By Ricardo Fayet
We all know that writing your novel is hard. It’s just you and the blank page and your endless font of ideas. But once you complete that first draft, you’re not so alone any more; now you’ve got a full manuscript to think about.
Revision is the most important part of writing a novel —yup, we said it: the most important part. Getting ideas down on the page might be challenging, but learning to see your work objectively, consider how readers will experience your story, and write into an ever-shifting marketplace is a different kind of difficult. Thankfully, you don’t have to face the challenge of revision alone. At Reedsy, we’re fortunate to be working every day with some of the very best editors out there. While they’d certainly love to work with you, they were also excited to contribute self-editing tips for this article, since the best editorial partnerships happen between editors and authors who are in a healthy “revision mindset”.
We’ve organized their responses to the question “What’s your #1 piece of revision advice?” below.
Finished your first draft? Go on holiday!
That might be overstating it a bit, but seriously, out of the 12 editors I asked, 8 mentioned this as their first and foremost advice: take time to detach yourself from your first draft before attempting to revise it.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to take a break between drafts. Ideally, the break should last several weeks, even several months. You have to come to your second and third draft as if reading someone else’s book.” — Kat Kopit
You can’t kill your darlings if they’re still your darlings, and the only way to obtain some level of objectivity is by letting some time go by.
“You need to step back between drafts and see it as a commercial piece of writing rather than the book of your heart.” — Jenny Hutton
How much time you should allow yourself between drafts really depends on your inherent mental and emotional capacity to trick yourself into thinking like a reader, instead of an author. To highly productive writers, this can seem like a waste of precious time. However, the time you spend not working on your manuscript is time you will make back through a much more efficient revision process.
“Taking a solid break before self-editing helps overused words, sentence structures, and turns of phrase stand out. Timeline problems can be teased out and dealt with, and weak or misplaced passages can be flagged for deeper revision or deletion.” — Sarah Kolb-Williams
Read your manuscript aloud
Reading aloud is a technique commonly used by authors and editors to identify clumsy or unnatural formulations. As our editor Angela Brown puts it: “If your writing sounds awkward or clunky to your own ears, it probably is awkward or clunky on the page.”
More importantly, reading your manuscript aloud is another way to force the emotional detachment we talked about above, and approach your book from a reader perspective.
“My number one self-editing tip would be to read your work aloud. It’s a great way to step back a bit from the page and hear your words as they will sound to the reader.” — Megan McKeever
This can be especially helpful for dialogue—one of the things debut authors struggle with most.
“Writers tend to repeat the same information in dialogue as well as the narrative. If you read your work aloud, you can more easily pick up on these things and make the subtle changes that can help smooth out your writing.” — Sara Twaite
If you’re not comfortable reading aloud, or feel like you don’t have the time for it, there are other similar ways to trick yourself into approaching your manuscript from a different perspective.
“Find ways to look at your book differently. Change the font, font size, change device (such as from desktop to ereader), print your MS, or have it bound at a copy shop. This can often help you see your book with new eyes and you’ll catch those things that you missed before.” — Cassandra Marshall
Sometimes, even altering character names can help as well. Basically, there are a lot of things you can try to gain distance and perspective, but reading your book aloud has proven to be one of the most effective ones.
Be granular: Don’t try to edit everything at once.
There’s a reason why most professional editors give a book at least two or three passes: you cannot edit everything at once. The human brain is not configured to read through a manuscript and pay equal attention to plot, characterisation, dialogue, grammar, etc. from start to finish.
Instead, each of several passes should focus on a different aspect of your manuscript. Our editor Aja Pollock offers a good breakdown of how you could cover most topics in two passes:
“First, do a macro assessment.
- Do your main characters’ personalities have a consistent core but evolve organically?
- Is your plot driven by your characters’ desires, not by your own desire to include certain scenes?
- Is it believable according to the logic of the world you’ve created?
Now go micro:
- Read some dialogue aloud—do your characters talk like real people?
- Don’t repeat yourself—didn’t you already describe the hero’s tortured childhood?
- Find the spots where you couldn’t decide between two different phrasings and make the hard choices. You don’t always have to kill your darlings, but you can’t let them push you around!”
Of course, we’d never encourage you to forego collaborating with a professional editor whose experience and genuine objectivity will help you and your work grow. But we hope these tips help you take your manuscript as far as it can go before you enter into a creative collaboration. The more polished your work is before you seek out a professional editor, the more fruitful your work together will be.
Bonus: pro self-editing tips for romance writers
Several of our editors are Romance specialists. One of them, Laurie Johnson, decided to offer Kobo authors a few bonus self-editing tips that are particularly relevant to the genre:
- Think about your character’s’ internal conflicts. What internally is going to prevent one being with the other and how are they going to overcome it? If your characters are kept apart by a misunderstanding that could be solved with a simple conversation, this will not be satisfying for your readers. Ensure the conflict is internal.
- Classic: Show, don’t tell! Simply telling a reader something happened isn’t enough; we need to see it to immerse ourselves in the story.
- Cut the waffle. Remove anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Ask yourself, is it necessary? If not, it probably needs to go.
Ricardo Fayet is a co-founder of Reedsy, a curated marketplace enabling authors to access the world’s best editing, design and marketing talent. A technology and startup enthusiast, he likes to imagine how small players will build the future of publishing. He also blogs about book marketing on the Reedsy blog.