Novel revision and editing
Writing Craft

Novel Revision and Editing Guide

The Manuscript Shredder’s Novel Revision and Editing Guide

You’ve just typed the end, now what? It’s time to revise, but revising without a plan can lead to hours of wasted effort and frustration. Rather than getting stuck in an endless editing loop, use this novel revision and editing guide to make sure you are doing the right edits in the right order.

Stage 1

Step 1: Take a step back

The first step in any revision checklist is to take a break from your book. Chances are you will be ready for one, but the real reason you need to take a break is your brain needs a rest. Writing a novel is an emotional experience. We writers love our characters, and we love our stories. If you try to begin your editing process when you are still wrapped up in the emotional release of finishing your story and seeing your characters finally win, then you will lose objectivity. Taking a break from your manuscript will give you time to regroup and get some perspective on the project. This will give you a chance to put your creative self aside and dust off your editing mode. An editor must be objective and even a little cold-hearted to kill all those little darlings.

Step 2: First passNovel revision and editing

In the first pass, all you are doing is getting it ready for alpha readers. What does this mean? Making sure the novel is actually finished. As you read, make any notes of things that must be added for the story to make sense. This is not where you add that new subplot idea that you had. In fact, try not to add anything that isn’t critical for the reader to understand what is already on the page. Why? If the story makes sense as is, then adding extras is only padding the story with nonsense that will drag the pacing down. Few readers are looking for 1000 page epics. Today’s reader wants a fast-paced read and that means keeping everything centered on moving the plot forward.

The amount of work you will need to do will vary depending on if you are a plotter or a pantser. Plotters will have done most of this work when they were creating their outlines. Pantsers will use the first pass to really piece their novels together.

What to do: Pantsers

Your first task is to make an outline. This is a simple one or two line description of what happens in each scene. You can do this on paper, in a spreadsheet, or use the synopsis feature in Scrivener. Why? Having a list of your scenes and their function will make every step after, easier.

Using your outline:

  1. Identify any scenes that do not move your plot forward and cut them. (These are usually world-building exposition and character-building scenes that don’t have lasting consequences for the plot) Make a note of any important information in these scenes and make a plan to add it to another scene.
  2. Identify any characters that do not move the plot forward. (These will likely be eliminated in the useless scene purge.)
  3. Identify any subplots that do not impact the main plot, consider cutting these. Again, make sure any important information is inserted into another scene.
  4. Identify plot holes.
  5. Now make a short description of your character arc and check character arcs for logical progression.

Once you have this, you are ready to do your first rewrite or major edit. Go back through and fix these issues. This is the main difference between plotters and pantsers. Plotters do the majority of their work before the draft, and pantsers do the majority of their work after.

If you are a meticulous plotter, you have likely already finished these steps before you began your draft. If not, go back and take a look, otherwise continue to the next list.

What you are looking for on the first pass: Plotters (Second pass: Pantsers)

  1. Are all the scenes complete?
  2. Do scenes end in the right place, or do they stretch on too long?
  3. Do your scenes contain useless filler or chit-chat dialogue?
  4. Are any scenes missing or out of order?
  5. Does characterization follow a logical progression?
  6. Are your character reactions consistent with his/her place in the character arc?
  7. Look for characters who could be combined. Does your YA heroine really need an annoying work friend and an annoying school friend? Combine them into one person. Make it easier for your readers to keep track of your secondary characters by using as few as possible.
  8. Make sure your secondary characters make appearances throughout the story.
  9. If you use the XXX trick, (typing XXX when you cannot remember a word or detail.) do a “find” and fill in those missing vocabulary words.
  10. At this point in the process you may use spell-check to fix any spelling errors or incorrect words for clarity, otherwise, leave the grammar alone. Do not waste time reworking sentences or paragraphs at this stage, as you have not finalized which scenes will remain in the story.

Once you have a coherent plotline, you are ready to find your alpha readers.

What’s the difference between alpha readers and beta readers?

Alpha readers are the readers who read your book when it is still in its generation stages. These readers will give you feedback on overall structure, characterization, or world-building. Alpha readers focus on big-picture items. They may suggest large-scale changes, like those from the Pantser list above. I engage my alpha readers in the planning stages and pass out scenes before the draft is even finished. We bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm possible plot twists. My alpha readers keep me on track and point out potential problems before I have a chance to even write the scenes. (If you’re working with a professional editor, this stage is called a developmental edit, substantive edit, or manuscript evaluation. If you wish to work with an editor at this stage, make sure you have eliminated any unnecessary scenes and subplots before submitting. Editors charge by the word, so there is no reason to pay extra for words you already know you are going to delete.)

Using the feedback from your alpha readers, solidify your plot line and character arcs. Again, at this stage don’t worry about putzing with small details. There’s no reason to worry about commas or small line edits. Just get the plot and characters completely formed.

Stage 2

Now you are ready to look at the smaller details

In this pass, you need to focus on the prose.

Start by checking your MRU’s. Make sure your characters always react to something after the reader sees it. “I jumped three feet in the air when she poked me,” creates distance, but “Something poked me, and I jumped three feet in the air” lets us share the character’s experience. Often just switching sentences around will fix many paragraphs.

This is where you need to eliminate any exposition that doesn’t serve the scene. These are long paragraphs of characters thinking about things that do not affect their current situation. But what about world building? You need to show the reader why this particular aspect of the world building is affecting the character right now. Your readers won’t care about how many gods are in your character’s pantheon, but they will care if her God of War demands her little sister as a blood sacrifice. Make sure your world affects your characters, otherwise, it’s a pointless backdrop.

Once you have your MRU’s set, tighten the prose.

  1. Eliminate unnecessary words or phrases. (And make sure you are not using commas to tack things into sentences where they don’t belong.)
  2. Eliminate unnecessary passive voice (Not all passive voice is bad, click here for full details)
  3. Look for stronger verbs, etc. (Again, not all adverbs are bad. Use your best judgment)
  4. Double check your sentence constructions. Look out for repetitive sentence starts, participle phrase abuse, or otherwise convoluted sentence structures.

At this stage I have my computer read my manuscript back to me. This makes finding incorrect words or bizarre sentences stand out.

(Watch out for over-writing at this stage. Many writers get into trouble trying to blanket eliminate words like “that” and “was” from their manuscripts. Don’t write anything weird to avoid using these words. Keep your prose sounding natural. If no one would ever say that sentence aloud, then try again.)


Now look for point-of-view (POV) errors. Sentences that make statements the POV character couldn’t possibly know, for example, or unintentional instances of authorial intrusion (click here for more about authorial intrusion) Also, make sure you have consistent narrative focus. If you are using deep POV, look out for unintentional distancing: phrases like “I felt, I thought, I saw,” etc.

As you are making these scene-level edits keep an eye out for consistency errors. The gem in the dagger suddenly turns from blue to green, for example.

Once you have completed this pass, you are now ready for beta-readers.

Here’s where writers can get into trouble. You do not have to implement every change suggested by a beta reader. If you had good feedback at the alpha stage, then there shouldn’t be many large-scale changes at the beta stage. A beta may simply not like your book, that does not mean there is anything wrong with it. So don’t get caught in an editing loop trying to please everyone. You will never succeed. If you did not get feedback at the alpha stage, then you may need to rewrite large portions of your book. Go back to the beginning of this list and make sure you are proceeding in the right order.

Your beta should suggest small level revisions, like those on the stage two list. Once those are completed, you are ready to move to stage three.

Once you have finished the edits from your betas (remember only make the changes that you agree with) you are ready to move forward. If you are working with a professional editor at this stage you will be getting a line edit. Again, make sure you have done all you can before submitting to a professional. You want her to be fixing things you could not have fixed yourself.

Stage Three

Copy edits

Spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you are having trouble focusing on these tiny details, do this edit from the back to the front. By reading the novel backward, you are forced to look at each sentence individually, and you won’t fall into the trap of just reading the novel.

After this edit is finished, you are ready to query. (Although, if you land an agent, then you will likely do this process over again with her.)


Now move on to proofreading.

Proofreading is done to make sure your text looks the way it’s supposed to on the page. This means removing phantom characters, extra spaces, soft returns, tabs and other inconsistencies in the text. This will make sure your text behaves correctly on any e-reader. Proofreading will also include all the visual elements in the body of your text. This means setting any illustrations or tables as well as making sure the margins, headers, footers, page numbers, chapters and scene break elements are all consistent throughout the book. This will also include the table of contents and making sure all additional pages (title page, acknowledgments, about the author, dedication, etc.) in your publications are consistently formatted. If you are doing your own typesetting, then you should have another party proof the copy. Also, make sure you view your book in several different formats on multiple devices.

Editing is a long and often tedious task. By using this plan as a guide, you can see where you are in the process and know what to do next. By keeping your editing steps in the correct order, you will avoid wasting time, making your editing process more efficient and more effective. Don’t wander around in the editing wilderness. Let this guide be your map to getting that manuscript done.

If you found this article helpful, please share it with other writers on social media. Thanks!

M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


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