Ruth Atkins from Penguin Michael Joseph on How to Edit Your Novel

how to edit your novel

A difficulty of writing, as with any craft, is that the world tends to focus on the early stages—draft one, the blank page, beginning. It makes sense: a first draft, an epic quest in itself, one that requires a very specific mental concentration, the humility to abandon perfection, and the pride and ambition to keep writing in spite of one’s increasingly apparent flaws. We are lucky, as writers, to have so many guides for this stage, for it is frequently an excruciating one. 

At some point, however, we reach where we’ve been aiming. We put our pens down, we type The End. And suddenly, all we have pushed from our mind to get to this point comes rushing back—the imperfections, the plot holes, the blank spaces. All the work still to be done. Our new quest, The Edit, looms large and lonely, far fewer comrades on the journey, far fewer words of wisdom to guide the way.

I’ve worked in editorial at Penguin Michael Joseph for five years, witnessing many writers move past first drafts and on to this final struggle, and helping to steer them on their path. At the same time, I have been writing myself, and seeing this editorial process from both sides has taught much about the steps for what comes after. While I can’t claim to be an expert, I want to share what I know on how to edit your novel, what has helped me and others, in the hope it will make this part of the journey into the woods a less lonely and impenetrable road.

Seeing the big picture

One common piece of writing advice is to take a break between finishing your first draft, and moving on to the edit. This is not merely to rest and re-energize (though that is also a good reason!)—you have been so close to your writing in the last weeks and months that you are likely unable to see it as others will see it. You need to step back, as an artist would, and see not the little patches you have been filling in painstakingly, but the work as a whole—the big picture.

Time helps with this—a rest from thinking about your story so intensely. People often advise you to begin a new writing project, and it’s also a good time to read, widely and avidly, books in your genre and further afield. Think about other words for a change, how varied and full the experience of writing can be—inspiration can come from anywhere!

As you begin to ease your way back to thinking about your story again, there are some big picture exercises I recommend to writers, to begin to think about their book on that more holistic and even commercial level.

  • Take a trip to your local bookshop. Check out the books on the tables, the different sections of shelves. Where would your book fit most comfortably? What are the other books in this area like? Or spend an afternoon on the vast algorithm of Amazon—type in the books and authors that have inspired your story, and see what other books get recommended alongside them. Take notes on the packages, on the blurbs and descriptions. What unites these books—the design? The quotes on the covers? The words being used? What about your own book will make it fit among their fold? 
  • On-paper brainstorming can also be clarifying. Ask yourself, “How do I want my book to make readers feel?” or, “How would I describe my novel?” and cover the page in one word answers (e.g. “haunted,” “uplifted,” “love-struck”, “thrilling,” “heartwarming,” “heartbreaking”). Write as many words as come to you, and highlight the ones that feel most true. It’s not about getting this perfect—but this allows you a chance to clarify for yourself what kind of story you have been writing—the ways that you want your book to connect with readers, and what they can expect from the story.

Read like a reader, not a writer

It’s helpful, before you commence your edits, to read through your first draft in full. But try to give yourself the chance to read through your book as a reader, not as its creator, or as its editor. You need to forget your knowledge of the work that’s gone into the book so far, and your thoughts of commercial ambitions, and come to the work fresh, as a reader would, eagerly anticipating a great story. 

There are many tricks for making your writing feel less familiar. If you have an eReader, you can send your text file to it and read like an eBook. Otherwise, print out your pages, or better yet, bind them into a book that you can flick through properly. If you need to keep it on screen, change the font, the word processor, the size – anything to make it look different to the way it looked while you were drafting.

On this first read-through, try not to get caught up making changes. Have a notebook nearby, and jot down notes as they occur to you—scenes that feel slow, storylines that need re-ordering, characters you want to know more about. But allow yourself otherwise to take in the story on its own terms—you’ll get a much clearer idea of how the reader will find it if you do this.

Take it section by section

As you move toward picking up the red pen and editing, it’s easy to become overwhelmed when faced with editing and redrafting a whole book. But it’s important to remember that, as with the first draft, it’s a task you complete in increments—showing up regularly, and working on little pieces at a time. Find what works best for you—perhaps there are natural chunks in your book that you can tackle one after the other, or perhaps there’s a particular word count or number of chapters that feels comfortable to take on at a time. I would recommend pulling these out and away from the rest of the book while you work through them, either by printing or moving to a separate document—this allows you to keep focused on seeing one task through to completion, without being forced to face the rest of the text looming unfinished ahead. 

Sort the big issues first

In publishing, we think of edits as coming in a few distinct phases that have a clear order. There’s structural edit, which fixes the fundamentals of what happens in the story, and each of the character’s arcs. The line edit takes in smaller changes on a language level—getting the right descriptions to cast the mood and world of the scene for the reader, cutting paragraphs where they run too long, making dialogue snappier and more engaging, ending chapters at tantalising points. The copyedit narrows in further, fixing things like continuity, timelines, making sure your spelling and grammar is consistent throughout the book, while the proofread catches any typos that fall through the cracks.

It can be tempting, when you begin editing, to jump straight into fixing typos and making little line edits, as these are much quicker wins than big structural changes. But finding the right metaphor is useless if it’s going in a scene that will eventually need to be deleted. 

So try to work in order, fixing the big, structural problems first—the story arcs that need to be smoothed out, the chapters that feel slow and unwieldy, the big twist that, now you read it back, is falling flat. Once you get these things right, then you can move on to the language. You need the bones of your story to fit together, before you can dress them in beautiful prose.

Sometimes a second draft needs more first drafting

Ugh, I get it, I get it… But sometimes you will find there are gaps in your story. Scenes missing, characters that need more development, plot lines that feel thin, a lack of descriptive passages to allow you to sink more deeply into the world you have built. You might already be aware of these gaps when you finish the first draft, or it may become clear as you edit. And for some, you won’t be able to get around them by editing the text you’ve already written—more writing needs to be done.

It’s important to bear in mind that this extra writing is a first draft in its own right—you can’t expect instant perfection, even though you’re now in a later stage of the process. Give yourself that first draft freedom when you’re filling in these gaps, and let your editing brain take a break for a while. It will be a much quicker and more pleasant process if you can do that.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

This is a phrase that, as editors, we often find ourselves using when advising writers! It’s so important, as you let your inner editor back into your mind and confront the difficulties of your manuscript, that you don’t lose heart and forget what makes your story special. First drafts often flicker with a freshness and energy that comes from having the courage to put your raw thoughts on the page. You want to shape these thoughts now, yes, but you don’t want to overwork them, or to discard them completely.

“Kill your darlings” is a popularly-bestowed piece of writing advice, and has its uses, but for insecure, self-doubting writers (which is most of us!) I do fear it can lead to hacking into your story over-eagerly, and I’ve seen authors respond to light edits by coming back with a completely altered story, rather than taking our few notes as guidance and improving the book we already loved. Don’t do this—sometimes, I promise you, your writing is good! Not everything needs to be ripped up.

That said, it’s certainly useful to experiment, and if you have a niggling feeling that your book would be stronger with a scene deleted or moved, it’s worth trying it out. Just make sure you save your drafts, and can restore them, if the experiment goes awry—and don’t assume that just because something’s different, it’s automatically better.

The Final Polish

I tend to find when I reach later editing stages, the numbered drafts start to become a little meaningless—there’s so much changing and tinkering happening that there stops being a solid “Draft 3”, “Draft 7” etc. 

Eventually though, you’ll reach a one you’re happy with—a story that feels strong, and structurally sound. At this point, you should do a final polish—making sure your prose is as taut and brilliant as possible, before you begin to approach agents or publishers. 

One of the best books I have read for this final draft stage is Refuse to Be Done by Matt Bell, who has a whole host of exercises you can do to put pressure on your prose and make it feel urgent, engaging and striking. His exercise on “Hunting Weasel Words” in particular is an incredible way to make your prose clearer and stronger, just by finding and deleting filler words like “that / suddenly / quite / very’ etc.—words that often aren’t needed, and place imperceptible drags on your writing that build up over the course of a full novel.

Enjoy the process

Writing can be a long, lonely task—but there’s fun to be had in the journey, if you let yourself enjoy it. Like polishing a gem to shininess, editing can bring the same joy of discovering hidden treasure among the imperfect prose you’ve written. The journey is individual to each writer, and indeed each book—but hopefully these tips will give you some idea of where to start! Step back, work slowly, in bite-size chunks and in order—and give yourself the time you need to get it right. See you on the other side.

About the Editor

Ruth Atkins is a Senior Editor at Penguin Michael Joseph UK. Her writing has been published in Bombinate and Sonder, and she won the Panorama Flash Fiction competition in 2022. She is working on her first novel.

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New Irish literary magazine reflecting people, our differences and similarities.

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