6 Steps for Your Final Edit

how to edit a novelLast week, Lisa covered the big picture edit to take your manuscript from first draft to second draft. But now you’re ready for the final pass before you send your novel off to an agent, editor, or publisher. Here are the seven steps you need to take to make sure your story is ready to go.

(1) Look at Every Scene and Ask, “Did I Wimp Out?”

The scene might be structurally fine, it works, but your instincts tell you that something is off. You copped out when writing it. You know this scene could be better if you wrote it differently, but that different, better way involves a lot more work.

A “wimp out” scene can happen during the first draft when we’re focused on making our word goals or we’re tired or we’ve lost sight of the overall flow of the plot.

Don’t be fooled into thinking a scene isn’t a “wimp out” scene because it has conflict either. It might very well have conflict, but it doesn’t have enough conflict or it doesn’t have the most effective conflict.

In our novel, we have a scene where Zerynthia, our main female character, goes to the temple to worship, only to discover that the altar to the deity she’d worshipped her whole life had been replaced by a shrine to another goddess. It worked as a scene, but on second read-through, Lisa and I agreed it was fluffy. I rewrote it to show not only the emotional effect on Zerynthia, but also the dark, disturbing aspects of this new goddess and her worshippers.

(2) Check for POV Mistakes

POV mistakes sneak in when we’re trying to convey information. If your character doesn’t see it, think it, feel it, taste it, touch it, or smell it, you can’t describe it. (For more on POV, check out our posts Problems with Point of View and 5 Tips for Writing Deep POV.)

In the first draft of chapter 2, we wrote about Zerynthia, “She pushed against the familiar binding constricting her breasts, her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back.”

But why would Zerynthia be thinking about her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back? We’d meant it as her doing a check list, but it wasn’t coming across that way to readers.

We changed it to “She pushed against the familiar binding constricting her breasts, and tightened the tie fastening her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back.” A small change, but it erased the POV violation.

A second aspect of POV is to consider the speech patterns and word choices of each character. Would he use that word? Would he say it that way? Our characters are not us, and we need to be careful to be true to their voice when we’re in their POV.

For example, if a character speaks in short choppy sentences, a scene written in their POV shouldn’t have long, flowing sentences that pile phrase upon phrase. Scenes in their POV don’t need to replicate exactly the character’s speech patterns, but there does need to be a sense of consistency.

(3) First Lines and Last Lines

I’m sure you know the first line of your novel needs to grab your reader and pull them in. But each chapter needs to do the same thing to a smaller degree.

In her post this Monday, Kristen Lamb wrote “Never leave a place to put a bookmark.” The end of a chapter is the logical place for someone to set your book aside until later. Use your last line and first line to push them over that potential rut so they can’t slide in a bookmark.

Copy and paste all the first and last lines in your novel into a Word document and look at them isolated from the context. Would they make it so that you couldn’t put the book down?

(4) Eliminate Weasel Words

Weasel words are slimy and slippery and lack all value. If you can cut a word from a sentence and the meaning doesn’t change, get rid of it. (Word’s “Find” feature works great for this.)

  • that
  • really
  • great
  • just
  • a lot
  • interesting
  • wonderful
  • very
  • sure
  • often
  • usually
  • many
  • most

(5) Kill the Clichés

ClicheSite.com provides a listing of 2100 cliches, euphemisms, and figures of speech you need to murder. Unless you’re using them in a character’s speech as a way to define that character, find a fresher way to say it.

(6) White Space

Zoom out to about 50% (so that you can see two pages at a time) and scroll through your book looking for big blocks of text or areas where there’s too much white space.

Big blocks of text are a hint at slow spots, and too much white space in a row indicates you might be skimping on the description/setting or internal dialogue.

Fiction is about balance. If your novel runs at a harried pace the entire time, eventually your reader will feel the same as if they’re listening to a speech where the speaker is shouting the whole time. That’s no more effective than a speaker who’s always talking in a monotone. Vary your pace to keep them interested.

What last minute check do you just have to make before you send your “baby” off into the world?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Editing For The Second Draft

So, you’ve gotten the first draft finished. Congrats! Now the hard work begins – editing. I thought I’d let you all have a sneak peek behind the laptop and see what steps we’re taking with the second draft of our WIP.

Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period. – Nicholas Sparks

If you haven’t yet finished your first draft, this is my best advice: Try to resist editing as you write your first draft. Otherwise it’s easy to get bogged down and then your writing stalls. Just get it out.

writing on laptopDifferent people have different methods of editing, and our second draft is a quasi mixture of steps that should be done before you start writing as well as those needed in a first edit. Generally there are two steps writers take when working on a project of any size. The first step is the BIG picture edit. Step back and examine the structure of your story – will it hold itself up? The next step is the copy edit where you’re going to take the work chapter by chapter and examine every sentence and word. Don’t try to do both at once. If you haven’t got the big picture elements sorted, the copy edit is useless.

Plot And Conflict

This is a chance to critically examine your WIP as a whole work. If there’s a scene/chapter/character that you could remove and not affect the story line, it should go. Be ruthless. Does every scene contain relevant conflict – the kind that propels or forces the characters to react or change? If not, you need to edit for that.

This point was made clear to me in an interview with Peter Jackson, Director for New Line Cinema’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. If you’ve read the story by Tolkien, you know that the movies left a lot out. Peter Jackson said (I’m paraphrasing) that the movie focused on the path of Frodo and the ring. Everything else from the book didn’t make the cut. He had to narrow the focus of the story for the movie significantly. Big picture focus right there.


Who is your book for? If you don’t know, figure it out. And don’t just say – for adult women. Narrow it down. For more on audience, check out our Know Your Audience post. For us, we knew that we had to edit for a different audience than we had planned for in the first draft. Changing the intended audience is a huge undertaking. The first draft was written for a female Christian (uber-conservative) market, and we’ve switched to a general market audience, mostly male. That means, for us, ramping up the battle scenes, and instead of the male and female protagonists having an equal share of the time, the male protagonist gets the bigger spotlight, etc.


Determining your market is so important – especially if you’re writing genre fiction: romance, historical, horror, etc. You MUST know the genre you’re writing in.

We intended our WIP to be a historical romance with the first draft, so the focus was more on the romance in a historical setting. Now, we’re editing for a historical market. There is still a strong romantic element, but the focus has shifted from the love between the two protagonists, to the historicity: society, intrigue and politics of the historical setting. We had both read dozens of historical romance novels, but now we checked out at least a dozen historical novels that share a historical setting with our novel, and really studied how those authors described things, and made their worlds rich.


Whether your novel is plot or character driven, knowing your characters’ motivations and desires is absolutely essential to a successful novel. This is one of those big picture items that really should be solidified before you write your first draft. Editing for a minor tweak in a character’s motivation or desire early in the novel can affect his/her whole character arc resulting in significant editing to the plot and conflict. Ask yourself why is your character acting/doing/reacting that way in every scene – and what do they hope to accomplish/gain/achieve in every scene. If you don’t know, your readers won’t have a clue. Confused readers stop reading.


This is a first draft step, but we realized we hadn’t done enough research. We Googled the time period, the people groups, etc. We visited sites for historical reenactment groups. We read thesis papers about the time period by grad students. We searched flickr for photos of artefacts. We searched Youtube to see many things. We read the historians of the time. We read archaeology reports, and historical theories. We checked out books on art, we studied tattoos. We picked Marcy’s husband’s brain – as a former US Marine his experience in warfare has been valuable.

We wanted as many concrete details as we could get to make as few assumptions about this world as possible. This set us back at least 6 weeks (remember we each did half the work and shared what we had learned).

Sensory details and description

Marcy and I are sparse writers on the first draft – so we write knowing those details are something we’ll edit for. The last note I received from Marcy: You sure you want to have them climb an elm tree? I looked it up. Elm trees are supposed to smell like poop. See how much fun co-writing is? We are now going through every scene and including details that will make the world come alive for readers, to bring them into the action of the story.

Your turn. How is your WIP coming along? We’d love to hear about the ups and downs.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

ROW80 Week 4 – Writer or Editor?

My original ROW80 goal was to edit 7 chapters a week (or 1 chapter a day) on the novel Lisa and I are co-writing. This week I finished 10 chapters, and anticipate being able to finish an even greater number this coming week.

Based on a conversation I joined in on via Twitter a couple times this week, I think that my goals might be some people’s worst nightmare. Turns out, not everyone prefers editing their work to the original writing.

Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy writing. I just prefer editing what I’ve already written to the actual process of writing it in the first place. To me, it seems like then the heavy lifting is already done. What’s left is polishing and refining, and I love that detailed, careful work.

What about you? Do you prefer to write? Or do you prefer to edit what you’ve written?