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The 4 Phases of Editing: How to Edit Your Novel

If you’re like most of the writers I work with, getting to the end of a first draft feels both exciting and terrifying at the same time. You’ve probably been working on this story for x-amount of months (or maybe even years!) and all you want is for the story you wrote to (eventually) match the vision in your head. But how do you get there?

You’re probably wondering things like…

Should I dive right into revisions?

Should I reach out to beta readers?

Should I start querying agents?

And the answer to all of these questions is NO!

The very first thing you should do after finishing your first draft is TAKE A BREAK!

Taking time away from your draft will help you get some distance from your story. This will allow you to come back into the revision process with more objectivity... and this will make editing your messy pages a whole lot easier. 

So, that's the very first thing you should do once you have a finished draft.

 

How to Edit Your Novel: The 4 Phases of Editing

Once you’ve taken some time away from your draft, it’s time to read what you’ve written. And yes, this will probably be a bit cringe-inducing, but hang in there!

The key to this first step is not to make any changes to your manuscript as you read through it. You’ll want to see the big picture of your story (and jot down any new ideas you have or changes that you want to make) before actually executing the changes. This will save you time in the long run–trust me!

If you know you’re going to struggle with this part, you can print out your draft, export it to a PDF and read it on your computer or put it on your Kindle. You can also use a text-to-speech program like NaturalReaders or the “Read Aloud” feature in Microsoft Word that will essentially read your story to you. Basically, I want you to do whatever you can to prevent yourself from editing as you read. 

Now, you might be wondering... What about any notes I need to make?! Or any new ideas I come up with!?

If you want to take notes or jot down new ideas, go ahead! For some people, it’s easy to take in the big sweep of their story and jot down notes. For other people, it’s not that easy, and they prefer to read and then take notes later. Do whatever works for you!  

Then, after you’ve read your whole draft and made all of your notes, I want you to weed through everything you’ve written down. Get rid of the ideas that don’t work anymore, and organize the rest into a manageable revision plan that doesn’t feel overwhelming. 

At this point, you should have a good sense of the story you're working with—or what's in your actual pages—AND a list of things you want to address in your next draft.

Now, to tackle your upcoming drafts—and I say drafts because there will be multiple—I recommend breaking your revisions down into different phases. With each new draft, you’ll be tackling a different aspect of your story so that you can focus your attention and use your creative abilities efficiently and productively. 

Let’s walk through each of the four phases of editing now, starting with the big picture, “Story Level” edit.

Editing Phase 1: The Story Level Edit

The “Story Level” edit is what you’ll do to take your first draft and turn it into a second draft. This is where you’ll focus on the high-level things that affect the overarching story like the plot, the character development, worldbuilding, theme, etc. 

During this phase, you might spend time fleshing out your characters more, moving scenes around to get them in the order that best serves the plot, adding new scenes, deleting scenes, layering in important worldbuilding details or aspects of your theme, and things like that.

Some questions you might ask during this phases are things like:

  • Does my story start in the right place? 
  • Does it have a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  • Is my protagonist unique and complex? 
  • Do they have a complete and compelling backstory?
  • Do they have clear goals and believable motivations throughout?
  • Does my protagonist transform? Do they have an internal arc?
  • Does my story have enough meaningful conflict? Is there enough at stake?
  • Am I revealing information in an engaging way? Is there enough tension?
  • Is my story believable based on the internal logic I've set up?
  • Are my side characters memorable? Do they serve a purpose?
  • Do my subplots serve the global story? If not, do I need them?
  • Is the world of my story fleshed out? Is it immersive? Is it believable?
  • Is my story consistent in genre, point of view, and tense?
  • Did I include the key scenes and conventions of my genre?
  • Does my current draft express the theme of my story?

As you can see, this pass is NOT about word choice or dialogue or any of the smaller details. We'll get to those things eventually, once you know your story works.

For what it’s worth, I want you to go into this phase of the revision process knowing that you’re going to have to make changes. Even if you did a bunch of planning or outlining up front, it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll get all of these big picture things “right.”

This is why you'll want to spend MOST of your time here in this first "Story Level" phase or editing pass. So, you'll want to go through my DIY Editing Checklist, assess what you already have in your draft, problem-solve, and then execute the fixes. 

You can repeat this pass as many times as needed to get your draft where it needs to be before zooming into the next layer of edits.

If you can't see your story objectively during this phase, or if you're feeling too overwhelmed, this is the time to reach out to a developmental editor or a book coach who can guide you through this type of big picture edit. 

So, that’s phase one—the “Story Level” edit where you’ll focus on the big picture, foundational elements of your story. Let’s move onto phase two.

Editing Phase 2: The Scene Level Edit

The “Scene Level” edit is where you’ll go one layer deeper to focus on each one of your scenes. You'll still be thinking of the big picture elements here—things like structure, character development, worldbuilding, point of view, etc.—but it will be more about how those elements show up in each scene versus in the big picture of your story. 

Some questions you might ask during this phases are things like:

  • Does every scene in my story serve a purpose?
  • Do each of my scenes start and end in the right place?
  • Does my POV character have a specific goal in every scene? 
  • Do my scenes have a solid structure? Or does this need work?
  • Does each scene contain a meaningful arc of change?
  • Do my scenes have enough conflict and tension?
  • In every scene, am I showing my character's thoughts & feelings?
  • Are my scenes balanced and well-paced?
  • Are there any obvious sections of info-dumping?
  • Do my scenes end with a sense of the POV character's next steps?
  • Are the settings and elements in my scenes described effectively?
  • Am I switching seamlessly between scenes? Or does it feel bumpy?
  • Are my scenes consistent in POV and tense? Or are they all over the place?
  • For multiple POV, am I switching seamlessly between narrators?
  • For multiple POV, are my scenes told from the best perspective?

So, as you can see, we're looking at some of the same issues from the story level revision, but on a scene by scene basis now. And again, this pass is NOT about  sentence structure, word choice, syntax, or anything else like that. That will come in the next phase.

If you’ve been tackling your revisions by yourself, this would be a good time to pause and get some outside feedback from beta readers and/or a developmental editor. If you have the resources, you can work with both a developmental editor AND beta readers—which is my preference, but I know that's not going to be in the cards for everyone, and that's okay. 

At the bare minimum, I recommend getting a manuscript evaluation from a developmental editor just so you can make sure that you're on the right track and that there aren't any glaring issues before you move onto the next few phases of editing. 

If you’d like to work with beta readers, I highly recommend The Spun Yarn. I am not affiliated or connected to The Spun Yarn, but many of the writers I work with use them for beta reading and the feedback reports that The Spun Yarn provides are super helpful and informative.

Either way, once you get some outside feedback, you’ll want to incorporate it into your draft before moving onto the next step. 

From here, you have a few options depending on the publishing path you choose. 

If you’re going to self-publish, you will need to take your draft through at least two more rounds of editing–a line edit (what I call the “Page Level” edit), and a copy edit (what I call the “Sentence Level” edit). You can read more about these two phases below, but do not move on to either of these phases until you feel confident in your story.

If you’re going to traditionally publish, you can start to query agents after the “Scene Level” edit IF you feel good about your story. I only recommend this  because (in most cases) if you get picked up by a traditional publisher, they will put you through another developmental edit, a line edit, and a copy edit to get your book ready for publication.

So, that’s phase two–the “Scene Level” edit where you’ll still focus on the big picture elements, but on a scene by scene basis. Now, let’s move onto phase three. 

Editing Phase 3: The Page Level Edit

The “Page Level” edit is where you'll want to focus on your line-by-line writing to tighten up your scenes as much as possible. We all know that masterful writing isn't just about telling a compelling story—it's about finding the most effective language to tell that story, so that’s really what we’re focused on during this phase.

Some questions you might ask during this phase are things like:

1 - Is everything on the page necessary? Look for:

  • Repetitive words
  • Too many adverbs
  • Over-describing things
  • Internal questions
  • Too much telling
  • Pre-empting your own narrative
  • Too much backstory or exposition

2 - Are your paragraphs as strong as they can be? Look for:

  • Repetitive sentence structure
  • Over-choreographed action
  • Purple prose
  • Overused (or mixed) metaphors, similes, and analogies
  • Passive voice and
  • Opportunities to do more than one thing per sentence

3 - Is your dialogue compelling? Look for:

  • Tag overload
  • Repetitive dialogue
  • Flashy tags
  • Too many adverbs
  • Unrealistic or unnatural dialogue
  • Unnecessary dialogue
  • Disjointed dialogue

4 - Are you using the best words on each page? Look for: 

  • Overused words / Repetition
  • Redundant words
  • Intensifiers or mitigators
  • Qualifiers
  • Filter words
  • Weak or non-specific words
  • Clichés

5 - Are your pages consistent? Look for consistency in: 

  • Names
  • Descriptions
  • Actions
  • References
  • Formatting

You should not be making any big picture or structural changes at this point, but it can happen. To avoid this, just make sure you’re spending enough time on the big picture (Story Level and Scene Level) edits.

Also, if you need help during this phase, this is where you can work with a line editor who can point out and help you address some of these “Page Level” issues.

So, that’s phase three–the “Page Level” edit where you’ll zoom into your story, page-by-page, to tighten it up and to start making your writing shine. Now, let’s move onto phase four. 

Editing Phase 4: The Sentence Level Edit

The “Page Level” edit is where you'll focus on tightening up your sentences. So, you'll be correcting any spelling or grammar mistakes, and making sure your style and voice is consistent throughout the story. At this point, you should not be making any big picture changes to your story, but you may still catch some of the "Page Level" issues since they are so closely related. 

Since this is not my area of expertise, I will point you toward some of my favorite resources for this level of editing:

During this phase, it’s useful to look into (and to understand) your novel’s readability score. Your story’s readability score tells you what level of education a person needs in order to read your writing with ease. Here’s a quick reference guide to which age ranges correspond with which readability scores:

  • For middle grade (8-12 years old), aim for a readability score between 80-100
  • For young adult (12-18 years old), aim for a readability score between 50-70
  • For adult fiction (18+), aim for a readability score between 30-70

ProWritingAid, Grammarly, and the Hemingway Editor can all give you insight into your story’s readability score. You can also learn more about the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score (if you want to) here.

So, that’s phase four–the “Sentence Level” edit where focus (mostly) on spelling and grammar. And that wraps up the four phases of editing!

Now, you might be wondering... Can I do these steps out of order?

And the short answer is that no, I would not recommend going out of order.

While it is easy to correct grammar errors and you may think this is a good way to get started, you’ll end up spending a lot of time correcting sentences that need to be rewritten or cut. Instead, I’d rather see you make the best use of your time and start with the big picture issues first, and move onto the smaller ones later. 

You might also be wondering if there's a faster way to do this, or if there's a way to condense some of these steps.

And the short answer is no, not really.

You can work with a developmental editor or a book coach to compress some of the layers, but the editing process still takes time. Many developmental editors and book coaches can help you with story issues, and at the same time point out mechanical issues that need to be fixed. But this largely depends on the editor or coach and the quality of your writing.

I hope you found this editing guide helpful! Don’t forget to download my next steps DIY editing checklist that will help you stay organized and on track as you work through each of the four phases. Good luck!

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