Before delving into specific novel editing tips, I’ll state clearly for anyone who stumbled across this blog in search of a fiction editing start point, DON’T start here. This blog assumes all of your characters are fully developed (including your antagonist, whether its a person or an internal or external force). So if there’s any chance they’re not, I suggest reading my Character Development Checklists. If your characters and overall story structure are good to go, its time to check your writing is clear and engaging in each scene and line. Read on for a list of the main scene and line edit tips I’ve given fellow writers feedback on, as their critical reader.
Novel Scene Level Edit Tips
Orient the reader first
Yes, adjectives, similes, imagery, metaphors etc can enrich your setting and help your writing pull a reader into a scene. But before you throw lots of scenic details at the reader, give them a chance to get orientated. Show them who is where, show a bit of that character via what that person is doing, then drip feed in some scenic details. Be wary of obscuring your main character and the role they’re playing in the opening scene by bombarding the reader with too much scenic detail.
Count Your Cast
On the same note, don’t have your office worker greet every co-worker by name as they enter the office. (And if you have a party in the first few chapters, limit who your main character interacts with to significant characters only, not half the guest list). Naming, let alone describing too many characters before they start playing an active role in the story can jumble people together in the reader’s head. If the reader doesn’t have a clear sense of who’s who, it can be extremely difficult to follow what’s happening in the opening scene (or what the book is about when successive chapters are overcrowded with named characters).
Try to give the reader time with the first point of view character you introduce, and bring other cast members on set gradually, preferably as each does something typical of themself and or contributes to the plot. That will make your characters easier to remember, and your main story easier to follow.
And literally keep a count of how many characters you name. In epic fantasy in particular, with multiple pov characters who have family, friends etc, its easy to create a named cast in the hundreds, even though Susan the maid’s only role is to open the curtains in scene three. Don’t name Susan. Just call her ‘the maid.’ If you’ve got minor characters who don’t appear often but do perform necessary on-screen roles, refer to them by role, or relationship to a more important character. Eg. ‘Barry’s cousin.’
Description and Action or Pacy Scenes
If you’re writing an action scene, or a tense or otherwise fast pace —drop the scenic details. Omit them entirely. In first or close third-person narration, the pov character is unlikely to note the type of metal, decorative style and likely national origins of the sword slashing at their face —they’re too busy trying not to get their head split open. And writing that way isn’t just about plausibly narrating a character’s view point. Detailed scenic descriptions can obscure rapid events or key conversations the reader is trying to follow.
They happen fast. So write short sentences. Think powerful verbs, not adverbs. Narrate action at the speed it unfolds. And remember: your character doesn’t have time to notice much. So don’t wax poetic.
Point of View Consistency
Is every sentence in that character’s pov chapter really from their point of view? Or is Tim noticing things about Geoff that only Geoff would notice (or even know)? Or did we open the scene through Sarah’s eyes, then end up floating vaguely over her head, seeing everyone and everything?
Did you write mostly in close third person, but write the occasional sentence in which you as the narrator pass moral judgement on the scene (suddenly switch to third person omniscient)? Any one of these things can make a scene jarring for a reader, or even pull them out of your story.
Telling Feelings, Instead of Showing them
When you see Tom hunch over, his hands protectively clasping a newly forged sword, as if shielding it and himself from his master screaming: “Can’t you get anything right?” you feel more for Tom than if I said: his master’s relentless criticisms made Tom feel small.
Yes ‘show don’t tell’ may have been pushed too indiscriminately as writer advice, but showing character feelings makes invites readers to connect with and emotionally invest in your characters. Its part of what persuades readers to stick with characters, seeing them through their challenges (or to see a villain get their comeuppance). A popular resource to help you choose physical reactions or internal sensations to describe to show your character’s emotions is The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Line Edit Tips
Before we zoom in on line level, try to resist perfecting the dialogue, dialogue tags and scenic descriptions of chapter four. Because when you get to chapter five, you’re going to realise that most of chapter four is info dumping and you’ll delete most of it, and merge its remnants with chapter five.
If you’re a pantser or plantser like myself, you may re-read and do some edits while drafting, to keep the story on track and ensure it does arrive at its ending. You may quickly fix typos that hurt your eyes, or the odd sentence so mangled you simply can’t leave it. But try not to get bogged down about how this sentence is phrased, or how the word choices in that bit of dialogue don’t quite match that character’s personality. First, judge whether or not that scene is purposeful, is worthy of remaining in your novel, well paced, and that the only thing you now need to do with it is refine it at word level.
Personal Pronoun Clarity
My golden rule with pronouns, especially if you’re writing a nonbinary character using they/ them/ their or other pronouns is: the most recently named character is the character the personal pronouns belong to.
Eg. It’s not: She didn’t want to clean her room. She said, ‘Clean it now!’ because this sounds like the same woman arguing with herself. You need to state clearly that it was Sarah who didn’t want to clean her room, and Mum who said, “Clean it now!”
This is even more important if sometimes “they” means those men and women, and sometimes “they” means that nonbinary person. If your nonbinary character and their friend of whatever gender are doing something together, I sometimes say ‘the pair did x,’ after naming both. You could also use collective nouns instead of ‘they’. Eg. ‘the students,’ ‘the workers’ ‘the friends’ etc. Another option is ze/zir or other personal pronouns for the nonbinary character, so ‘they’ as a group of people can’t be confused with ‘they’ the individual nonbinary person.
Have you used the same noun ten words apart? Eg. She slung her bag over her shoulder. She stuffed the potion ingredients into the bag. Is the bag important, is the potion important, is packing the bag important, or is it the fact she’s delivering a mind-reading potion to the Prime Minister that matters?
Keep an eye out for when you’ve accidentally repeated words that don’t matter. Those can jar the reader, and prompt them to focus on unimportant things. Similarly, don’t repeat adjectives with nouns unless its really important to the story that the reader remembers that, for example, its a ‘high window’ instead of just a ‘window.’
He clutched at the retreating horse. How would he ever escape now? There was nothing he could do. He was so angry. He was so worried. He was so sick of the author saying ‘he’ repeatedly😉.
My personal preference for changing it up here is to alternate between starting a sentence with or using the character’s name in one sentence, and their pronouns in the next. However, when the character is nonbinary and ‘they’ could be plural or singular, I make sure ‘they’ singular always comes after the nonbinary characters’ name, so its clear ‘they’ is my nonbinary main character Ruarnon, as opposed to ‘they’ being Ruarnon AND Ruarnon’s friends.
When its: Earasin says, “Did you get the package?”
And Merador replies, “No.”
Then Erasin says, “What if someone intercepted it?”
And Merador replies, “Then we’re in deep shit”
—there are more dialogue tags than necessary. If this conversation continued between only these two characters, you could break it up with character actions. Example, having Earasin rake his hands through his hair and Merador pace restlessly, instead of relentless ‘said whoever’ or ‘replied the other.’ Or you could drop dialogue tags altogether, because we know who both speakers are and that Erasin speaks first while Merador responds. Ideally, each character significant character has their own style of speech, favourite words etc which remind the reader who is saying which bit of the conversation. (And later in the book we will ideally know that character well enough to have a good idea what they are likely to feel or think in response to story events and that will also help us know who is speaking.)
As an English teacher (in Australia, England and New Zealand) the rule I’m familiar with is: new speaker =new paragraph. You might have a sentence narrating an action, thought or feeling applied to that speaker afterwards, and perhaps the same speaker speaks again. But if it’s: “Then we’re in deep shit,” Merador replied. Erasin slumped. I’d write it:
“We’re in deep shit,” Merador replied.
With the above paragraphing, its super clear to the reader who said what and who did what. And if your story has a lot going on (especially if there’s lots of characters doing it), paragraphing (or phrasing) events as clearly as possible makes it easier for the reader to not get confused.
Yes, you want to avoid using fancy synonyms for ‘said’ that may pull a reader out of the story, eg. ‘He pontificated.’ So if you’re worried about how many times you’ve said ‘said,’ try substituting it for neutral-sounding words. Eg. ‘asked, suggested, objected.’
Have you used powerful verbs instead of adverbs? Eg. instead of ‘They walked swiftly’ try ‘They rushed/ hurried/ raced.’ This is particularly useful in action scenes when you want fast-paced sentences. It can also help your sentences flow better.
There are phrases that require more words to get meaning across, which don’t add any value to sentences. I suggest doing a search and replace for the phrases below and any others your critical readers spot.
Eg. ‘In order to’ =’to.’ ‘Was able to’ =’could.’
On the same note, filler words are single words that add to your word count without telling the reader anything they don’t already know and without adding value to a sentence.
Eg. Just, even, turned, only, that (NB. sometimes ‘that’ is necessary for meaning and sometimes it’s merely a filler word, so be mindful of that before you auto-cull it).
Again, do a search for filler words and see how many unnecessary words that removes from your novel. For a list of these, see the second link below.
These are words that remind the reader they are looking through someone else’s eyes, which can make the story feel more distant, or even pull the reader out of the story.
Eg. Sarah looked at Tom who was… vs. Tom was…
‘Felt’ can also remind the reader, ‘this is how character x is feeling,’ ie. ‘you’re not there, you’re not feeling it’. Reminding the reader that they are merely reading can push them away from the character, emotionally distancing them from your writing. This can make the reading experience less emotionally powerful, and less satisfying.
‘Looked’ and ‘felt’ are some good ones to do a search and replace for.
Character Development Checklists, by me.
9 Tips for the First 5 Pages, by me.
Filter Words and Phrases to Avoid in Fiction, by Anne R. Allen, which categorises filter word lists, and offers suggestions on alternative phrasings.
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