How to Edit Your Novel

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…Pay someone to do it.

Seriously — the first few reviews are in for The Golden Crystal and most of the issues people have with the novel is the “lack of editing.”

Here’s the truth, though: the book was edited.

Most of the issues that people are referring to are probably things that crept into the final draft after my editor had worked through it. I — proving my deep, deep intelligence — thought I’d just “tweak” a few things, here and there.

Bad move, Nick.

If these final tweaks that ended up causing minor spelling and grammar issues were the difference between a four- and a five-star rating, or a three- and a four-star rating, I wish I could take them back. 

I wish I could undo those last-minute “fixes,” but I can’t. I have to live with the reviews. Oh well — at least they’re honest!

Learn from my mistakes

Editing a novel, or any lengthy work, is a huge undertaking. It’s also usually expensive — for good reason. Editors work hard to remove the crap that we authors try to sneak by, and they work even harder to chop away at our babies in a nice enough way that we won’t be offended.

Most self-published authors cringe at the thought of shelling out the next years’ worth of projected earnings for a decent editor, so the whole process becomes a “do-whatever-I-can-on-my-own” project. While I always advocate having a professional do the editing, I understand that it’s just not a viable option for many writers.

For that reason, I wrote this post.

I made many mistakes when writing and editing The Golden Crystal, but you don’t have to make the same ones. The following tips are culled from my own experience, so enjoy!

1. Rewrite

The simplest of all editing tactics is to rewrite your work, then rewrite it again.

It’s a hard thing to do, but having a practice of rewriting forces your reading brain to judge and critique your writing brain. These aren’t the same brains, so this is a big deal.

Whether it’s rewriting what you wrote from the previous day or rewriting each draft as you finish them, the point is to rework through all of the “puzzle pieces” you initially (thought) you put together. Basically, think through each component of your finished book, and focus on revising and improving the previous work.

2. Read books on writing craft

One of the most important things you can do for your writing career is read through books on the subject of writing. It’s humbling, eye-opening, and it will immediately improve your own writing.

My list of favorites includes (but changes often):

These books can take your writing to the next level, almost as soon as you start reading them. Seriously — give them a shot!

3. Self-edit well

Ok, this is it: the meat of this post. If you’ve skimmed through the first half of the article, start reading now.

Self-editing is tricky, and for obvious reasons:

  1. It’s extremely difficult to read through your own work objectively
  2. It’s hard to second-guess yourself (after all, you’re the one who wrote it)
  3. It’s impossible to catch everything yourself

For these reasons, most writers I’ve spoken with still advocate hiring a professional — or sending their work out to a critique group to give them the “gist” of what they need to fix.

If you still need to self-edit, there are, luckily, some tactics you can employ during your read-throughs to hopefully catch most of the glaring mistakes:

First, check for typos

This is obvious, but it’s not always intuitive. Use your writing program (I use and highly recommend Scrivener) to check for the most obvious of these errors, like misspelled words and major grammatical issues.

Then start scrutinizing the harder-to-find typos:

Misspelled character names.

I had a few of these, mainly because I decided to change one character’s name from Jenkins to Jensen during the writing process. I found these mistakes by simply searching for “Jenkins” and making the switch.

More difficult things to catch will be misspelled (but correctly-named) characters, like when I found an instance of Violcek instead of Vilocek. The best way to handle these errors is to set up something like Scrivener’s built-in “auto-complete” feature. I can literally type v-i-l and the program finishes it to Vilocek (I just have to press the spacebar to finish the word).

Look for redundancies and overused words/phrases. 

My biggest culprits in The Golden Crystal were “began to,” “started to,” and too many adverbs. Instead of running, jumping, and walking away, my characters suffered from “starting to run,” “beginning to jump,” and “starting to walk away.” It’s clunky and doesn’t actually make sense most of the time, so cut this stuff out.

Look for instances of the word “that.” 

You’d be surprised that many times in your writing, there is a truth that you don’t need that many “thats.” That fact that I just stated is true.

Do a search for the word in your entire novel (Scrivener, again, is really good at this) and go through them each. You can’t just get rid of all of them, but you can often replace them with a better (more descriptive, or snappy) word.

Cut sections that assume your reader is an idiot. 

I had numerous chapters in my first draft that were solely there to explain some historic fact or give a tie-in description between two scenes. These moments dragged on, but the worst part was that they made my reader feel dumb.

If people want more information about a (non-crucial) element of your book, they’ll Google it.

Remove “Tom Swifties.” 

Actually, remove pretty much any dialogue tag other than “said,” “asked,” or the occasional “shouted” or “yelled.” I’ll catch some flak for this, so instead of taking my word for it, crack open a popular book in your genre (I used Jurassic Park for verification).

Bulky dialogue tags slow down the reader and make for clunky conversations.

And in case you didn’t know, a “Tom Swifty,” which comes from the Tom Swift series of sci-fi/adventure books, is a dialogue tag that references (in a clever way) the actual dialogue. Behold:

“That volcano is about to erupt,” Tom said explosively.

Boom. Done.

4. Find beta readers

When you get close to being done, send your book to anyone who might provide an honest critique. Your mom, spouse, and cat don’t count.

These readers will tell you honestly whether or not the book is good as a whole, if there are major plot discrepancies, and if your characters seem flat and cardboard-like.

Most importantly, they’ll be the first advocates for the finished product and will end up being your front-line “sales” team.

Rinse and repeat. 

These editing strategies only scratch the surface. If you really want to produce the absolute best product, hire a professional. Get creative — you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a “big name” editor. You can look for aspiring editors who are looking to build their portfolios, high school or college students, and friends and family who might give you a deal.

Remember, one of the most important aspects of great fiction editing is simply finding someone to read your work objectively — something impossible for us to do on our own.

Do you have any ideas about editing? Have you had any experiences with an editor, or self-editing? Share in the comments! 

Nick ThackerHow to Edit Your Novel
  • Giacomo Giammatteo

    Nick, you mentioned you have to live with the reviews, and yes, you do, but I hope you fixed the mistakes. In this age of quick publishing, it doesn’t take much to fix something and upload the corrected version. After my first book was out a few months, I had a reader tell me my subway station was actually an above-ground station. It only took a quick rewrite to fix and the corrected version was uploaded in a week. Great new world. The rest of your pointers are good for people to follow. I would pay particular attention to finding a group of excellent, harsh, even cruel beta readers. They are gold. Thanks for this interesting post.

    • Hey Giacomo!

      Yep — they got a preview copy, while I was working on getting the final draft edited. I *think* most of the typos and such were fixed, though there’s always something small left!

      And while I do have to live with the reviews, I’m not at all upset with them — they’re honest and the readers still helped me out by checking out the book in the first place!

  • MLHE

    One of the best articles I’ve seen about editing and self-editing. Thank you!

  • Thanks a lot for this great post, Nick.
    I did not write a review on amazon because of the issues I told you.
    And then I was not sure about telling you all my concerns, because I did not want to invalidate you.
    But now I see – you take it as a real sportsman – congrats to that !

  • Pam S

    Hi Nick

    Well written post on editing. I use Scrivener as well although I’ve just started exploring the program in depth. It has a lot of potential, I think, to help from the get-go.

    I’ve also heard of a program called Autocrit. Have you heard of that? Or has anyone else? I popped in a couple of samples of my manuscript and it seemed to give a decent breakdown of issues and/or complimented areas that seemed okay (according to the program), but you have to purchase the program in order to benefit from the long list of reports it gives you.

    Anyway, again, well done and informative. It’s wonderful that, those of us who are in those final stages and/or those of us who are just beginning, can benefit from your experience.


    • Thanks Pam — I’ve heard of Autocrit but haven’t tried it yet. Sounds promising — if you do check it out, let me know what you think of it!

  • Pat Pughe-Parry

    Hi Nick, great advice thank you. I also have started using Scrivener and clearly need to explore its capabilities a lot further. Good luck with your book.

    • Thanks Pat — definitely check out Scrivener. It’s a beast!

  • Jessica Burde

    On the subject of words to avoid, Scrivener has a neat feature that lets you see the frequency of every word in your book. Great tool for finding over used words.

    Beta readers are self-editing gold. However they are highly variable. I’ve found it helps a bit to give some guideslines as to the kind of feedback you are looking for, and to ask different beta readers for different feedback, depending on their individual strengths (which of course means you need to know your beta readers!)

    • Yes! I forgot to mention that — but it’s a huge time-saver that allows you to see the whole novel at-a-glance.

      And you’re right about the beta readers, and also that they’re crucial!

      • Would love a deeper dive on best practices for recruiting, using, and supporting beta readers.

        • I’ll work something up… stay tuned!

          • I can imagine a job board for recruiting panels of qualified readers.

            I’d imagine searching for a mix of talents and skills and inclinations that balance each other. Someone into character vs. plot, vs. dialog vs. local atmosphere vs. genre fan vs. etc. sum bigger than the individuals.

            I’d also want the site to offer ways for me to bring the panel together for discussions (after helping capture individual feedback).

            I think Orson Scott Card wrote that you never give readers the same work twice; you need fresh eyes. So you really want multiple panels as you iterate and rewrite.

            How much would you pay as an author for five relevant people to both read your book, give you 10 notes each, and participate in a 30-minute Hangout? $2? $20? $200?

            Personally, I’d volunteer to read tech and business textbooks and science fiction. I’ve seen ads where authors pay readers, though, to discuss what they like, impressions, relative energy, etc.

            I also wonder how much analysis and feedback might be automated; computational lexicography, sentiment analysis and natural language processing have come a long way, as have models of story structure.

          • Wow, Phil, this is awesome! Thanks for adding your thoughts here!

        • Barbara Shoff

          Acknowledgements in your book work well, and maybe a nice dinner.

  • Barbara Shoff

    Make the changes NOW. Become really good friends with an English teacher. If you can, one who teaches creative writing. Join good writing group. A group that isn’t afraid to tell you the truth. They will also support you with getting the word out once you are published.

    • Yep, they were being made as I sent out the ARCs. In order to stay on schedule, I had to send them out as polished draft copies, not polished finished products. Not ideal, but again, I wanted to stick to a schedule.

      And great comment — thanks!

  • Thanks for the tips, Nick. I love and use Scrivener, but have you heard of SmartEdit? It’s pretty new, and the developer gave me a copy to test drive. It’s marketed as a “first-pass editing tool for creative writers and novelists,” something to use before you hand off your work to a professional editor. Read my review from last month or visit where you can download a trial version.

    • Haven’t heard of SmartEdit, but it seems like there are a few of these “auto editors” out there now. I’m wondering if they’re any good? I’ll check out your review!

      • Please do. What I liked about SmartEdit is that it isn’t an auto editor. It points out possible errors and misuses but doesn’t give suggestions. You still have to think with this one.

  • It’s so important to hire a professional editor! When I finished my book, 8 1/2 steps to writing faster, better, I had 16 beta readers — many of whom were professional writers. They gave me a TON of useful comments. Still, I gave my manuscript to a copy editor. In all honesty, I had made so many changes/corrections that I didn’t expect to get much back from her.

    She blew off my socks by returning a manuscript over which she had bled red ink. It was the best thing I have ever done. And worth every penny!

    • Wow — that’s quite an editor! Hold on to her!

      Mine was similar — basically rewrote sections and improved the book so drastically I kinda feel like I need to put his name on the cover! 😉

  • Evelyn Puerto

    Great post, Nick. Thanks for your candor about editing issues. It really is critical to get another set of eyes scrutinizing our work, as it is far too easy to overlook mistakes that would be obvious to readers.

    • Thanks, Evelyn — I’ve learned my lesson, and will be sending much more finished drafts to beta readers from now on!

  • kara ashley dey

    Nice! Last night I found “vicious” and “viscous.” An English usage reference book is handy.