Monday, May 21, 2018

How to Edit a Novel Without Feeling Overwhelmed

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Finishing a draft is a huge accomplishment, and one every writer should be proud of, no matter what stage in their career they’re at. But after the draft is done, it’s time to edit (or revise), and sometimes, that can be a bit overwhelming.

I know both new and established writers who struggle with this, so this isn’t a matter of skill or talent. There’s nothing wrong with you if you get the shakes or dread having to face a manuscript that needs editing.

I love the editing process, so a lot of writer friends (and readers) have come to me over the years seeking a little editing advice (so much so I even went and wrote a whole book on it). Here are some tips on how to making the editing and revision process a little easier to manage:

Decide what type of edit or revision you want to do first

“Edit” and “revise” are often used interchangeably, but they’re really two different things. Editing focuses on the text and making it better, while revision focuses on the story itself. Which can cause frustration in and of itself if you have a draft that still needs revising (the story isn’t solid yet), but you’re trying to edit (and thus make the text cleaner). Beautifully polished text won’t help a story that has pacing issues, or still isn’t sure about the dark moment at the end of act two.

Is this an edit or a revision?
Are you done with the story and ready to polish the text, or are you still developing the story?

(Here’s more on the difference between editing and revising)

Break it into chunks

Trying to work with an entire manuscript at once is hard. You’ll have anywhere from 50,000-150,000 words to deal with, and that’s just too much to take at one time. Break it up into sections and work on those and only those sections.

Personally, I like using my story structure as a guide, working on each act until I’m happy with it. I break act two into two pieces as well—Act 2A, which leads up to the midpoint, then Act 2B, which goes from the midpoint to the end of the act. This gives me four "pieces" with specific turning points and structures to work with. It’s a lot easier to work on 25% of the novel at a time. It also gives me a better sense of the pace and narrative flow.

Of course, feel free to break it into whatever size you feel comfortable working with. Take it a chapter at a time, or even a scene at a time if that’s more your speed.

(Here’s more on the difference between a revision, a rewrite, and a redraft)

Focus on one aspect at a time

Within your chucks (or these could be your chunks if you wanted), pick one aspect and only do that. For example, if you’re fleshing out characters and see a description or continuity error, make a note so you can find it again, but move on. Don’t stop to fix that issue until you’re ready to handle everything connected to that issue.

I’ve found this helps keep me focused and helps me remember what it is I’m working on. I can remember the details so my revisions or edits stay consistent, and I’m more aware of any duplication I might have.

Here are some aspects you might use:

Story development: This focuses on the story only. Is everything you want in there? Are the character arcs the way you want them to be? Do you explore or mention the right things? Is this the story you wanted to tell?

Plot and structure: This focuses in the plot and structure. How does the plot unfold? Where do the turning points fall? Is the pace the right speed throughout? Is every scene necessary? Does it make sense?

Character development: This focuses on the people. Are the characters fully fleshed out? Do they sound different? Do they all serve a purpose? Is the point of view strong and clear?

World or setting development:
This focuses on the world and setting. Is there enough description in every scene? Does the world and setting feel real? Are the characters interacting with their world or is the setting just backdrop?

Dialogue and internalization: This focus on what characters say and think. Is the dialogue real? Is there any empty dialogue? Does the internalization flow well? Does it fit the characters’ voices?

Craft and style: This focuses on the craft of writing, such as the tone, voice, showing and not telling, as well as things such as flashbacks and infodumps. Does the novel read well? Is the language well done? Does it fit the story? Is the narrative flow strong? What about the narrative focus?

This focuses on word count. Is the novel the size you want it to be? Does it need more words? Fewer words?

Polishing the text: This focuses on the editing aspects. Is the novel clean? Are you using the right words? Is there anything clunky or awkward in the text? Do you need every adverb? Are there extra filter words?

You can add any aspects you wish, such as a pass just for punctuation if you know you have trouble with commas, or a check on scene breaks if you know you frequently forget to do that. The point is to work on smaller aspects so you don’t feel as though you have “so much” to look at and remember.

A word of warning…this can get tedious, which is why it helps to break it into smaller pieces. You might find you can only handle three or four chapters in one session before you start glazing over and skimming (which means it’s time to stop). Which is why you should…

(Here’s more on how to be your own book doctor)

Set a time limit for editing sessions

Editing or revising a a manuscript takes work and focus. It’s both physically and mentally draining, and you will hit a point when you realize you’re not paying as much attention, or you let something slide because you just don’t want to deal with it (though you know you should). You start rationalizing… “Is it really that big a deal? Would anyone actually notice?” Yes it is, and yes they will. When you start losing your focus and just want it done—stop. You’ve done enough for that session or even that day.

(Here’s more on a first look at a first draft)

Don’t read a lot of advice on the topic while you’re editing

I know, this sounds weird coming from the gal who has millions of words of writing advice out there, but reading up on “things you ought to do with your writing” while you’re editing or revising can make you second-guess everything you’re doing. It can make you change things just because an article said so. It can make you fix things that don’t need it because you think they aren’t living up to what SoandSo Awesome Agent said should be in all novels.

If you need to, go ahead and read advice beforehand. Look something up if you’re not sure how to handle an issue you want to fix. Heck, even do a “refresher pass” and read about whatever aspect you’re about to tackle before you do it, but avoid reading general advice that might hijack your focus or vision while you’re still trying to make it all work.

(Here’s more on telling your inner editor to calm the #$@! Down while you’re writing)

Use a guide or make a plan

I admit, this one might be a bit self serving (grin), but I’ve found having a guide or plan to refer to really helps. I make my own, but they’ve been cobbled together by great advice and what I’ve learned over the years. Even if all you do is make a list or jot down bullet points of what you want to do each session, it can be a huge help on keeping your focused. A plan is like an outline for your revision (this is particularly good for pantsers).

It also gives you tasks to cross off so you get that sense of satisfaction at accomplishing something. This is helpful when it feels as though you’re working and working and the novel is nowhere near finished (it’s never as bad as we think it is, really).

(Here’s more on staying organized during a revision)

Editing or revising a novel doesn’t have to be a soul-sucking, horrible experience. It’s a chance to bring out what’s awesome about your novel, and for you to flex your writing muscles. It’s where the hard work pays off, and you deserve to see all that work come to fruition, right?

(Here’s more on why revising a novel is like remodeling a house)

Take it in small steps, don’t worry about the big picture until it’s over, and you’ll get through it.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a revision? Does editing make you cringe? If you’re a fan, what tips would you give someone struggling with a draft that needs work?

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

This book contains Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems, and Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems--PLUS a BONUS workshop: How to Salvage Half-Finished Manuscripts.

A strong story has many parts, and when one breaks down, the whole book can fail. Make sure your story is the best it can be to keep your readers hooked.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Really timely post for me and much appreciated. It's an uphill climb!

    1. Oh good! Glad it found you when you needed it.

  2. I'll be heading home soon (from the Maine Writers Retreat - you should come! :-) ) to a story that needs tinkering, so this is a timely pep talk. I enjoy editing when using the advice of others, either critique partners or an editor, but figuring out what needs fixing all by my lonesome is excruciating.

    1. That sounds beautiful. :) Beta readers and crit partners are worth their weight in gold. Or chocolate. Or both.

  3. The aspects list is awesome!

  4. Thanks for the advice Janice. I've needed to take a break from the revision on my first novel as I've felt overwhelmed by the whole process. I'm about to tackle it once again, so this is very timely.

  5. Janice, I wish you had written this about a month ago. Or, on the other hand, maybe I wouldn't have been willing to listen then. Yes, I get bullheaded sometimes. Anyway, now that the post is published, I'm going to take full advantage of it. Thank you for writing it.

    1. Most welcome! Sometimes we hear the same advice at different times and when we're ready for it, it clicks. I net you're right, and you just needed to hear it now instead of last month :)

  6. I just want to pop in and say how grateful I am for your blog -- I'm in the middle of revising/editing my first novel, and it sure is a brutal task!! I'm happy to know that I'm not the only one struggling, lol! Although I still have a lot of work to do, I'm pretty happy with where the novel is going so far, and that's thanks to you and the other writers here. Thank you for all the wonderful advice from many different perspectives - keep 'em coming!

    1. Aw, thanks so much! Nope, you are not alone. Lots of us do. Heck, I bet we all do at some point, no matter how many books we've written.

  7. SO very timely!! I've been slogging through revising my first novel, feeling overwhelmed at times, and wondering how people do this!! Good to know that I'm not the only one... Your blog has been immensely helpful l- thank you.

    1. So happy I could help! Good luck with your revision. :)

  8. Thank you so much)