Saturday, 27 October 2012

Editing & Word-Smithing

How should an author edit their own novel? Well, I’m doing it right now for Eden’s Revenge, and thought I’d set down some guide-rules for the record.

First, the novel should be in a good state of repair. It should have been edited several times already, chapter by chapter, to the point that the author is reasonably happy with it, and some ‘readers’ are too. What I do then, is wait a month, not touching it, getting some mental and emotional ‘distance’ between me and the novel. Three months would probably be better, but I’m not that patient.

Having worked on it for 1-3 years double-spaced 12 point Times New Roman, I print it out single-spaced so that there are two pages on each sheet of A4 (well, I print it double-sided as I care about trees). I then read it as if it were a book, making corrections and notes with a pen here and there. At the end of each chapter, I fire up my Sony and then put in the edits. Here's the thing: I have to print it out to do this type of editing - just reading it on a screen is not the same. It might work for some authors, not this one.

Then, I go through it from the start to the end, a chapter at a time, and I don’t leave a chapter until I’m happy with it. Here’s a rough checklist – not that I use it religiously:

  1. Does each chapter have a good opening line and paragraph, and a good finish line?
  2. Is there some kind of ellipse between the beginning and the end, to give a sense of resonance?
  3. Is the place and time clear at the start of each chapter?
  4. Is it clear from whose point of view (POV) the chapter is written?
  5. Is there tension in the chapter? Does the tension increase?
  6. Is the dialogue predictable? (if so re-write it)
  7. Do I avoid my common faults, grammatical irregularities, clichés, pet colours, as well as overuse of my favourite adjectives, unusual nouns, verbs and (heavens!) adverbs? Have I ‘word-smithed’ it enough (not too little, not too much)?
  8. Do I vary sentence structure and length?
  9. Are there any dangling pronouns?
  10. Do I get ‘hooked’ when I read it?
  11. Is the setting and action ‘visual’? Does it read like watching a movie?
  12. Does the end make me want to turn the page?

  1. Are the first and last two chapters as good as they can possibly be?
  2. Are too many characters and points of view introduced too early in the book?
  3. Is it clear what the main characters want, and what is blocking them? Is external conflict matched by inner conflict?
  4. Are characters consistent, including their ‘voice’, throughout the book?
  5. Do the protagonists change by the end of the book? Have events changed them in some way?
  6. Are the chapters in the most effective order (in terms of impact) for the reader?
  7. Is the tone consistent throughout the book?
  8. Have I avoided the ‘sagging middle’ phenomenon often afflicting novels?
  9. Have I overused or repeated any ‘plot devices’?
  10. Have I avoided ‘Deus ex Machina’?
  11. Is the book paced well? Is suspense maintained?
  12. Does the story deliver on all its promises, tie up all loose ends, yet still leave me craving more?

The above guidelines are not for all novels, but they are the ones I use. I try to do this editing of the entire book in about a week. It has to be done in a short space of time, so that, for example, if I use the strong verb ‘strafe’ on page 12, then a few days later when I see that I’ve used the same word on page 124, I may change it to another strong verb so it still has impact. Certainly if I saw the word again on page 300, I’d definitely change at least one of its uses. Similarly if one character uses ‘Dammit!’ a lot, and then I have another character using it later on, I would probably change it. Such seemingly minor details are picked up by readers, who sometimes read an entire book in a few days. It is therefore important to do manuscript editing in a short period of time, because otherwise these small details will be forgotten.

When I finish it, I then send it off to a professional reader, for two reasons. The first is that such a reader will see it differently and may point out inconsistencies or sections that don’t make sense to them, or even sections that might offend some readers (due to a blind spot in the author’s sensibilities – this happened to me on book 2, and I duly changed it!). The second reason is that such a review normally takes a month, and so when I see the novel again I can read it with a fresher mind. If the urge to edit and change is still there, then it clearly isn’t ready. My first book (The Eden Paradox) went through three such cycles over an eighteen month period, my second book (Eden’s Trial) two cycles, so this time, fingers crossed.

One final rule is that when I am doing such editing, then it matters what I’m reading, too. I’m currently reading the Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, whose literary scifi style is excellent. Trouble is, I’m nearly at the end, so I have to get my editing done soon, though I have my reliable back-up of the latest Iain Banks scifi novel waiting just in case!


  1. Yes! One of the biggest mistakes I see in writers' works is the overuse of particular words or phrases, but all this is absolutely true. Good post, Barry.


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