5 Techniques To Edit A Novel

Everyone works differently. We all work at our pace and do things our own way.

There is no right way to write a novel. We all get through our first drafts in a different way and at different times.

Some plan, some pants. Some try to have the first draft written in a certain amount of time, others just write a little bit until it’s done. Even if it takes years.

Editing isn’t much different.

We all essentially look for the same things when we self-edit our novels. We look for plot holes, proper characters development, pacing issues, inconsistency. Then there’s the proofreading in which you look for typos, grammatical errors, spelling mishaps, and other mechanic-type stuff that goes into writing novels.

I usually end up with a million drafts of my novels and I edit each draft differently. It helps keep things interesting and I catch different things during each method.

1. Ask yourself, “What do I want out of this draft?

No matter what draft you’re on, what are you hoping to accomplish? Do you want to fix all the pacing issues? Are you trying to make sure the scenes are in a good order that make sense?

Make a list of what you want to get done and then look at each chapter individually. Ask yourself, “Does this chapter accomplish what I wanted to say?”

2. Read aloud

Your eyes and ears catch things your brain doesn’t. Your brain is too smart for its own good and automatically fixes typos to trick you into thinking you never made any mistakes. By reading out loud, you can see and hear the typos and how awkward some sentences sound.

3. Every sentence counts

Take your draft one sentence at a time. Yes, I know it sounds tedious, but it’ll help in the end.

The host of my writers workshop taught me that every sentence should do one of three things:

  • Set the scene
  • Develop character
  • Advance the plot

If a sentence doesn’t do one of those three things, take it out.

4. Read backwards

I heard this one from Sacha and you can read more about this method on her blog. She heard it from another friend. I started editing my novel this way and I have to say I quite enjoy it and I think it’s super helpful.

Read your novel in chapter order (start at chapter one and go from there), but read each chapter backward. Start at the last paragraph of chapter one and work your way up. This allows you to take your focus off of the actual story and search for other things.

5. Edit while writing

I know people say not to edit while writing. Just get the first draft written, the first draft is you just telling yourself the story, yada, yada, yada. I do agree with this, but there’s no harm in thinking about the editing process.

As you write that first draft, try to keep a list of editing notes to the side. After you write chapter five, did you suddenly have second thoughts that it should have happened earlier in the story? Make a note. “Look at chapter five, maybe rearrange the chapters and scenes to advance the plot better.”

This is also a great opportunity to make notes about researching later as well.


There are more than five ways to edit your novel than what I just listed here. These are the ways I edit my novels, though. I use a different method for each draft.

I’ve just started reading backwards the other day and I think it works. But there will be more on that later when I actually finish the draft.

How do you edit your novels?

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31 thoughts on “5 Techniques To Edit A Novel

  1. I always wondered why people said #5 wasn’t a good idea. Seems to make sense that you edit even a little while writing. At least when something simply doesn’t feel right.

    • I don’t know, either. I think it’s not to distract yourself from the storytelling. But I edit it anyway. It’ll be that much less work later.

  2. The read aloud thing is so on point. Sometimes I’ll be reading something out to someone from a book and it would sound really odd. Always made me wonder why the author or editor didn’t notice

  3. I find it impossible not to edit while writing. In fact, to ignore great ideas because you’re in the zone, may be a mistake because you will (I promise) forget them later. That’s why I recommend writing your first draft with a platform that allows quick notetaking along with the draft. I used to use Ulysses, but now that Scrivener runs on iPad, I finally made the move to their platform. Both are dirt cheap. (Final draft works well too)

    I make inline edits immediately and if I have an idea for something that will move me from the flow of the story, I simply post it in a note with the draft so it’s there when I revise. I have never had the impulse to correct kill the “stream of consciousness” and, I suspect, it makes it easier to figure out what I was doing when I read through the draft the second time.

    Oh, and the myth of writing the rough draft long hand. Never. Get over it. You want it in a file, backed up in at least three locations, four is better. I just spent six months tracking down a short story I thought was backed up and I finaally found a disk with a copy. An author I published in the eighties lost all his work when his son trashed everything in a fit of rage. No probem, we said. We have the files. But the floppies (yes floppies) were no good.

    • I agree. If an idea strikes, then you have to go with it. Or at least write it down so you won’t forget it. I don’t use Scrivener, but it’s something I’ll invest in at some point.

  4. Good points, except for the “million drafts.” I always stick to one document. If I decide to delete something substantial that I might want back or use somewhere else, I copy that to a separate “Deletes” file, but I stick with one true text of the novel. That way I don’t have to go crazy updating multiple versions.

    • I do that as well, but I always print out the document to hand edit it multiple times. I catch more mistakes that way. 🙂

  5. This is helpful considering I am just getting to the point where I have to start editing. I keep a list of things I want to fix or check while writing, and plan to do a series of rounds of revision. One or two for larger things like plot, pacing and character achs. Then it will be a series of line by line revisions to make every sentance perfect. For those ones reading out loud would probably help.

  6. Thanks for the lovely mention. I have been using the read backwards ever since she told me about it and it has changed my writing forever!! Its nice to read a few other suggestions too because I have been struggling a little with editing and knowing what sort of process I should use.

Let me know your thoughts!

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