Sunday 25 April 2021

Writers’ Questions: How should I edit my novel?

Ever since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’ve been answering questions about the writing and publication process on my blog. Today, I’m tackling the all-important topic of revision. 

This was a tricky one to write, as, unlike some authors who have a structured editing process (e.g. doing different edits for character, plot, sentence-level etc.), I a) revise a lot as I go, and b) make all of these changes at once. Rather than a step-by-step guide then, think of this blog post as a list of things to watch out for, no matter when and how you choose to do your edits. 

A final disclaimer is that I am a traditionally published writer. This article is assuming that you’re writing a book to submit to literary agents, rather than preparing to self-publish a manuscript. These tips are not designed to replace the need for a professional edit and copy-edit. 

So, let’s get into it. In no particular order, here are just some of the things to watch out for when you’re reading your novel with fresh eyes.

Inconsistent details

Does your character have blue eyes in Chapter Four, but brown eyes by Chapter Seven? Is the sunset visible from the same window where your cast watched the sunrise just hours before? Sure, maybe only a few readers will pick up on these errors, but for those who do, this kind of sloppiness will negatively impact their immersion in your world. You know your book better than anyone (after all, you wrote it!), so get the details right. 

Confused time/date/weather markers

I understand: things change as you write a novel, and sometimes the markers in your prose of how time is passing suffer as a result. Read your manuscript through this lens to see if you’re giving your readers enough info to understand where they are in time…and not inadvertently turning back the clocks or creating a crazy climate.

Point of view violations

I’ve written a whole blog post in this series on what point of view is and how important getting it right is to the success of a novel. In short, readers need to understand whose viewpoint we’re experiencing your story from, or, to borrow an analogy from filmmaking, where the camera is placed. Look for moments big and small where you’ve included information your point of view character couldn’t possibly know and cull them mercilessly. While you’re at it, also check you’re not employing filter words and distancing us from your chosen perspective.

Repeated words

Every writer has favourite words, but each time you inadvertently repeat one, it loses its power. Be aware of your writing habits and switch up your vocabulary where you can. Listening to your novel via text-to-speech applications can be particularly helpful here. That said, there is also a time and place for repetition. Check our this post I wrote eight years ago on how Charles Dickens employs repetition to great effect in one of his short stories.


This is another topic I’ve written about before, so you can read a full explanation here. TL/DR: adverbs are often a symptom of too much telling and not enough showing.


This leads us to telling in its many other forms. The most egregious to my mind is naming emotions to explain to readers how your character is feeling. Can you show us instead, through actions, body language, and dialogue? I’ve previously shared more thoughts on showing vs. telling here.

Lack of rhythmic variety

Having too many sentences in a row with the same number of words, words of the same number of syllables, repeated words beginning or ending the sentence, or identical sentence structures is the quickest way to put your readers to sleep, regardless of your book’s content. This is another area where listening to your work when editing is a godsend. Mix it up! 

Excessive use of passive voice

Like rhythmic monotony, constant use of the passive vs. active voice acts as a soporific, while also robbing your characters of agency. I’ve written a detailed blog post if you want to get better at spotting and eradicating unnecessary passive (hot tip: if you can add “by zombies” to a clause, you’re using passive!).


As a historical novelist, I have to be eagle-eyed to ensure I’m not ruining the illusion of transporting my readers to the past. Part of this for me is spending a lot of time while editing looking at etymology and date of first usage for words to maintain historical accuracy even at a sentence level.

Incorrect formatting

There’s a standard way to format a novel manuscript and its constituent parts (e.g. dialogue). Learn the best practices and employ them in your edit, even if your first draft was written by hand or in a non-standard format that works for you.

Spelling and grammar errors

Oh yes, and you have to have perfect spelling and grammar too! Don’t just think “the copyeditor will fix this later.” It’s on you to make your novel as great as you can—alone.

So, there you have it—an incomplete list of ways to get started if you’re tackling an edit! It’s a lot of hard work, but just know that with every change you execute, you’re making your book more powerful.

What topic would you like to see me write about next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel Bronte’s Mistress is available for order now, and for monthly updates from me delivered direct to your inbox, sign up for my email newsletter below.

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