Tuesday 1 August 2017

5 Top Tips for Editing Your Novel - Guest Post Alison May

I'm a big fan of Alison May. Why? Well, firstly, because she tells me it's OK to be a pantster (she's one too). Secondly, she gave the RNA Writing Conference 2017 a great lift with her humorous and informative talks. Mostly, though, it's because (despite her soft spot for aliens and her penchant for writing 'this is where stuff happens' in a synopsis) Alison clearly knows what she's talking about. So much so that after hearing her talk about editing in one of her conference sessions, I nabbed her and asked if she'd like to write a post for me on this same subject.

Luckily for us all, she said yes. So over to you, Alison.

Five Top Tips for Editing Your Own Novel

Editing your own novel is hard. It’s really hard. It can be really difficult to know where to start, and even more difficult to know when to stop. Editing is vital though. So often writing a first draft is a journey towards having something terrible. Editing, on the other hand, is a journey towards having something good or even – fingers crossed - great.

So having ridden my story-writing pony through the rocky outcrops of the self-edit a fair few times now, here are my top tips…

1. Editing is fun

Honestly it is. At least it can be, and if you try to view it as something fun and empowering rather than a trial that has to be survived, the process will go more easily. I think of it like this - you’re basically god of your own tiny universe, but unlike actual God if it turns out the world you’ve made isn’t that great, you get to change it around and fiddle with it until it’s all perfect and lovely.
So don’t feel overwhelmed by the challenge of revising your manuscript – try to feel empowered. You can do this. You can totally do this.

2. You’re allowed to hate your own book

In fact I pretty much insist upon it. If you never reach the point of utter despair and absolute certainty that the whole story is a steaming pile of poo then you’re probably not being sufficiently self-critical. As a writer, you need to be your own toughest critic AND your own biggest fan, sometimes simultaneously, which can be a little bit challenging.  But you do need to look your own book squarely in the eye and be honest with yourself about what doesn’t work. Focussing on the negatives will make you hate the book. Don’t panic – it’s temporary, I promise.

3. Always know what stage you’re up to

Editing is not just one process. It’s at least three processes, and one of the most common mistakes I see from newer writers is the tendency to jump past the bit where you make the actual story work, and onto proofreading.
I break self-editing down like this:

Stage 1 – Major Revisions
This is where you look to see if the actual story works. Are your characters consistent? Are there gaping plot holes? Does your timeline make sense? If you’re anything like me the answer to that last one is invariably no. My first drafts are replete with two month and two year pregnancies, but editing can fix that. So stage 1 is where you tackle the actual bones of the story and character arcs.

Stage 2 – Line by line
Now the story hangs together we can look at the prose itself. Is every sentence as punchy or as elegant as you can make it? Does your dialogue have the believable rhythm of speech? This might also be when you fact check any outstanding little details. Could your heroine really have travelled from Edinburgh to Bath in a day in 1901? What is the legal driving age in Mauritius? I have no idea, and you probably don’t either - this is your last chance to check.

Stage 3 – Proofreading
This is spelling, punctuation, and grammar time. It’s also time to check that you’ve been consistent with any disputed spellings eg. OK, Okay or Ok, and to check things like chapter numbering that might have been messed up if you moved things around during Stage 1.

Know which stage you’re at as you’re editing and resist the urge to jump ahead.

4. Don’t cut corners

Because editing is not just one process, that means it takes time. Don’t be tempted to submit your work (or publish your work) before it’s ready. Allow yourself enough time to edit and revise. If, like me, you’re somebody who writes without much of a plan, it’s quite likely that you’ll need longer to revise and polish the manuscript than you did to write a first draft. That’s fine so long as you allow yourself the time you need.

5. Know when to stop

This is the flip side of number 4. It can be very tempting to keep tweaking forever, and you could easily do that. No book is ever really finished – I never read my books after they’ve been published because I know the editing pen would want to come out again. Ultimately though you reach a point where you have to stop. Knowing what stage you’re at helps with that. When you’ve finished your proofread (the final stage) you’re done. Time to press ‘Send.’

Good luck and happy editing!

About Alison

Alison is an author, creative writing tutor and freelance editor. She has published five romantic comedies and numerous short stories https://alison-may.co.uk/books/ Her next full-length novel, All That Was Lost, will be released with Legend Press in 2018.

Alison is the current Vice-Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. She is also a qualified teacher with a degree in Creative Writing. She runs novel-writing workshops and offers individual tutoring and manuscript appraisals. Her next scheduled courses are in Birmingham in November 2017, looking at Dialogue and Synopsis Writing: https://alison-may.co.uk/for-writers/workshops-and-courses/

You can find out more about Alison at www.alison-may.co.uk, on Facebook www.facebook.com/AlisonMayAuthor/ or on Twitter @MsAlisonMay


  1. Thanks for a very helpful and interesting post, Alison and Wendy.

    I'm currently on stage one with my wip, and your insights have added a few things I will be looking out for.

    1. Glad it was helpful, Carol. I'm about to embark in stage one too.

  2. I would like to second that - thank you! I am more of a 'planner' than a 'pantser,' I think... while believing that it can do the world of good to just go for it once in a while :-) I'm also one of those who enjoy editing. The advice about recognising stages and knowing when to stop is very useful.

    1. I'm at the stage where I'm making sure a pregnancy doesn't go on for more than nine months!

  3. Really interesting thank you Alison and Wendy.

  4. Thank you, Alison and Wendy, this is really useful particularly the 3 stages of editing.

  5. Great post - it sounds so clear and logical and yet when I'm in the mire ... My new mantra is going to be "know which stage you're at". Thank you Alison & Wendy

    1. Hope the mantra helps Julia. I think if you can break editing down into stages it does feel a lot less like a mire. Good luck x

  6. Hear hear: editing is fun! Got aggravated recently with a writing school continuously putting out a 'editing sucks' message. It's a part of writing. It's fine-tuning or polishing your work. You get to see it get better and better.

    1. That would aggravate me too. I know a lot of writers who struggle with editing, but going into it with a 'this is going to be awful' mindset isn't going to help!

    2. I must admit - I quite like it.

  7. Great post. Obviously as an editor myself I completely agree with the sentiment that editing can be fun!

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