Self-Editing Your Novel: Stunning Simplicity

Last week we posted the first steps you should take in self-editing your novel, from changing inconsistencies to finding plot holes. If you haven’t yet taken these steps, you can find the post here, then come back to us when you’re done. For those of you that have completed the steps from last week, this post will guide you through what to do next. Today’s steps may seem small and unimportant at first, but it’s these small changes that could make the difference between getting accepted or rejected from an agent. Are you ready? Get out your red pens, it’s time to edit.

red pens

Take a look at your punctuation. Have you got a really wide variety of it in your work? If you have, highlight every one that isn’t a full stop, comma or question mark. For these highlighted ones, reread the sentences they’re a part of and try to decide if they are essential. Chances are, they could happily be replaced by a full stop or comma. This sounds like a really unimportant thing to be doing, but a lot of readers don’t like to be drawn away from the story because of ill-placed exclamation marks. It’s distracting for them, and when over-used it has a lot less of an impact than when it’s used effectively. In my editing experience, I find that the semi-colon is a writer’s biggest punctuation mistake. Most of the time, semi-colons can be replaced by commas or full stops. And of course, it’s always worth remembering that a lot of publishing companies don’t like using them either.

Dialogue tags are another thing that writers get very creative and excited with, but often to too great an extent. Dialogue tags are the words you use to describe how someone says something, like shouted and cried. About 85% of the time said works perfectly well. This means that if you’ve got another dialogue tag every couple of pages you need to get rid of a few. Asked is used quite a lot, and you probably won’t need to change it, but for everything else, stop and decide if it can be changed. Did Amelia really shout at her mum, or did she just raise her voice a little bit? Play out the scene in your head to help you decide. If you use words like shouted too much, when your character is actually shouting it won’t have much of an impact on your readers.

Now look at all of your descriptions of people, objects and places. Are they just huge blocks of text that cram everything in? Most readers tend to skim over bits like this so they can get back to the action of the story. This means they might miss out on important pieces of information. This is very easy to counteract though. Only put information that is completely necessary into these descriptions, just the essentials. Then, everything else you want your reader to know, drop in small pieces of it every now and then through speech or narration. For example:

‘Who are you?’ asked Amelia, dragging her eyes away from the man’s neon striped tie to look into his midnight blue eyes.

 This way, your reader gets a complete picture without having to digest it all at once. Just make sure you’re not doing this in every other sentence.

On the contrary, maybe you’ve under-described things instead. Do you ever mention what colour your protagonist’s hair is? It’s easy enough to find yourself not putting information like this in, because you know the characters and places so well that you forget others don’t. That’s fine while you’re writing, but now you’re editing it’s time to make sure that nothing important has been left out. Write down a list of things that should be described and tick them off every time you come across them in your manuscript. You can add in the bits you’ve missed at the end.

Now you’ve got all of the descriptions in the manuscript it’s time for the last step of today’s post. Make them perfect. Adjectives work best in threes or less, so if you’re describing something put a maximum of three adjectives before it. Any more and it won’t flow well when read. Also, bear in mind that alliteration, when used well, can be a powerful tool. Sounds and rhythms aren’t just for poetry, so make sure your descriptions roll off the tongue nicely too.


Hopefully, after finishing these steps, you’ll have a simple yet engaging manuscript that’s ready for next week’s editing steps. It might take a while to make these changes, so don’t panic if they take more than a week. Take your time then come back for the next steps when you’re ready. Until then, happy editing!


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