In this post, Kris Spisak shares 5 novel editing questions to ask before any next steps in the publishing process, including "does your story have a strong narrative drive," "is your protagonist too passive," and more.
Storytelling is one of humanity's miracles, enabling people's minds to travel to new places, think new ideas, solve problems new and old, and become enriched with greater depths of understanding. If you are a writer, you have the ability to shape worlds with your words. How amazing is that? But you must make sure your project is truly ready for the masses before attempting to push it on its way. Sometimes we're so eager to move on to the next steps—agents and publishers and readers, oh my!—that we jump a bit ahead of ourselves.
Editing is a way to empower your work by bringing your story to the next level, but here's the little-known secret: "editing" doesn't just mean looking for typos and grammar mistakes. It doesn't just mean doing a careful read-through starting on page one of chapter one.
As a freelance fiction editor, I see a lot of stories. I have frequent conversations with first-time authors about what kind of editing their book might need, but often when writers are thinking about punctuation reviews, their projects actually need deeper consideration. Many agents and publishers will be hands-on with editing, but it must start with you, the author. In this deeply competitive publishing landscape, rushed manuscripts don't have a chance of breaking through to the next level.
Hold up, writers. You've got this. However, you're not doing yourself or your work any favors by calling it "done" before it actually is.
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5 Novel Editing Questions to Ask Yourself Before Any Next Steps
Does Your Story Have a Strong Narrative Drive?
Is your book a selection of scenes or is it a well-structured story? Great scenes can be compelling, but a novel is more than a collection of moments—no matter how well written those moments may be. A novel is a narrative that moves from point A to point B to point C, driven by a problem (a plot) that shows itself in chapter one and is the driving force of every chapter moving forward.
Do all of your scenes stay with your plot line, or do you have unrelated tangents? If you ever wander away from your plot, closely examine those scenes and whether they actually add anything to your total story. Or if you don't have a narrative structure that shapes your total manuscript around a focused plot, maybe there's some work yet to be done.
Is Your Protagonist Too Passive?
The story should not simply happen to your main character. They need to have agency, to be an active player in their own life events. Does this mean they always need to be in control? Hardly. Does this mean that they can never be surprised by events that occur? Not at all. But what it does mean is that they cannot simply react to events and circumstances again and again throughout the course of your story.
They need to make decisions—right or wrong—that shape their own destiny and change the person (or animal or other creature) that they are. Active characters are easier for readers to connect with and cheer for. And isn't reader connection what it's all about?
Are You Beginning with the Best Beginning?
When you think about your book, you need to think about where the best entry-point is for your readers. The beginning does not necessarily need to be the first page you wrote or the first scene that you envisioned. How can you create intrigue immediately, showing who your protagonist is and what they may be up against?
Perhaps that dream sequence was a great warm-up exercise for you as a writer, but it is actually far too cliché for a final draft. Perhaps waking up was where your character started their day, but that is not where the book should begin. Perhaps knowing your book's last page, you can now see the perfect parallel for its opening.
Maybe your chapter one is perfect, but spend some time with it to make sure it is. This is what agents and publishers see first. If your book isn't at its best here, you won't have the chance to show them how you've gotten it right in other places.
Is Your Story Full of Data Dumps?
Remember that the best way to inform your readers of something is not to dump a bunch of data on their heads. It's as true for character backgrounds and world-building as it is for historical or scientific research that plays into your plot. We've talked about narrative drive and where to begin, and this question plays into both of these areas.
If you have a paragraph—or a page or a chapter—where you leave your story to explain something, the momentum of your narrative is lost. Your reader is ripped away from your plot. Consider how you can weave essential information into your scenes rather than taking major sidesteps away from your story.
Did You Think Beyond Your First-Draft Language Choices?
So often, writers are so gosh darn proud of themselves for finishing an entire book that they don't go back to critically examine the words that they used to get there. The language that first came to your mind enabled your story to progress forward and come to its conclusion, but that does not mean that these words are what's needed in your final draft. Some words might be tiresome if you use them too frequently. Some phrasings might be stale if readers have encountered them too many times before. Some verbs may be sloppy. Some clichés might have snuck in without you noticing.
Reconsider your language choices on every single page to fine-tune your manuscript and elevate it to the story you know it can be.
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Self-editing is an essential part of the creative process, but don’t think of it as drudgery. Think of it as polishing your book to a shine. Think of it as doing justice to all of the work you've put in before. By taking the time to be thorough in your revisions, your book's possibilities will expand exponentially. And that's not a miracle. That's you, as a writer, putting in the work and making things happen.