How to Edit Your Novel Like a Boss (And Stay Focused While You’re Doing It)

What do we want?!

To be published!

When do we want it?!

Yesterday!

How do we get it?!

*crickets*

So you’ve finished your first draft and you’re super duper excited. What now? How do you dive back in with the mindset of polishing this jumbled mess of words?

Edit Why Do We Edit.png

First off, I think it’s important to understand the difference between writing and editing. This difference may be obvious, but more specifically I want to point out one particular thing that changes for you, the writer. Have you ever heard this quote before?

“You should write first for yourself, then for others.”

In a nutshell it means that you should first write the story you want to read. If you’re a proponent of this thought, then this should highlight the difference that I’m talking about:

“You should edit first for your reader, then for your reader.”

Once you’ve written a story you would enjoy reading, make sure your audience can experience the same things that you are. This entire world and its’ characters are already alive in your head, now it’s your job to make sure you don’t lose anything important when translating that world onto paper. In the editing phase, you should make sure the story makes sense to fresh eyes, that your characters have as much depth on paper as they do in your head, and (this part is very important so listen up!) that your reader keeps reading!

Note: Watch the below video if you would like to hear me talk all about this topic (and see cameos from my two furbabies)!

As you go through your editing, make sure that interesting stuff is actually happening. While you may like the exotic flowers that grow in your fantasy world, make sure you’re not wasting the reader’s time droning on about them. Don’t write three pages about your character preparing coffee because (as much as I love coffee), nothing exciting is happening! If your reader has made it this far, it’s your job to ensure they keep reading!

Now that we have that out of the way, I wanted to share some quick tips to get you through your (sometimes) very rough first draft.

Edit First big

Make a list.

To make your story better, you first need to know what’s wrong with it. How do you go about doing that?

Quickly (but make sure you take as much time as you need) skim through what you’ve written or take a look at your outline. Now make a big list of the things that you need to add or modify in a notebook or Word document. Since I’m Type A in the strangest way, I like to color code this step to distinguish the “Rewrite” scenes from the “Add” scenes. This list is something I actually start while I’m still writing the first draft, but can always be started afterward. If you just finished a scene but want to add some foreshadowing earlier on in the novel, you can add it to your list. It would look something like: “Add foreshadowing for _____ before scene _____.” And then I would put it in the appropriate color because I’m weird like that.

Scrivener Change Labels
Note: I’ve blurred the scenes that follow “Ben finds father” for obvious reasons 🙂

Speaking of colors, I also color code the scenes in Scrivener. If you right click on a scene in your binder and hover over “Change Icon,” you can select whatever image you want to mark these scenes, as shown to the right. For me, blue flags are “Rewrites,” red ones are “Add.”

If you’ve finished writing completely, referring to your outline could point out similar changes that you could make. After review, you might notice that one scene is better placed in front of another. Sounds easy enough, right? Not if there’s suddenly a new character in the chronology of your novel that was introduced directly before that scene, but now just pops up out of nowhere. Now that you’ve moved it, it doesn’t make sense anymore. Add that sucker to your list as a rewrite!

For my own list, I actually look at both the outline and my novel. Most of us don’t stick completely to our outline and plot points may have risen up where you hadn’t originally planned them to be. So to get a really detailed list, take a look at both!

Let the editing begin.

Once you’ve finished going through your entire outline and/or skimming your manuscript, it’s time to start crossing things off that list. I like to sort my list starting with the larger items and working down to the smaller things. Let me give you a scientific reason for my doing that…

Just kidding, I don’t have any fancy studies to back that one up. But I can say that it makes sense to start with the larger items that could have a ripple effect in your novel. If you decide you should kill a character in the middle of your novel, you’ll be editing more than just that one scene. This is a pretty big item on your list so you’ll have to edit any mentions of that character in every scene that follows. If they have a major scene toward the end of your novel, it’ll definitely be on your list to take out, but should be done after you’ve edited in their death. This way you’re not messing up a bed you just made, only to clean it up again!

So your list is in order. You’ve come up with lots and lots of items to fix.

Now’s the time to get on your swimsuit (preferably one that won’t fly off) and dive right in! I love lists for this reason alone: I get so much satisfaction from crossing stuff off. I have a visual of the progress that I’m making and that propels me forward. This stage of your editing could last a week, or it could last a month. But for a lot of us, we could start to feel a little overwhelmed.

Are you shocked at how many items are on your list? Don’t focus on that! I literally have to sit here sometimes and tell myself to focus, because I’ll get sidetracked by reading through my novel, or finding songs to fit a particular scene.

You have a to-do list to keep you on track. Start at the top of that list and gradually work your way down. Once you start making progress, you’ll feel more and more excited for how close you’re getting to releasing that bookbaby into the world!

When your list is down to the really tiny items that won’t wipe their muddy paws on another scene, it’s time to move on!

Edit From Start

Since you’ve jumped around a little bit, your manuscript is likely a hot mess. Now it’s time to edit your manuscript as you read it!

Do this step on your computer and go in the order of your chapters. You want to try to read it as if you’re a buyer, so don’t bounce around from Chapter 22 to Chapter 4 to Chapter 15.

There’s a couple of things that you should accomplish during this phase:

Delete scenes. Sometimes, especially if we decide to go way back and add things, we write something down in more than one place. It doesn’t have to be the same sentence or even the same words, but if you find that you’ve already mentioned something, make sure you take it out. Ex: Mentioning how lonely someone is in Chapter 1 and then again in Chapter 2. We got it the first time!

If you tend to overwrite, then find places to cut words out. Is a scene really eloquent, but doesn’t move the story forward in any way? Cut it (these are the darlings that everyone refers to). Do you have 1,000 words all about your character making toast in the morning? Cut them out!

Add scenes. Huh? I just told you to delete scenes and now I’m saying to add them? Jes!

This is more for underwriters but every writer ends up doing it during the editing phase. During your read through, you may have accidentally placed more focus on something other than the plot point for that chapter. Sometimes that requires some deleting, but a lot of times you can simply expand upon what the reader should be focusing on. For example, your plot point involves a character finding a strange coin. But then your character notices she’s being followed by a group of men and starts to run. Instead of the coin being the focus, it’s become her escape from these men. You can bring focus back on the coin by adding a scene about the mens’ interest in this mysterious coin, before the chase even begins. Or have the men, guns raised, telling her to drop the coin. Remember though, only add scenes that are relevant! Don’t waste the time to write them if they don’t move your reader in some way.

Once you’re finished with your big edits and your read-through edits, it’s time to find some beta readers! Since this is such a huge topic, I plan on going over this in detail at a later date. If you have any particular questions you want me to answer at that time, make sure to drop a line down below!

Typically, after you edit in your beta reads, then you can send your manuscript off to a professional editor. Altogether, that’s four big edits for your novel. It may sound like a lot, but your reader’s experience is your first priority for editing!

Edit Additional Tips

Try editing at different times

When I first started writing back in July, I figured I would save all editing until after I was finished writing my first draft. That’s always okay to do, and the main reason I did it was for personal reasons. I used to always get stuck after about the 20k word mark because I was too busy trying to make everything else perfect before moving on. AKA I would never move on.

Now that I’ve built some confidence in my ability to write, I’ve transitioned to editing as I write. If you’re still writing your first draft, try editing what you wrote the day prior before moving onto your new scenes. Just remember, if you get stuck in editing mode and quit writing, you should stick to editing after you finish your first draft.

This type of editing is usually just for flow and finding the right words. It makes my first draft a lot cleaner by the time I get to my first big edits.

Remember: no problem is too big that it can’t be fixed.

If you’re freaked out by the size of your editing list, or it’s taking longer than expected, or you just don’t think your novel is any good, remember that it can always be fixed. If you don’t think your novel is any good, why? Is it your verbiage? Then change it. Is your writing not engaging? Then make sure there’s tension in your scenes and that you’re always using your senses to make your writing seem real.

Want to know my overwhelming problem for this WIP? Half of my book is written in first person and the other half in third. I have a lot of work on my hands, but I know this problem can be fixed!


As always, I would love to hear from you! What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give on the editing process? Where’s your favorite place to do your editing? (Mine’s alone in the living room, comfy and relaxed on the couch). Never edited before? What are you most worried about?

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