Self Editing Your Novel

Notes from a mini-course I attended at The Writers Festival this weekend.


Okay, so the first draft is about pure, unadulterated creativity. Totally right brain. You are writing this draft for you, writing yourself into the story and characters. You might have a particular plot in mind but then be totally wowed by what your story is really about at the end of this draft, and edit accordingly.

Then, with the second and subsequent drafts, it’s all about the left brain. You will need to be ruthless and objective. You will need to have the reader in mind, make your story and writing even more compelling. (I think at this point it’s a good idea to know which genre your story fits – which  writers and titles you see your title fitting along side).

So the following are pointers to look for when making your edits.


1. The opening chapter should….

‘Grab by the throat’.
Have a clear, consistent narrative voice.
Position the instability/jeopardy of the story on the first page.
Give an indication of the ‘story journey’, a sense of the feeling of the narrative to come.

2.  The ending….

You don’t have to tie everything up. You can leave little things hanging. 

3. There’s a saying in writing, arrive late, leave early. In other words, pay attention to the amount of back story you are including. Really fliter through what’s needed and what isn’t.

4. In general, tell your story in a linear chronology ie. it begins in 2013 and ends in 2014. Be careful with time line distortions, and if using them, make these very clear.

5. A short novel is 60, 000 words (most agents or publishers won’t consider this for a debut). 75,000 – to 100,000 is the average length. 120,000 words is quite rare – above this, alarm bells should be ringing.


1. What does your character want? How will they get it? What sees them on their way? Their reactions will always have consequences! Even though there might be less ‘story’ in literary fiction, things still have to happen…

2. Identify the strong building blocks of the story – how it affects your characters. Write vividly around these important points of the narrative.

2. Any subplots must be woven into the main story – they have to connect. (don’t pause the main plot for too long).

3. Now is the time to work on your themes, often not clear until the end of the first draft.

4. Make sure there is a clear narrative triangle in each scene…

Instability (where you start)
What happens (the narrative meat)
Where it ends up (a new instability)

For each scene write one sentence for each of the above.  Then write one sentence for those three. This will help to hone the narrative and it’s pace, making it more compelling. Any subplots need to include narrative triangles too.

5. Watch out for coincidences. Yes, they do happen in life, but too many in your story could look contrived. One coincidence should do it!

Characterisation (I will also be writing a another post on this)

1. Is the main character the right eyes for the story?

2. Does your main character go through a clear arc of change? Is he/she both consistent and changing?

3. Minor characters should also have a vital role in the narrative drive.

4. Be specific. Don’t keep repeating one aspect of their behaviour… the reader will get that it’s part of who they are from one situation.

5. Are your characters real and behaving authentically? Have you really got into their heads?

You could try going about your life as your character would – thinking/feeling/sensing.

6. Are you showing your characters through action (physically, speaking, thinking, interacting, changing)? Also with ‘show’ via dialogue, having your characters talking about something that has happened isn’t necessarily ‘show’ even though they are using their words. Instead, and especially if it’s a major building block of your story, it may be better to show the scene they’re talking about as it unfolded.

7. Listen to your characters! If they want to take you somewhere else, let them, follow them, and they will behave authentically. It might be they want to do something completely different than what you originally intended – they may know the story better than you do…

Prose Style (narrative voice)

1. Forget rules. There are no hard and fast rules.

2. The prose needs to have a pleasing rhythm which can be changed according to the content. Read your writing out loud to get an idea of how it sounds and feels.

3. Character voices within dialogue must all sound different in some way.

4. A disadvantage of writing only in the present tense (although it does give a very immediate voice) is that it doesn’t give enough space for reflection – so mix up the tenses. Third person does give the best objectivity, and allows for different points of view eg. the narrator’s, main protagonist etc.

5. Psychic  distance – Using your narrative voice to get closer or more distant from your character(s). It’s an excellent tool for manipulating your reader’s perception of your character – either being totally immersed in their head or from a ten foot radius. This can be used in both first and third person but what it does with third person, is that it makes the writing particularly multi-layered, moving gradually in and out of your character. It’s explained brilliantly here.

6. Watch out for ‘filler’ words like ‘just’ and ‘then’.


1. Be wary of writing script. Break it up with prose.

2. Is it authentic? Is it how we actually speak? Read it out…

3. What your character wants/is aiming for has to be part of the dialogue – in other words the dialogue needs to be specific to the story.

4. Make sure it is clear who is speaking.

5. Any description of body language with dialogue needs to be on the same line as the dialogue.

6. Watch out for repetition of information – don’t use dialogue to repeat things the reader already knows.


Coming up…

Approaching Agents (includes writing a professional cover letter and synopsis)
Self Publishing

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Characterisation | Sadie Hanson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: