So, after months (or years) of work, you’ve finally completed your novel and enjoyed the momentous occasion of typing “The End” on the last page. It is definitely a major milestone, but prepare for another type of work that will transform your diamond-in-the-rough (why do you think they call it a ‘rough’ draft?) into a sparkling literary jewel.
There are five major levels of editing and review, and this post will explore the benefits of each.
Substantive Editing / Alpha Readers
Don’t do all your editing alone. While some of these steps can be done by the author themselves, others can’t, and it’s important to find quality critiquers, editors, and readers to help polish your story.
Working through your manuscript yourself is the first editing step and can find the vast majority of errors. Simply switching your mindset from “just get it down on the page” to “how does this actually read” will work wonders.
Many improvements can be made such as replacing adverbs with descriptive text, eliminating repetitive phrases or thoughts, improving verb selection, fixing unclear pronouns, adding description or emotion to dialog tags, ensuring emotional responses and sensory descriptions are included, and generally tightening your prose.
Using automated tools like ProWritingAid or Grammerly can help an author identify both technical and style issues as well as offer corrections. Many features help reduce repetition, passive voice, and ‘sticky’ words that slow the reader down.
Going through self-editing may in fact take a few passes through the manuscript. A reduction in word count by 10-15% is not unusual in this step as you tighten your prose. The goal of self-editing is to get your story into a state where you’re comfortable sharing it with others.
Having a critique group is incredibly helpful for this step. Here, other authors or editors review your story for ‘big picture’ considerations. Does your story make sense? Does your main character have an arc? Are any character behaviors inconsistent? Is there sufficient tension or conflict? If speculative fiction, are the rules of your world explained and followed? Are there POV issues? If YA, is the work age appropriate? Is there too much backstory/exposition? Are there scenes that don’t add anything to the story?
Fixes from developmental editing often result in reordering paragraphs, adding new scenes, expanding descriptions, cutting unneeded backstory, and generally rearranging major sections of your manuscript. Word counts can increase significantly, decrease significantly, or remain about the same as sections are both added and deleted.
Note: This is one step, along with substantive editing, where the outside reviewers could be considered ‘alpha readers.’ Consider breaking the alpha readers into two stages as presented here as it is important to get the overall story solidified before focusing too much time on the details as they can often change.
Once the changes from the developmental editing are incorporated into the manuscript, and you again believe it is in a good state, again have other authors review and dig into the meat of your story. This is where ‘alpha readers’ review all aspects of your story. If developmental editing was big picture, substantive editing focuses on the nuts and bolts of the story.
Is there a good blend of dialog, action, narrative, and internal thought? Are the characters fully described? Are their emotions clearly portrayed? How is the pacing of the text? Are phrases overused or repeated? Is there too much telling and not enough showing? Are there verb tense issues? Is there a lot of passive voice? Are there good leads at chapter beginnings and hooks at chapter ends?
Word count may reduce slightly as prose is tightened or expand slightly as more setting or emotional descriptions are added.
Note: Again, this is a step often covered by the idea of ‘alpha readers.’ In this step, though, the story is set and the focus is on how it is communicated, focusing more on language and setting than logic or character arcs.
Once the adjustments from the substantive editing step are incorporated, the next step is to prepare the manuscript as much as possible for publishing. In this step, the focus is on the prose itself, such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Correct comma usage, whether you adhere to the oxford comma or not, is a large focus, as are quotes, ellipses, possessives, and em-dashes. Each sentence should be reviewed in detail and outside the context of the story.
Word count will likely change very little during this step.
The final result will be a manuscript that you believe, to the extent of your ability, is ready to be published.
Consider beta readers a trial run. Finding people who read a lot in your genre is really helpful to get the most out of this step. Here, it is not important to find other authors or specialized editors. You don’t want people figuring out what you’re trying to communicate in your work (that should have already happened in previous steps.) Instead, you want people telling you exactly what is coming across. Do they get it? Can they connect to the characters? Do the story arcs make sense? Could they not put the book down?
Feedback from this step is like insurance. It will identify any miscommunications you have between your work and your audience. Elements that other experienced authors may also not have noticed.
Once your manuscript is updated with feedback from your beta readers, you likely are in a good spot to go ahead and self-publish – if that’s your goal – or to start querying for an agent.
Either way, engaging in earnest in each of these five steps of editing will greatly help hone your writing and your novel into a tight, engaging, and entertaining piece of literature.