Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess How to Edit Your Book

Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess! How to Edit Your Book

Yay, you wrote a book! Now what are you supposed to do with it?

Writing a manuscript often feels like a sprint to a finish line–but then you reach that finish line, only to realize it’s really just the beginning! In many ways, completing a first draft is the easy part of the writing (what? no! yeah, sorry). The real business of writing begins with you have to sit down and figure out how to edit your book. Today, I’m going to show you how to navigate that potential minefield like a boss.

January is an apropos month to be talking about how to edit your book. For many writers, November was National Novel Writing Month, December was crazy, and now here were are in January–otherwise known as the Month of Good Intentions and Cold Hard Facts. It’s back to business in January, which means you have to face down that ugly NaNo novel you had so much fun with and figure out how to somehow turn it into a rock-solid story.

Back in September when I was prepping for a series of posts on preparing you write a NaNo novel, I asked you what subjects you wanted me to write about. Marc Middlebrooks wins for most memorable answer:

Facebook How to Edit Your Book

In my own writing, I wasn’t nearly as speedy as all you NaNoers (took me all year to write my whopping monstrosity of a 200k first draft for my historical superhero WIP Wayfarer), but since I finished it at the beginning of December and am just now diving into edits, I’m right there in the editing trenches alongside you.

Today, let’s consider what it takes to skillfully edit your book into something publication worthy.

Rule #1: The Mindset Is the Same: Good Editing Is Good Writing

First thing we’ve got to talk about is the fact that editing and writing are really just two sides of the same coin. Writers sometimes approach them as if they’re two different steps, and while they are, it’s important to remember all the same principles apply to both.

When it comes time to edit your novel, it’s the same song, second verse. With the exception of proofreading, there’s nothing you’re going to do or pay attention to during the editing phase that is any different from what you’re trying to do while writing the first draft. Hopefully, you were aware of good story principles (structure, character arcs, showing vs. telling, etc.) all the way through the writing of the first draft. If so, it will make your job much easier during the editing phase.

By the same token, now that you are editing, please don’t feel you need some kind of secret “editing sauce.” The same principles and techniques you used while writing your book are going to be your tools while editing. The only difference is that, during the editing stage, your brain is no longer cluttered with the desperate frenzy of getting those words out. Now you have the leisure and focus to concentrate on checking all these important story elements off your list.

Keep Calm Because There Is No Secret Ingredient Kung-Fu Panda Po

Start With a Plan: Outlining for Revision

You should know this by now: I’m a planner. I outline everything–even revisions. The reason editing can sometimes feel so overwhelming is because we’re looking at the “big picture” (i.e., that sprawling, sloppy thing we lovingly call “our novel”) without breaking it down into smaller, actionable steps. Gaping slack-jawed at the entirety of your raw first draft is like looking at the feast provided Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas Present and thinking you’re going to have to eat it all at one gulp.

Christmas Carol Ghost of Christmas Past Ebenezer Scrooge Feast McDuck Disney

I’m going to make this easy for you and tell you the first step: make a list.

Write an “outline,” if you will, for everything you know needs checked, evaluated, or fixed in your current draft. Put plot-specific items in chronological order, so you can address them scene by scene. Put overall considerations (which we’ll get to in more detail in just one sec) in a master list, starting with the most important and working your way down to the fine details.

Whenever I find myself overwhelmed by a necessary edit, the feeling is inevitably the result of lack of direction. Even ruthless critiques from beta readers become exciting when you have a plan for moving forward and making your story better.

7 Considerations for How to Edit Your Book

What follows is by no means a complete list, in part because every book (indeed, every draft) will have its own specific needs. But here is the basic master list of editing considerations I focus on when diving into the choppy waters of a rough draft’s first edit.

1. Single Out Your Tic Words

Let’s start with one of the smallest integers you’re going to have to keep an eye out for during your edit: tic words. These are words or phrases you’ve overused. Some will be your own unique pet words, which get overused in pretty much everything you write, but you’ll probably end up with some new words that you used to distraction only in this particular project.

While writing the first draft, I keep a running tally of words I think I’m overusing. This list will get added to as I’m editing and as my critique partners and editors report back to me.

Overused_Words_Project_Notes_Scrivener_Wayfarer_K.M._Weiland

Using your list, you can:

1. Run a global search/replace in Word, replacing the suspect word with exactly the same word. This won’t change anything in your manuscript, but it will tell you how many times the word appears. On occasion, a word I think I’ve overused actually doesn’t show up that often.

2. Once you’ve determined you have overused the suspect word, run another global search/replace, this time replacing the word with the same word but IN CAPS. This will force you to notice the word as you run across it while doing your other editing chores. You can pause, evaluate the context, and come up with an alternative for 90% percent of the occurrences.

2. Evaluate Your Word Count

Word count is a crucial consideration whatever genre you’re writing. Although it’s important to realize that a story needs to be exactly as long as it needs to be, make sure you’re staying objective about those needs. A word count that is either too long or too short can end up damaging both your publication chances and your readers’ experience. (Christine Frazier offers a free guide on optimal word counts for various genres.)

Start by dividing your total word count into quarters (remember: the quarter marks are where all your major plot points should hit). You want your word count to be pretty evenly divided between the structural quarters, which means you can’t afford to delete or add the bulk of your necessary words in single quadrant. Strive to keep things even.

If your word count is too short…

Consider character relationships and subplots. What can you flesh out to deepen your story? What parts feel “skinny”? Are any of your characters’ motivations unclear? Look at your scene structure and make sure you’re not skimping on any aspect, particularly the sequel/reaction half.

The Emotional Progression of Scene and Sequel Infographic

If your word count is too long…

On the macro level, examine each scene for integrality. Can you pull a subplot? Cut an unnecessary minor character? Do any of your scenes or characters feel repetitious? Can you combine scenes?

Write Tight William BrohaughOn the micro level, look for “fluff” words (such as “that”) or phrases that can be trimmed (such as exchanging “a lot of” for “many”). Make sure you’re not using two descriptors where one would do. Take a long hard look at dialogue scenes. Find the kernel of the conversation and eliminate all the throat-clearing, repetition, and build-up leading up to it. (Check out William Brohaugh’s great book Write Tight for more tips.)

3. Strengthen Your Story Structure

The best way to approach structure is before writing your first draft. If you were aware of your major plot points and other structural moments going into your story, chances are good you emerged with a first draft that, at the least, knew where it was supposed to go. In the editing phase, your job is to strengthen that structure by making sure all the pieces are in their proper places and doing their proper jobs.

Dividing your word count into fourths, as you did the previous step, will help you analyze the timing of all your major plot points. Paying attention to structure will also allow you to identify potentially problematic areas–such as the dreaded “saggy middle.” The middle doesn’t need to be a wasteland of pointless plotting. Make sure your Second Act is structured properly and you’ll have no trouble at all. (Click on any of the graphics below for a larger view or to download them to your desktop.)

First Act TimelineSecond Act TimelineThird Act Timeline

4. Strengthen Your Character Arcs

Character arcs are perhaps the most difficult element to get right in the first draft. Even if you’ve properly built the arcs to correspond with the plot structure, the actual progression of a character’s inner growth can get downright messy on the page.

Evaluate your character in each structural section of the story to make certain he’s at the right place in his arc. (If you’re uncertain of the building blocks needed for a powerful character arc, be sure to check out my series of posts on the subject.)

5. Reinforce Your Theme

Structure, character arc, and theme all work hand in hand. You can’t make corrections to one without correcting the other two. Still, you need to evaluate your story’s theme objectively to make certain it’s pulling together with your plot and character. Although themes can (and should be) multifaceted, you don’t want to end up with a “main” theme that’s pulling in one direction, while the theme that’s being proven by your character arc’s Lie/Truth is pulling in a different direction.

For example, in Wayfarer, I started out writing what I thought was a story about respect (for self and others), but realized by the end I was really writing a story about the meaning of truth. These two subjects are by no means incompatible, but it’s now my job to make sure they harmonize as fluidly and powerfully as possible to create a single beaming theme at the story’s heart.

6. Edit Your Prose Line by Line

Most of the above is concerned with macro “content editing” that will affect and direct your story as a whole. Only once you have the frame of your house erected can you concentrate on the interior decorating. But don’t discount the decorating either! Great prose will set a book above its peers just as surely as great plotting.

Don’t just focus on correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but on the rhythm and flow of your sentences and the appropriateness of your word choices. Evaluate every sentence, every word. Are they saying exactly what you need them to say?

Use the following resources to get down and dirty with your line editing:

7. Kill the Typos!

Finally, you’re going to want to go typo hunting. This is the last step–like sweeping up all the sawdust after building that house. Although you’ll definitely want to correct any typo you spot during the previous steps, don’t make a point of hunting them down until you’ve finished your “big” edits. There’s no point in vacuuming if you haven’t yet finished with the mess. I only do two or three dedicated proofreadings during the entire life of a book:

1. After my initial edits and before sending the manuscript to my critique partners and beta readers. This is a mercy proofreading really, so they’re not subjected to the sloppy remains of my own enthusiastic editing. I respect their time and don’t want them to have to wade through simple mistakes I should have caught myself.

2. After my betas are finished with the book and I’m finished with their suggestions. This is way down the line, right before the book goes to my editor before publication. At this point, the manuscript has probably been through the wringer two or three more times and needs spruced up again–for my editor’s sake.

3. Before publication. Obviously.

And how do I spot typos? I use a method that, in my experience, is 99% accurate. I upload my book to my Kindle Keyboard and use the Read Aloud feature to have my book read to me, while I read along.

Kindle Keyboard Reading Storming by K.M. Weiland

Let’s sum up: How do you edit your book? If it was easy, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post. But if you break down the process into the above steps, you’ll find it’s much easier than you imagined to take that raw, hot mess of a first draft and turn it into something solid and even spectacular.

Want More Tips on How to Edit Your Book?

Last Wednesday, I had a ball participating in a live video panel on NaNoWriMo’s Spreecast channel with bestselling authors Kami Garcia and James Scott Bell. We talked specifically about how to take your awesome NaNo novel and figure out what to do with it in the “in between” months between Novembers. If you missed catching our fun when it was live, you can watch the replay by clicking below.

NaNo Spreecast James Scott Bell K.M. Weiland Kami Garcia Grant Faulkner

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What have you done to figure out how to edit your book? Where are you in the process right now? Tell me in the comments!

Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess! How toEdit Your Book

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is great advice. I’ve just divided my novel into 4, and am working on each quarter separately before I recombine them into one whole. That way, editing doesn’t feel quite so daunting. I just have to make sure that I don’t lose the continuity, that it flows from one plot point to the next.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a really good way to focus on strong story structure as well, since each quarter of the book needs to accomplish distinct things.

  2. Oh, this post was so timely. I’m almost pulling my hair out at the overuse of certain words from last year’s draft! And they’re really weird nouns, too. Ah well.

    The structure timelines look like they’ll be really helpful for my upcoming WIP. I’m having a little trouble with that one’s first act, because I’ve got a lot to set up and introduce, not to mention I’ve got to select the plot points so that they affect both the protagonist and the main character, as in this story the two are different characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Usually, in stories in which you have a separate protagonist and main character, the characters will be populating the same story line. The protagonist is the one moving the plot, so his actions will create the plot points that will affect the main character.

  3. Great artists steal? 😉

  4. Awesome! I’m re-outlining my story now that I have a clearer idea of what happens. I had to get something on the paper before I could resolve some of my plot problems. The whole story has deepened and gelled much more since I finished the first draft, so I will probably end up doing quite a lot of rewriting. This post is a very helpful game plan for me as I keep developing the second-draft outline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      People sometimes give me funny looks when I tell them I outline my revisions. But it’s a super helpful technique for organizing yourself in a major rewrite.

      • I feel like the biggest need in the rewrite is to organize everything! So I should be organized in my process!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, just break it down, segment by segment, and take it one chunk at a time. That’s one reason I like focusing on structure, since it offers neat little segments to focus on.

  5. Amazing article! Thank you so much for the shout-out. 🙂 Happy editing!

  6. I LOVE this. It makes my planner heart so glad.

    I’ve found that for tic words, find > replacing with highlighted colors or different font colors helps me get through it all more effectively. If I do all caps for multiple words, it quickly becomes hard to see at a glance when the crutch word is HAND and when it is AND, etc. Though my manuscript quickly looks like a Christmas tree with all the different colors, I also find it easier to pinpoint just how many times a single word is cropping up, as well as getting a good sampling in general of how many tic words are on the page.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s a good point. I’m dealing with LOTS of all-cap words in my current revision. Some kind of color-coding system to remind me of the specific reason I’m wanting to reconsider each word would definitely be handy. I’ll have to look into how to do that.

  7. Howdy,

    I’m glad you’re in the editing trenches with us 🙂 Great post. Not so sure where to begin though. I didn’t roll out an outline beforehand so my story structure is pretty weak at this point. Not sure if I should read through first, compose an outline, or tidy up my protagonist. Do you compose arcs first or outline?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Structuring is part of outlining for me. After I do the basic brainstorming, I start figuring out plot points. Unless you’re a confirmed pantser, my recommendation would be to stop now, before you get any farther, and figure out your structure. The more you write now, without a proper structure, the more you’re going to have to rewrite later.

      • I hear you. It almost sounds like an exhortation to go to rehab. Stop while you still can. I can see myself in a “pansters anonymous meeting. Hello, my name is Benjamin…and—I’m a panster. *applause*

        I’m not a hard core panster though. There’s still hope for me yet. Don’t give up! I think Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda shook their heads many times while training Luke. Consider your ways young skywalker. Consider your ways.

        Trying not to get too overwhelmed but embrace the learning process as it comes. I had a lot of brainstorming, pre-writing beforehand but not much story structure. I heard of the three act structure but had no idea how to implement it when I began nanowrimo. That’s also when I discovered your website 🙂 Whoo hoo!

        I do have a game plan to read your outlining/structuring books at least once a month and digesting several appropriate posts from this site. In the mean time I have other details to work on in the story until I get a grasp on the structure. Like I said it should be fun. Learning should be fun right? I don’t want to dread learning the craft, editing, or outlining. That just sucks the joy right out of it.

        There’s lots of juicy points in this post but I’m so tired I’ll have to come back tomorrow and digest it a little more. But It’s time to read! I’m a little behind schedule and really need to finish the Einstein Prophecy tonight or tomorrow.
        Off to read then venture deeply into la la land.

        Thanks

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, don’t get overwhelmed. Honestly, I hesitated before posting that last comment. I’ve seen authors get overwhelmed by the thought of “losing” the work they’ve already put in while pantsing a draft. Sometimes it is better just to carry your momentum and keep going (much better, after all, to finish a draft, rather than finish only an outline). But my own experience has also taught me that running ahead without an outline can often cause more work in the long run than not.

          • No harm done. I had a good chuckle out of it 🙂 Giving myself the liberty to learn the elements of story structure over the course of the year with revision in view. Actually I feel quite relieved that I don’t have to rush to get something polished before it’s truly ready. I’m sure I’ll have to do a lot of rewriting but that’s okay. Taking it in stride as part of the process. Hopefully one I won’t repeat next time.

            Thanks

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Sounds like you’ve got totally the right mindset!

  8. This post came at the perfect time, as I’ve decided to get back to edits today after a couple weeks of working on another project. My one question is: do you have any tips for lowering your word count in just one part of a book? The third act (out of four) is almost twice as long as all the other acts, but everywhere else is fine. Thanks so much for the helpful post.

    ~K.A.C.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, the same tips apply to cutting words in any part of a book. But the shorter the segment, the harder it is! Just get really ruthless with yourself about what scenes are truly necessary. Also, see if you can move any of the revelations or developments to earlier in the story. For example, if characters are working through relationship stuff in the midst of a battle, perhaps the relationship scenes could be moved up.

  9. Mark Symms says:

    Great Article, and webinar lsat week. Off-topic here can you tells your Scrivener setup? I notice you have word counts next to your folder.

  10. Thanks for the post. I’m going to use a lot of these tips for editing my NaNo novel. It’ll be a big help.

  11. Amazing tips! There’s so much more to editing than just proofing for typos (no matter how many times I tell my mother this). Thanks!

  12. As always, great advice. I always worry about the ‘tic’ words so that part was extremely helpful. Hopefully my editing will improve with each time I write.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like to think that if each book I write/edit is just a little better than the last, then everything I write is a victory!

  13. Hi KM! I enjoyed hearing your different perspectives in the webinar last week.

    I do think you were not as organized as you could have been – as in A. Start (10 minutes) intro goals; B. C. D. . each author give a perspective (you KM about outlining for example … (10 minutes each), then answer questions, pre-sorted, adding in the late questions at the end of the hour. E. Wrap-Up Summarize, Pep-Talk (5 min.)

    I like your advice about outlining the revisions and will be working on that next.
    Thanks again. Mary Ellen

  14. I’m editing right now to get a book ready for submission. The biggest thing I do before I outline is right down what I WANT the book to be. Why did I write it? Why was I excited about it? How did I envision the characters? That vision surely may have changed while drafting, but I like to step back and figure out what motivated me to write in the first place, so I know where I want my edits to lead to.

    I’ve finished reading the draft and making notes on every plot, character, and setting issue I found, then took a stack of index cards and wrote a one-sentence synopsis of the scene for every scene in the book. That was…fun (FEEL the sarcasm). I marked whether the scene went to the main plot or subplot (or both, or none), and then layed them all out on a corkboard. I deleted some cards, added others, for every plot and subplot. Then I went through them all again and for every scene, took my notes and planned what I wanted to do for revisions. So many pretty colors, and a VERY understanding boyfriend.

    And now I’m writing in. I mindmap my outlines, dictate my drafts, and hand-write my revisions. Very peculiar, now that I think about it. But I attach the index card to each scene and pull out just the number of scenes I want to do a day. I leave the rest in a drawer so I don’t get overwhelmed. Once or twice a week, I’ll sit down and do a type-in of the revisions.

    When I’m done I’ll run it all through a beat sheet to make sure my edits didn’t push the structural points off, then let my CP get her hands on it. Once it’s back I’ll analyze and make more edits (so long as they fit with the vision that I wrote out at the beginning, but if they don’t, it’s often still a sign that SOMETHING is off, and I work on correcting that), and that’s when I try to obliterate the loosey-goosey words and make it sing. I give it back to my CP one more time, then make final corrections and proofread. While my CP has it I work on the synopsis and cover letter, and then take a break and do anything non-writing related. After the final proofread, I let it sit for a while, then read the whole thing one more time. If I think it’s ready, I’ll send it off to the publisher 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a fabulous idea! I do this myself and call it the “perfect review.” I try to write down everything that’s great about the book and everything that *should* be great, as if it were being recognized by a thrilled reader.

  15. This as so many of your articles was exactly the breakdown of an edit I needed. I have done others but this one mapped it out better than I’ve seen. I shared it with other CPs. and Pinterest articles. Thanks again for organizing my mess 🙂

  16. I have a question I’ve been wanting to ask for awhile now, and just never gotten around to because I’ve sort of taken a “break” from writing lately. I don’t like that about myself – I always said I was one of those types who had to write all the time but lately I’ve barely had any time. Anyway, my question is: how do you manage several writing projects at once, and actually make any head-way on any of them? It’s hard enough for me to juggle my time and get any writing done at all, but I have three projects going. I’m trying to make an outline for the edit of my NaNo novel, which so far is a catastrophic flop, do research for a new novel I really want to write, AND work on a rewrite of a previous novel (rewrites are absolutely no fun). Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The key to juggling projects *is* time. So if you’re struggling to keep all the balls in the air, the best plan might simply be to step back from a couple of them. I keep a max of two projects in the air at once, and rarely literally at the same time. I will write and revise different projects within the same time frame, but usually “revision” means the book is either “resting” or off with my critique partners, with only occasional deep forays into actual rewriting.

      However, if you’re emphatic about making the juggling work, then I would come back to what is, for me, my secret weapon: schedules. Create a daily or weekly schedule with assigned times for each project. Make it practical, so you won’t be intimidated in procrastination. You might even have to alternate days on different projects, or assign a much smaller amount of time to one or two projects. For example, were I in your shoes, and if I had only two hours to write, my plan of action would probably be to devote an hour to the most important project (probably the outline, unless I was under deadline on the revision project), then a half hour each to the others.

      • Thanks so much for the advice! I didn’t see your reply until just now. You’ve given me some good ideas! I’m really gratefully for getting feedback on my questions because having a second person look at a problem (in this case, my writing) always sheds some new light on it and helps me look at things from a different angle.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s the great thing about the writing community: it gives us extra eyes in what can be a very solitary profession. Glad to be of help!

  17. This article came up at the perfect time for me! I’m doing a 3rd round edit on one story, and a 1st edit on a companion story, and feeling a little overwhelmed on the second one. But these are solid strategies I can use to structure my revisions. I’m too much of a “pantser” for my own good, I think, so outlining my editing process sounds like a fantastic approach. Thanks for sharing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Bar none, the worst part of editing is that feeling of being overwhelmed. But the good news is that there’s *always* a path forward, if only we can find it. We just have to break down what we’re doing into logical steps.

  18. Oh dear, that realisation that all my writing is a hot mess! Loving this article 🙂 It’s definitely making things feel more manageable. It’s so true that sometimes big picture perspectives just get in the way of taking action, breaking down big goals into actionable first steps. Thanks 🙂

  19. I believe that the outlining/planning process for editing is often overlooked. After leading the editing process on four Law Review Journals for my law school, I would always recommend the other editors to plan out their process. Game planning the editing process saves me both time and energy in the long run.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess! How to Edit Your Book by K M Weiland via HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors.com: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/nano-novel-hot-mess-edit-book/ […]

  2. […] Your NaNo novel is a hot mess. K.M. Weiland explains how to approach revision and editing. […]

  3. […] Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess! How to Edit Your Book […]

  4. […] like the insurmountable Mt. Never Gonna Get There is because you don’t have a clear path forward. Facing a big edit–with lots of feedback from various sources–is like facing down the mopping up after a […]

  5. […] like the insurmountable Mt. Never Gonna Get There is because you don’t have a clear path forward. Facing a big edit–with lots of feedback from various sources–is like facing down the mopping up after a […]

  6. […] 2. Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess! How to Edit Your Book […]

  7. […] addition to the steps outlined by K. M. Weiland in “Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess! How to Edit Your Book”, here are more things you can do to help make your book or story publication […]

  8. […] 2. Your NaNo Novel is a Hot Mess! How to Edit Your Book […]

Speak Your Mind

*