Just writing a piece of novel-length prose is hard enough, but then you have to polish it and revise it to make it even better. The first draft of a story is often referred to as a vomit draft – just writing it all down as fast as you can to get it out. And then you go back through it and tighten it up.
I wait a bit after I’ve written it, so that I have a bit of space from what I think it says. Then the first step is to print it out, and sit down with a pen to go through it. I write comments directly onto the paper, then collate the list of changes. I work through them from the biggest to the smallest, than way if I make any sweeping changes I’m not writing over word changes I’ve already made.
Now there are different levels of editing:
This is the big picture stuff, where you make wholesale changes. For example swap around scene order, add or remove scenes, or add or remove characters. Does the story make sense? Are there any plot holes? Do the characters act consistently throughout? Have you included enough, or too much, description? (I tend towards not enough in my first drafts.) And this is looking at both character descriptions and setting descriptions. How is the pacing? Is the structure right? Have I kept the same tense and POV throughout? Is there something missing? How does the conflict develop? Is the tension there? Does the reader want to keep turning the page? Do the characters and setting have a sense of history and wholeness?
These questions and more are what you need to ask yourself about your writing. I often read through a piece multiple times, looking at different aspects of it each time.
Once you’re happy with the story structure, and what happens in it, it’s time to get into the details. This is where you look at word choice, get the grammar right and remove all those pesky typos.
One tool I use to help me with this is ProWritingAid – this is a fabulous help with grammar, spelling, and word choice. It picks out repeated and over-used words, where you should (or shouldn’t) have commas, where you’ve used adverbs, what the reading level is, how your sentence length varies though the piece, sections with slower pacing, how varied your vocabulary is, and many many more things. I would highly recommend it. Click on the icon to the side for more information and to try out their free trial. (This is an affiliate link, which doesn’t affect the price you would pay, but provides me a small recompense for referring you.) I don’t always agree with everything it suggests, but it is an amazing tool and has really helped me improve what I write.
Typos are the tricky ones, especially where the mis-spelling is itself a word so isn’t picked up by a spell-checker. As you are going to have looked through your piece so many times by now, your brain is going to stop reading what’s actually there, and will rather read what it knows should be there. So what you need to do is to trick it into looking at it properly. There are lots of different ways to do this. Some of my favourites are: change the font, change the text and background colours, read it on a different device or paper, or read it out loud. I like to read it out loud sentence by sentence starting at the end and working backwards. Then the story doesn’t make sense so I’m not tempted to skip reading it properly and I can focus on what the words are.
A novel is a large piece of work to edit, and goes through multiple drafts before publication. This is a vital step of the process so it pays to get it right and not to skimp on this step. And by editing your work as best as it can yourself means that it is as good as it can be before you turn it over to anyone else.
Great suggestions, Clarissa. Like you, I work from a printed copy in revisions. It’s a different feel from reading on a screen and I think it reveals more. Also, you mention leaving a little space before re-reading a rough draft and starting revisions. This distance is another critical help. It’s so hard for us to see our own work through the eyes of a reader, but time helps that. I’m chomping at the bit right now, eager to return to a twice-revised novel for final revisions, but I’m giving myself a full two months. I’m thinking it might be a great time to start drafting the query, always a pain but unlikely to be altered much if any by a final revise.
Glad you agree! I hope your final revisions and querying go well.