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A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Novel, Part Seven – Editing

Updated: May 23, 2020

This might be news to some of you but editing and proofreading are not the same thing. I hear you gasp in surprise, no doubt, but think of it this way: editing is about getting the big picture and proofreading is about the tiny changes to correct errors. This week we are looking at editing. Next week it will be proofreading. Last week it was rewriting. Do you need to do all of this? I believe you do if you want a great book.

You may prefer to pay someone to edit the book for you. I would recommend this for a number of reasons, first and foremost because someone else will see things that you cannot in a work that you know so intimately. Although I am a skilled editor and have helped many indie authors improve their books, I always rely on another editor before publishing my work. She sees things I have missed completely and might always miss. She makes me a better writer.

If you decide to pay an editor make sure you research them first. If they cite references or testimonials check the books they worked on or speak to the authors (both if you can) to ensure the editor is right for you before you pay anything. If the editor cannot provide references it is perfectly acceptable to ask them to provide a sample of their work or ask them to look at a few of your pages for free before you commit. A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold. A poor editor is worth less than nothing.

Hiring an editor isn’t cheap, but it will save you the embarrassment and heartache of publishing a sub-par book. If you are submitting to publishers, it is likely they will have in house editors and, while you still want to submit the best version of your story that you possibly can, you may choose not to pay a freelance editor. Or if you are self-publishing and don’t expect to sell enough copies to recover the costs of an editor, and you have a good understanding of spelling and grammar, you can choose to go it alone. My best advice then is to put the manuscript to one side (for at least a month, three or more months is better) before editing and proofreading. This allows you to look at it afresh and see what is on the page rather than what you intended to write.

Even if you plan to pay an editor there is no harm in tackling the first stage of editing yourself before you hand over the manuscript. It gives you more creative control and hones your writing skills. You may discover you have a real talent for editing and will be able to offer your services to others.

Stages of the editing process

There are at least seven main stages of editing

1) Checking for consistency

2) Avoiding unwanted repetition

3) Plugging the plot holes

4) Character arcs

5) Structure

6) Pace

7) Theme

Checking for consistency

One of the most important tools to use when you are checking for consistency is a style sheet. You can produce your own or use a publication such as The New Oxford Style Manual. What you are checking for at this stage is whether the use of spelling, capitalisation, headings and markers (such as punctuation markers) are used the same way throughout the story.

1) Is the piece using British English or US English (or another form of English or language)?

2) For dialogue does it use a single or double quotation mark or some other indicator? e.g. ‘, “, or -

3) If one of the characters is called Stephen is his name always spelled in that form or is it sometimes written as Steven? This is equally important for other names.

4) If you decide to italicise ship names or other titles, e.g. The Lucky Irishman, are they shown as italicised throughout?

5) If you centralise chapter headings and have two line breaks beneath them, are they consistently displayed in this way?

6) Is tense used consistently? Is the story written in past or present tense? If this changes at any point is it intentional and deliberate to cause a desired effect?

Don’t rely on memory alone when checking for consistency. Make a note of the way names are spelled or what punctuation marks have been used on a style sheet that you refer back to.

Avoiding unwanted repetition

How many times in the story does a character smile? How many times do they turn around and look? You can check this with most writing software by using the find tool if it isn’t instantly obvious to you. Repetition isn’t always bad. You might be using it to reinforce the theme of the book, but make sure you are consciously doing it. Repetition that isn’t used for a specific effect can quickly becoming boring.

Plugging the plot holes

It is very difficult to spot plot holes in one’s own work, so if you’ve decided not to hire an editor this could be where a beta reading team becomes invaluable. Plot holes are jarring and confusing to the reader and they can spoil an otherwise delightful book. If your main character suddenly appears holding the exact object they need, we should know how they got it. If your character makes a decision that seems out of character, we should know what changed their mind.

Character arcs

All of your main characters should grow or change in some way along the course of the story. You can trace their development in a separate file to ensure this happens. If not the story is likely to be less satisfying for readers, agents and publishers than it might otherwise be.


Does the story have a beginning, a middle and an end?

Is it told chronologically or does it skip between time periods? If the latter is it always clear to the reader when the action is taking place? If not is this deliberate and will you provide the reader with a satisfactory reward in return for their temporary confusion?

Is it divided into chapters? Do each of the chapters add something – either to plot or character development? If not why are they there? This is the prefect time to start cutting - murder your children.

Structure according to David Lodge,

like the framework of girders that hold up a modern high-rise building: you cannot see it, but it determines the edifice’s shape and character.


Is the story exciting? Are some points overburdened with exposition – like info-dumps, that slow everything down? Does it feel rushed? Be aware of the effects of sentence and chapter length on pace. Be aware of when you are showing and when you are telling and how that affects pace.


We covered theme in the last episode, but it’s important enough to look at again at this stage. Is the theme of your story clear? If not what can you change in order to make it clear? Remember the theme is the underlying human truth that is at the centre of your story and informs both the plot and the characters.

Frank O’Connor (quoted in Crowley) said that theme was the most essential part of a story.

You have to have a theme, a story to tell … A theme is something that is worth something to everybody … The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you’ve got something to tell, that’s a real story … ultimately, what you think about human beings.”i

i A Creative Writing Handbook, Derek Neale, The Open University, 2009.

Next Week

We will be discussing proofreading and will cover grammar, common errors, the role of beta readers and professional proofreaders?

Carmilla Voiez is a horror and fantasy author. Her novels have been published by indie publishing companies including Vamptasy Publishing, CHBB and Stone Circle Publishing and her short stories have been included in anthologies by Clash Books, Weird Punk Books, Siren Magazine, and Dragones Mecanicos. Her award-winning Starblood series is being adapted into a series of graphic novels illustrated by Anna Prashkovich. She has studied creative writing with the Open University and proof-reading with Chapterhouse. Carmilla also offers individually tailored editing packages for self-publishing authors.

Check out my full bibliography on Amazon.

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