Editing 101Oct 24, 2021
By Lizzy Goudsmit Kay: Editorial Director and published author of Seven Lies.
There is something inevitably chaotic about the first draft of a new novel. Who are these characters? Where are they going? You can experiment with tenses and voices. You can shift the sex, age or outlook of your characters between one page and the next. You can switch countries or seasons, if you so choose, following your instincts and trusting the story. There are no poor decisions. There are no set-in-stone answers. There is only the blank page before you and the words that feel right in that moment.
It doesn’t matter if you identify as a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’; you can be sure of very little in the first draft. Even if you are the type of writer who crafts a detailed plan before committing to a single sentence, you might still discover that a character has a mind of his or her own and walks off in an unexpected direction. There was no way to know that beforehand; it’s simply part of the process.
For many, that’s the joy of the first draft: the intense, limitless creativity, that sense of bounding into the unknown.
But not for me.
I like writing; but I prefer editing.
I am far more comfortable knowing who’s who and what’s what. Which is often discovered in the second draft (or even the third, fourth, fifth, maybe fifteenth draft!). This is the process of editing: reworking and revising until something really makes sense and finally starts to shine. It’s holding an entire story in the palm of one hand and picking at it with the other, moving sentences, characters, even entire storylines into new positions. It’s interrogating every decision that you made in the first draft and asking yourself: Does this feel right? Does this feel true?
If you can do this, then you’re an editor.
And there’s no way to be a great writer without being a great editor.
(Yes, there are people like me who will ask you all sorts of tricky questions about plot and character, about structure and language. But it’s the writer who decides the answers and is responsible for weaving them into the story.)
So where should you start when you’ve finished the first draft and are thinking about adding some good sense and a dazzling shine to your manuscript? Here’s a list of ten key things to keep in mind:
- Cut, cut, cut
- Why are we here?
- Character mapping
- Show, don't tell
- Tell us something we don't know
- Start your story!
- The midpoint
- Wordy words and more words
- A satisfying ending
- Be kind
1. Cut, cut, cut
I’m sorry to tell you this, but it is unlikely that every character and every idea in your first draft is a good one. There are probably a few bland and wooden characters wandering around but doing very little. We don’t need them. CUT! There might be a storyline that felt great initially but disappears partway through and doesn’t feel worth reviving. CUT! There might be – and there often is – a nugget that was there at the moment you decided to write this novel. It might even be what inspired the novel. But is it still serving a purpose? Often, we cling to these things, believing them to be the backbone of our story, when in fact the story has grown away from them. CUT! It is not an easy thing to look at a first draft and identify the parts worth keeping and the parts that need to be let go, particularly when all of that story means something to you, but it’s one of the most important parts of the process. My advice is that if you’re in doubt about any one element, it probably needs to go.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
2. Why are we here?
After you’ve identified everything that no longer deserves to be in your manuscript, it’s time to start thinking about the things that definitely do deserve to be there.
Assuming there are characters (there are, right?) then the next most important thing to consider is motivation. There are few things worse than characters who simply meander through a story. Your key players need agency, a goal to work towards. Your secondary players need purpose, a way to contribute to another arc.
Why are they there? What are they doing? What do they want?
If they’ve survived your initial cull, then you need to be able to answer these questions for every single one of your characters, from those who appear in all of your chapters to those who appear in just a paragraph.
If you can’t, you have two choices: 1) See #1, or 2) See #3.
3. Character mapping
There are many different ways to ensure that your characters feel multi-dimensional and authentic and we teach you those in the novel writing course, but – in my opinion – the easiest way is to take them out with you for a few days, a little like a pet. Imagine them in every situation. What are they like at the supermarket? Do they write a list in advance or wing it when they get there? Do they use the self-check-out or prefer human interaction? Do they remember to bring their own bags or pay for another plastic one? How do they feel about buses? Would they prefer to walk? What if it’s raining?
If you have a few key characters, take them each out for a day. Do you know how they behave in different situations? Can you pinpoint the moment where they finally snap? What’s their coffee order? Did they pack a lunch? Perhaps take a couple of them out simultaneously to see how they fit together. Where are the alliances? Where are the tensions?
If you can answer all of these questions easily, then you likely know your characters well enough to draw them on a page and to make them feel believable.
4. Show don't tell
This is the most common – and probably most frustrating – feedback to receive. What does it mean? Why does it matter? If you were to tell me that your protagonist went on an amazing adventure to a school where the teachers were witches and wizards who taught magic and that your character felt more at home there than they’d ever felt anywhere else, I’d say SHOW ME!
I want to see them arriving at this school. I want to see (and therefore understand) what makes it so special. I want to see them settling in and becoming their best self. I don’t need you tell me what’s going on; I need you to become an artist with a canvas, drawing me these scenes.
It is the difference between witnessing something from a distance and being right there in the middle of it. It is the difference between readers understanding your story and genuinely feeling it. And we want the latter. We want them to laugh and cry, to be there on those pages with us.
5. Tell us something we don't know!
We know that the sky is blue. We know that the grass is green. We don’t need to be told these things again in a manuscript and, when we are, they tend not to have much impact. But if you show your reader that the sky is orange and describe something majestic happening at sunrise, that could feel powerful and intriguing. And if you tell them that the grass is straw-like and yellow, they can see that story instantly: the long hot spell that led to that dry grass. How can you push this even further? When, for example, might the grass be blue? (I immediately imagine a child spilling paint, but I know that you’ll have many more ideas!)
Challenge yourself to tell your reader something new or, even better, something old in a new way. There are so many blue skies. Take us somewhere else.
6. Start your story
I am an unashamedly lazy reader. I am impatient and I will become easily frustrated if there’s nothing near the beginning of your novel for me to hold onto. I’m willing and waiting, my hands outstretched, but you need to give the end of a piece of string, one that will be woven through the centre of your story. It could be an interesting and unexpected character, someone that makes me want to ask questions. It could be exquisite prose or an entirely new setting. But, more often than not, it’s a plot-thread. I would encourage you to think really carefully about where your story actually starts. It should be on the first page and, if not, then within the first few. Set that thread down so that you can gently pull your reader through the hundreds of pages that will follow.
7. The midpoint
It’s important for your novel to take a reader from A to B. But the unfortunate reality is that a very good sentence can do that too. You have to keep them following that thread, and so two letters of the alphabet probably aren’t going to be enough. You’re going to need to go from A to Z, via every other letter. Which means that at some point – near the middle – you’re going to hit M and the very important midpoint to your novel.
This is where everything changes. There’s no going back. There is absolutely no way for your characters to return to A.
Make sure there’s a moment in the middle that serves as the point of no return: a realisation, an argument, a death. It doesn’t much matter what you choose, but it has to switch things up for your characters and for your readers too.
8. Wordy words and more words
If you had a superpower, you’d want to use it as often as possible, right? Wrong. You’ve read the books. You’ve seen the films. You can’t use magic all day every day without expecting some consequences. Writing is your superpower. Words are your magic. But don’t get carried away. Use only the words that you absolutely need. Be selective. Be picky. Get rid of everything that isn’t absolutely essential.
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
9. A satisfying ending
You can end on a high. You can end on a low. But the most important thing is to ensure that your ending is in some way satisfying. It can still be dark or unexpected or devastating, but it needs to make sense. You want your reader to reach the final pages of your novel and think Oh! Of course! There are many different ways to do this. Perhaps the characters finally get together, after pages of will-they-won’t-they. Perhaps it’s a shocking twist in a crime novel that perfectly explains the few remaining loose threads. Perhaps – and this is often my favourite – it’s your character finally finding the thing they’ve been searching for since A, the beginning of the novel, but that B to Y have revealed to them it wasn’t what they wanted after all. Heart-breaking!
10. Be kind
There is no easy way to edit a book. It requires you to read your story – something you’ve worked so hard on already – and to be the critical voice that finds the faults. So don’t forget to be kind to yourself too. Congratulate yourself on each and every brilliant sentence; they’re definitely there, so make sure to see them. Acknowledge the characters that leap off the page and feel fully formed already. Recognise that editing feels tough because it is tough.
There will likely be several rounds of edits – at least; maybe many more – and you’re going to have to be kind to yourself to get through them. You don’t have to edit every day. You can do big smiley faces in the margins. You can skip the tricky bits and come back to them later. You are the one in charge, here, so take your time and settle in for the ride.
Announcing: The New and Improved Big Edit!
What's new on THE BIG EDIT?
We – the editorial team – have revamped and revised THE BIG EDIT, keeping all your favourite and best-loved elements while adding some new ideas and additional material.
You wanted a straightforward guide to formatting. It’s here!
You wanted to meet the editorial team? We say a proper hello and welcome in the very first lesson.
You wanted the course to offer some contemporary examples of structure, sentences, openers, etc. We’ve packed these lessons with all sorts of brilliant books you know and have read recently: from Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones to The Couple Next Door and Girl, Woman, Other.
You wanted more editing tips and tricks? DONE!
You wanted to be able to write a stand-out synopsis? There’s more information than ever before in that lesson.
You wanted to write a brilliant pitch letter? There are two new lessons to guide you.
There is plenty here to help you take your first draft to a finished manuscript and, to celebrate the launch of the revised The Big Edit we have also added a new optional feedback add-on for you, a little like a mini-manuscript assessment: THE SPOTLIGHT EDIT.
The Spotlight Edit is your chance to get your story straight from the start. We'll do the heavy lifting! Our team will work on your first chapters, marking up the manuscript with notes on excellent language, brilliant images, fantastic introductions to characters – as well as areas that could be improved. The feedback will be detailed and insightful, and – more importantly – will be applicable not only to these chapters but to the entire manuscript. We’ll also go through your book's chaptered outline or synopsis in detail, looking at the overall narrative arc – to include character development and the key plot points – and make sure it feels satisfying and engaging throughout.
You’ll receive a beautifully presented and detailed report with a clear action plan for completing the next draft of your novel and a 30-minute video debrief with your editor so that you ask those niggling questions. Special introductory price just £349 *
And now with NEW and IMPROVED literary agencies.
Did you know The Novelry is the online writing course recommended by more literary agencies than any other? Take a look at our list of partner leading literary agencies in the UK and the USA just crying out to see our graduates' brilliant novels.
Get editing, folks! See you on the sunny side of a pitch-perfect manuscript.