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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Editing Tips for NaNoEdMo

March is National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo, as fans call it. As they polish their work for submission, novelists from around the world support one another with tips and sympathy. The goal is to complete fifty hours of editing before the end of the month. Since I happen to have a YA in need of editing, I signed up for the first time this year.

Here are some of my favorite tips for editing:

Know how you write, and you’ll know how to edit
: Editing is hard because each writer has to come up with his own system. No standard editing word list is going to contain my personal favorite over-used verb, skittered. I tend to write skeleton first drafts and then go back and add layers. So my process is very different from someone who needs to cut 50,000 words from a rambling historical epic.

Start with the big picture: There’s really no point in polishing each word if you’re going to have to throw away the entire scene. Start with the big picture and then zoom in. Does your story have a structure? Whether it’s classical 3 act structure, or the Hero’s Journey, every story needs a framework. Is there a character arc? Does every scene serve a purpose? Do you have the right balance of action and introspection? Does every chapter begin and end with a hook?

Male hand holding white rabbit above top hat

Look for themes and mirrors. Try to exploit those little gems that your subconscious has sprinkled throughout the piece. Got a white rabbit who kept popping up out of nowhere? Now’s the time to make it look like you did it on purpose. If you’ve got two scenes that are too similar, use them to show character development. Turn them into mirror scenes where the set-up is the same but the action plays out differently because the character has changed. Look at your opening and ending scenes. Does the final scene fulfill the promise you made in the first paragraph of the novel?

The Microscope: This is where we get down to polishing every word and punctuation mark. Have you chosen active verbs, used all five senses, and avoided passive tense? Sentences beginning with “It is” can almost always be improved. Does the action follow, not precede, the stimulus or motivation that caused it? Are dialogue tags necessary and not intrusive? Look for consistency. Do your hero's blue eyes turn brown halfway through the book? Time to go back and delete your favorite words. Again.

So those are my tips for editing. How about you? Do you have a favorite tip for simplifying the process? Please leave a comment and let us benefit from your expertise.


  1. Gail,
    Great post and spot on advice! I have to sit down and read the book from start to finish and edit for everything at once as I go. I usually write details I don't want to forget on another piece of paper to make sure I remain consistent throughout my entrie story. It seems to me I tend to edit the first chapter more than anything. I wonder if this is the norm for everyone or if I am just fanatical about that first chapter.

  2. Excellent advice, Gail! Like Julie, I have to go through the book start to finish. I look for consistency, flow, etc... Once my first book was in proof form, editing became horribly tedious. I did about 5 passes through the book, looking for typos, grammatical errors, etc... before I passed it off to a copy editor. Editing is my least favorite part of the process, but it's a necessary evil. These tips might make my life more bearable as I begin to edit/proof book 2! :)

  3. I check every scene to make sure there is a turning point. What changes from the beginning of the scene to the ending? Because, if there's no change, there's no point to the scene. I also evaluate the scene to be sure there's a sense of rising tension, which there will be if you are leading to a turning point.

  4. Great suggestion, Carly. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. I think Julie's on the money about the first chapter. After all, this is your first impression with the reader. And we all know about first impressions: you only get one chance to make a good one. I spend more time on the first chapter as well - it's just got to be perfect or they won't keep reading.

  6. While I agree with the first chapter being one of your focal points, you must remember that you can hook them in chapter one and lose them by chapter two. So make sure you spend just as much time on the rest of the novel as well. I love all of these suggestions because editing is probably one of my weaknesses. I hate it. But like Jerrica said, its a necessary evil. Thanks for a great post Gail!

  7. Gail: you should post this to Writer's Digest. Superb insights. I often wordsmith to death, when you're so right -- why toil over a paragraph 30 times when you may later delete it? We've all heard of writers who knock out the first three chapters... and keep rewriting until the cows come home, or are at least mooing. (usually under protest)

    Good editing shows in other creative outlets, too. What good would a rambling film epic be, without the precision scalpel of a great editor, who can condense the story without sacrificing its dramatic essence? I've heard that some editors actually "save" plodding directors. I need to improve at editing -- but first, resist that urge to rewrite something to death. Move forward, Ye Writing Soldier! Advance... onward!

    Next to the dreaded synopsis, I think editing ranks right up there... maybe below a root canal.

    Your blogs are always excellent, Gail.

  8. Gail,
    Great tips. I'm probably in the minority, because I really enjoy editing and rewriting. Much like you, I start with a skelton story then go in and add layers. I love that feeling when I suddenly get an epiphany - "Oh, my gosh! This scene was foreshadowed in chapter one." I love getting to know my characters on a deeper level. Still, it is possible to spend too much time on one wip. I've probably spent the most on my first. One thing I've learned in the process is to follow my gut. If on an intuitive level something didn't feel right, such as my black moment, I bit the bullet and rewrote it. I have no regrets for the major changes I've made. Now that I'm on my third book, I don't think I will need as much rewriting. Oh, man! I'm so itching to go in and edit my second book now. LOL. But no! I have to focus on my current wip.

  9. Great post, Gail. I'm a bit of an oddity, amongst writers in that I love the editing process. I thought I would hate it (and by the time I'm finished with a WIP, I often do), but for me it is exciting. I'm able to take what is a rough, unpolished piece of coal and make it into a diamond. So...I tend to spend more time than I probably should on the editing side of things. LOL.

    My process? Well, I have to let it sit for at least a week or two before I touch it. Then I print it out on paper (for the first round of edits) and read it through without allowing myself to have a pen or pencil in hand. Then I read it again, making notes in a notebook of grand, sweeping things I need to fix. Then I get to work on those first, and finally, I come back and fix the smaller scale problems.

  10. Gail, what a great post with such wonderful suggestions. I edit as I go along, so I don't really have anything to offer anyone. :)

  11. Great advice, Gail. I'm still learning the baby steps and the only thing I know for sure is that the hardest part for me is just getting something on the page. Once I have something to work with, I don't mind the process of editing so much.

  12. I edit very much like you, Gail. I plot a story outline first, research locations, names and historical events that might conflict, and then sit down and write it. The ugly first draft gets to nap for a while then I do a first edit, post chapters to my crit group for comment and make changes where necessary.

    Then I go back and check for historical accuracy. I imagine I'm fairly slow at editing, but I have found a great helper that might speed me up. Like Laura Lee Gurke I listen to my work out loud, but I'm not so fussed on hearing my own voice.

    *If you have Windows 7 or Vista operating systems on your computer please ignore this part*
    Microsoft Office has a text to speach function - Microsoft Michael is one - that you can switch on to make the computer talk to you. It is fantastic, but only works (that I can determine) with older operating systems like XP (unsure about versions older than XP).

    I can hear small typing mistakes that are not spelling or grammar errors - "that" when it needs to be "than" - words I must have read over at least 5 times. I also notice where I could have written paragrahps better - abrupt changes that should be smoother, confusing lines. I use the speech program to polish my work and if you have XP I suggest you give it a try.