Editing tips for novelists

So you’ve finally finished your novel? You’ve typed those immortal words, ‘The End’ and you feel on top of the world. After weeks, maybe months of toil, no social life, and too much coffee, you feel wonderful. You have created something unique, something unlike anything else in existence, and you know that you will be rich and famous within six months. Not to put too fine a point on it, you feel like a god.

Then you look around and notice your messy home, the thick layer of dust blanketing everything beneath, the rolags of pet hair that have collected along the edges of the room, the piles of mouldering dishes in the sink, and your hairy armpits. You and your home may have suffered writer’s neglect, but you don’t care, you’ve been doing something far more important than mere housework.

After the initial glow of completion settles, you get to thinking about publishing your creation. The problem is, you can’t just publish right away and wait for the royalties to flow in. There is much to do to your new baby before you can begin to think of publishing. What you have in front of you is not a novel but a first draft. It requires further work to turn it into a book worthy of publication.

You’ve done the easy bit, now the real work begins.

There are several further steps on the road to publication you must take. You may not need to take every step, but it is probably best that you assume for the moment that you will have to. That way, it won’t be a shock later. These further steps are as follows:

Proof read

Re-write (if necessary)

The above two steps may be repeated several times, so be prepared!

Edit (either yourself or via an editor you’re paying)



The above two may also be repeated more than once.

Final proof read



It’s a lot of further work isn’t it? What? You didn’t realise all this was necessary? Welcome to your baptism of fire my child. This is the life of the writer.

You can do all of the above yourself if you wish or if finances make it necessary. You can also pay others to do every step of the above but unless you’re rich beyond the dreams of avarice, be prepared to do a lot of it yourself. The problem with hiring editors and other writers’ services providers is that you have no way of knowing just how qualified they are when you hand over what is going to be a large amount of money. Don’t assume they’re on the level just because they advertise their services with a slick looking website, or have a list of authors willing to endorse them. Take nothing for granted, the internet is a den of iniquity and being scammed is as easy as falling off a log.

Read books in your genre and while you’re reading, look for mistakes. Are there spelling errors, grammatical errors, plot holes, or timeline anomalies? Does it look and read like someone took care enough to make it as perfect as possible, or does it come across as amateurish? Get others you trust to do the same and ask them what they think. If all seems well, approach the authors on their social media and ask about their editors. You can then approach the editors concerned and ask about the process, their fees etc. The cost is usually along the lines of so much per thousand words, or per page etc, and remember, the cost will be high. This will be your biggest expense so it pays to take your time, do your research properly and not get scammed. Another thing to remember is that there are different types of editing service and you will have to pay separately for each one. Some editors can do some or all of the different types, others can’t and you will have to find other editors for the other types of editing.

Copy Editing – this is usually the least expensive type of editing and usually concentrates on spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Line Editing – The editor goes through your manuscript line by line and analyses each sentence. They will consider your word choice, the power and meaning of the sentence, syntax, and any trimming or tightening that they feel needs to be done to improve it.

Mechanical Editing – This type of editing is where the editor applies a particular style to your work when editing, such as The Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Style. The clue is in the name; they will concentrate on the mechanics of your writing, spelling, capitalisation, abbreviations, punctuation, and any other style rules.

Substantive Editing – This is concerned with how your work is presented, the big picture. It works at anything from sentence level to chapter level and involves any big restructuring that may be necessary to tighten your work.

Developmental Editing – This type of editing goes into every aspect of the work. It looks at the big picture, the pace, characters, timing, point of view, tense, plotline, subplots, and dialogue. The editor concentrates on making the book enjoyable. They want to know if the characters are likeable, if the story flows well, if there are any places where information is missing or wrong, if the chapters are in the right order, and many other aspects that will hopefully enhance the reading experience. This is the most extensive and costly form of editing.

Some editors lump several of the above together into one, others do not. As with everything in life, be sure to ask for details.

If you’re planning to pay for an editor, there is much to do to your manuscript before sending it to an editor. This will not only save you money but will show the editor that you have an eye for details and are someone worth giving their time to. That’s another thing, just because you’re willing to pay them, doesn’t mean they will agree to do the work. They can refuse you if they deem you unworthy. It’s a bit of a cliquey crowd so be aware.

If you write your novel using Word, then I cannot recommend highly enough that you download and install WordTalk. It is a text-to-speech add-on to your Word system and will ‘read’ your work back to you. I have no words to adequately convey my love and gratitude to whomever invented this wonderful thing; how I ever managed before I discovered it is beyond me. With a few clicks, you can sit back and listen to someone reading to you, and you will notice a gazillion more mistakes than you ever could by reading your work yourself. Believe me on this, I know. There is something about listening to someone else talking that allows your brain to ‘hear’ mistakes far more easily than it can ‘see’ them when you read the work yourself.

Using WorkTalk, go through your work and correct any spelling errors. Don’t trust the in-built spell checker by itself as it often gets things wrong. It is designed for American spelling and will flag British spellings as mistakes, so be aware all you British authors out there. One of your best friends is Thesaurus.com which you can use not only to check spelling, but for when you wish to find a different word that conveys the same meaning as the one you originally chose. Sometimes it’s worth finding a slightly more sophisticated way of saying what you want to say and this website will enable you to find such alternatives easily. I also use it to find the right words for my book titles.

Punctuation is very important and you must pay adequate attention to getting it right. It is through punctuation that the reader knows how to read each sentence, when to take a breath, and helps our brains to understand what it is reading. There are many books and websites giving in depth information on punctuation rules, so I won’t go into too much detail here. There are a couple of things I will mention though.

Use commas, they tell the reader to take a breath. Try reading a sentence without them, it’s jolly hard work.

Get your apostrophes right. This is worth taking the time to research properly, as getting them wrong makes you look like an idiot. There are few punctuation mistakes guaranteed to annoy more than this one.

When punctuating dialogue, speech quotes go outside commas or full stops, always. Each person speaking must be on a new line, (not punctuation I know but this has just occurred to me).

Avoid exclamation marks. Although they accurately display surprise and astonishment, for some inexplicable reason they are frowned upon at the moment.

A question mark takes the place of a full stop at the end of a sentence. You don’t need to use both. One or the other only.

At the end of a sentence, use one space between the full stop and the first word of the next sentence. This is the only area where I, as a British novelist, have given in to the demand to do things the American way. The British way is to use two blank spaces, but demand to use just one is so high that the vast majority of editors will flag this up as an error, not knowing that it is actually a difference in cultural style rather than a mistake. Ho hum.

The above points are just a few important things you should make an effort with before sending out your manuscript to an editor, if you’re using one. It is worth making the effort, for it will not only increase your own knowledge, but showing a willingness to make the effort will endear you to your editor. The subject of punctuation is so much wider than just the above, and if you’re doing the editing yourself, take plenty of time to research the accepted rules and plod through your work gradually. Some aspects of punctuation are a little archaic and can be safely ignored, others will be difficult to understand but work at it, it’s worth it. Many of the websites will give not only definitions of the rules but provide examples too and this is very helpful when trying to make sense of what the hell they’re talking about. If, like me, your childhood education was a little (or a lot) lacking, this will be a big learning curve.

Dialogue tags are the subject of much debate among inexperienced writers. These are the, ‘he said, she said, he replied, she nodded’ that you see at the end of pieces of dialogue. Whichever terminology you use is your own choice, but there are some things worth pointing out. You don’t need a dialogue tag for every single piece of dialogue in an extended conversation. This is a mistake many writers make and one I made myself until I took the time to learn and experiment. You need only such dialogue tags as are necessary to help the reader know who is talking at any one time. In a back and forth conversation, the details of the conversation will largely tell you who is talking and you can limit tags to every third or fourth line of speech. For instance.

“But what about Harry?” he said.

“He’s not coming,” she replied.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because he’s visiting his sick mother,” she shrugged.

“That’s inconvenient,” he snapped.

“I know but he sends his apologies,” she said.


See what I mean? It’s clumsy isn’t it? Now try this.


“But what about Harry?” he said.

“He’s not coming,” she replied.

“Why not?”

“Because he’s visiting his sick mother.”

“That’s inconvenient.”

“I know but he sends his apologies.”


Much better isn’t it? You know who is talking all the time but it flows nicely and allows you to concentrate on the story being told rather than how it’s being said. Try it with your own work and see what you think. You can copy and paste bits of dialogue into a blank Word document and play with it before changing your manuscript. Use your WordTalk app and listen to how it sounds. This can be life changing when you get it right.

When analysing your writing, you must learn that there will be much you can cut out. A lot of what you write is unnecessary and you will find that by cutting these things out, your writing will sound more sophisticated. One of the most important is the issue of adverbs. An adverb modifies a verb. If you remember from your school days, we were taught, (in my school anyway) that a verb is a ‘doing’ word. It is a word that tells of action. Run, walk, sit, talk, laugh, jump, smile, cry, skip, build, scratch, fall, talk, sleep, all these are things you do and are verbs.

Adverbs modify verbs such as those above. Run quickly, talk slowly, sleep deeply etc. Many adverbs  can be identified by the ending ‘ly’ but not all. There are a few, such as, always, often, sometimes, seldom, and never, which do not, but the ‘ly’ trick is very helpful.  The vast majority of adverbs can be cut out without the need for further modification of the sentence. Take the sentence below as an example.

He ran quickly to the end of the street.

If he is running, then he will be moving quickly. You therefore don’t need to point this out, we can work that out for ourselves. Go through your manuscript sentence by sentence, identify the adverbs and take them out if possible.

Avoid beginning every sentence with the same personal pronoun. A personal pronoun is I, he, she, it, they, etc. You will find as you read through your manuscript, that you have long passages where every sentence begins with I, he, she, etc one after the other.  Changing this is important but slow work and will require you to think about how to re-word the sentence. It is worth the effort though, as you will find when listening to your work later.

I looked up at the sky. I noticed it was getting dark. I decided it was time to go home.

I looked up at the sky and noticed darkness approaching. The lengthening shadows told me it was time I was getting home.

The second example sounds more sophisticated, it rolls off the tongue in an easy flow, whereas the first is clunky and akin to driving a car with square wheels.

Make sure you use your words correctly. Do not use, ‘affect’ if you mean, ‘effect’ for instance. There are many examples of such word pairs and although many are spelled alike, they have distinct and important differences in meaning.

Some other examples of such confusing word pairs are as follows.

















There are other pairs of words that people often get wrong. They are not interchangeable and to use the wrong one serves only to make you look bad. Do your research, google is your friend here. Go through your manuscript and find each example and make sure you have used it correctly.

One of the fundamentals of telling a good story is to make sure all of your facts are right. This is where lists are helpful. It matters not whether you are writing of real places or inventing another world in a science fiction epic, your facts must be consistent throughout your work. If you say Henry is twenty years old in chapter three, then in chapter ten you say he is twenty five, but only a few weeks of time have elapsed in the story between those two chapters, you look like a dick. People will notice. Believe me on this, there is always that one person who notices and points it out.

Your geography must be correct and consistent, whether you are using real places or imaginary ones. The timeline must flow properly throughout your work. If your hero says he will do something in three day’s time, you must make sure any action between that declaration and the action takes three days. This can be difficult to keep track of and I have spent many an hour reading and making notes to make sure it was indeed six days as my character had already said, rather than five as I thought. Keep a list of events and divide it into days/weeks or whatever is appropriate for your work. Enter points in the appropriate day/week and in this way you keep track of your timeline.

If your work is set in today’s time or the past, your science has to be one hundred percent correct. You cannot say your hero drove a Ford Escort if he lives before they were invented. If your work is set in the future or in another galaxy, you can invent most of your science, but again it must be consistent throughout the work. Make more lists and enter details of every gadget, gizmo, engine, and component you invent, their name, basic make up and functions. This will save you hours of time searching for wherever it was you mentioned it before.

Anything medical must be right and appropriate for the time and setting in which you’ve placed your work. If someone falls ill and is cured, make sure the cure was actually available at that time. Research, research, research. Then research some more.

I write science fiction space operas and what I do with anything science or medical based is simple. I begin with a foundation of today’s accepted knowledge and invent on top of that. I find this gives the work a subtle but important authenticity that helps the reader accept it without questioning it. Let’s face it, in real life our knowledge and skills build on what we knew previously and I do the same in my writing.

A large proportion of any novel is what is known as descriptive. This is scene setting stuff like details of the location, the weather, how the characters are feeling, what they’re thinking etc. Novels need descriptive so don’t avoid it. By the same token, don’t go overboard with it or you will bore your readers. We want to know about the rustling trees, the chill morning air, the way your character’s nightmare disturbed him, the architecture etc but we don’t want a thousand word essay on the shape of the clouds. Hitting the right balance of descriptive is something that comes with practice. This is where reading helps. The more books you read, the more you will get a feel for the right amount of descriptive.

Finally, avoid info dumps like the plague. Again, the clue is in the name. An info dump is where you give a truck load of back information about your character or some other aspect of your story, all at once. This will bore readers stupid and they will just forget it anyway, so don’t do it. We want to know your character’s back story, but give us little bits throughout the story. If we find out everything about him right at the start, there is nothing else for us to discover about him, he has no mystery to captivate us.

When you meet new people in real life, you don’t find out their life history within five minutes of meeting them. You learn about them over time, through conversation and by being with them consistently. Keep this in mind when introducing us to your characters. Let us get to know them in the same way we get to know our other friends, gradually. It’s the same for any other aspect of your story, whether it’s a space ship engine, a house that has been lived in by seven generations of one family, or a secret family recipe for haggis. Give us the details bit by bit and you’ll keep our interest.


This is in no way meant to be an in depth guide to every aspect of self editing and should not be taken as such. I mean this to be a few basic but important points on which you can build your own wealth of knowledge and experience. Whether you intend to self edit or pay someone else, the above will give you a starting point from which you can fine tune your raw draft into a sleek and beautiful work of art. It is your legacy, it is worth taking the time to make it as perfect as you are able.


  1. A very good post indeed! Very informative and just what I need right now. My biggest problem is falling into the trap of editing while writing-it kills creativity.

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