character’s mind to another’s mid-scene is known as head-hopping, and it can be very disorienting for a reader.

This excellent post from KM Weiland offers a great explanation of POV and head-hopping (as well as how to avoid it).

Step Five: Remove Passive Voice

There are exceptions, of course, but most of the sentences in your novel should be written in active voice rather than passive. The Write Life offers a great definition of passive voice:

If the object of the action is in the front of the sentence and the subject is at the end, you’ve got yourself an example of passive voice.

For example, this sentence is written in passive voice:

          The vase was broken by Joe.

In active voice, the sentence would read:

          Joe broke the vase.

The active voice is more direct and creates a sense of action and forward motion, which keeps readers engaged. Passive voice, however, tends to be boring and can bog your story down. So in most instances, switch all passive voice in your novel to active. 

Step Six: Verify Verb Tenses

If you just adore conjugating verbs (you sicko), then your verb tenses are probably impeccable already. But for the rest of us, this step can be the most hair-pulling part of the editing process. 

When you edit your novel, make sure you’ve used the same verb tense (past, present, etc.) all the way through. There are exceptions to this, but unless you’re DIY-ing the entire editing process before self-publishing (psst…please don’t), then you can rely on your professional editor to catch the more slippery verb tense issues.  

Step Seven: Punch up Your Word Choices

For your reader, the words you’ve chosen to tell your story can mean the difference between “meh” and “wow!” So choose them wisely.

During this reading, scan your novel for lackluster words and switch them out for those with more oomph. (Again…Word Hippo is the best!) Just make sure to choose synonyms that fit the context of your scene.

walk —> stalk, saunter, stumble

red —> brick red, scarlet, crimson

cried —> sobbed, wept, blubbered

But don’t go overboard with this or you’ll find yourself in “purple prose” territory. While readers love words that paint a picture, there is a time and place for simple language. The trick is creating a good balance between the two.

Next, use your program’s “search” or “find” feature to search for modifiers such as “very” and “really.” These are usually paired with weak verbs, so eliminate the modifier and replace the verb with a stronger one. (Stronger verbs also tend to be more descriptive, so this is a win-win.)

very scared —> terrified

really happy —> elated

very hungry —> famished

really interesting —> riveting

And several words should be cut from your novel outright (with very few exceptions). For instance, “that” is rarely necessary. Adverbs scream, “Weak verb ahead!” And “just” is usually just fluff. (See what I did there? 😉) The list goes on and on, and removing these words will tighten up your writing. In this YouTube video, author Vivien Reis offers a comprehensive list of words to cut.

However, this list doesn’t (necessarily) extend to dialogue or voice. Dialogue should sound like real-life conversation, and real people regularly use the words on the list when they speak. So it’s not necessary to cut all of these words from your dialogue. And if your novel is written in a conversational style (particularly in first-person POV), then removing every word on the “cut list” would most likely have a detrimental effect on that voice. So use your own discretion to decide what’s best for your story.

Step Eight: Dissect Your Descriptions

Descriptions can be tricky. They should be vivid—but concise. Detailed—but not boring. The goal is to give your reader a clear picture of your characters and settings without forcing him or her to slog through several paragraphs of exposition to get there.

For minor characters and settings, you can get away with providing just one or two key details and allow readers to fill in the blanks. Your major characters and important settings, however, call for more detailed and colorful descriptions.

Jane’s hair is brown —> Jane has a lush mahogany mane

John is tall —> John towers over his classmates

When describing settings, make sure you’ve used the senses to bring them alive to your readers. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the scene. What do you hear, taste, see, smell, feel? Adding these sensory details will make your story come to life in your reader’s mind.

Step Nine: Continuity Check

When you edit your novel, check for continuity in dates, facts, ages/birthdays, descriptions, etc. Whenever you come across a detail like this in your read-through, check it against your files to make sure you’ve noted it correctly in your novel.

I write my fiction in Scrivener {affiliate link}, and in each project, I keep files containing character profiles, pictures and descriptions of settings, dates, relationships, backstory, etc. So during this step in the editing process, that information is available at the click of a button.  

Timelines are also helpful in keeping dates straight. I create mine on Aeon Timeline, but sticky notes and a white board or empty wall work just as well.

Penny for your thoughts…

When you edit your novel, which step do you think you’ll struggle with the most? Share it in the comments below!

Next time on Work in Progress:

In my next post, I’ll examine sentence structure in all its glory. What? You don’t find sentence structure glorious? You will, my friend. You. Will. 😊 Want a reminder when that content is posted? Sign up for my email list in the box below. ⬇ Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!


In case you missed it: In my last post, I introduced the characters and settings (including photos!) of my upcoming YA novel, Kaleidoscope. Hop on over and say hello!

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A compelling mix of tragedy, redemption, the search for meaning, and , yes, even a little romance, Kaleidoscope will make you laugh out loud, cry like a baby, and keep you guessing all the way to “The End” (and beyond…). 

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