I Finished My Novel! Now What?

I’m ready to publish! No, wait… I’m supposed to edit this. Make revisions, and proofread it. Or hire an editor? How does this work?

I recently returned from a conference where I attended a panel discussion on exactly this topic, and despite the wide variation in strategies and techniques the authors described as we got deeper into the subject, they were unanimous on the subject of Step #1: set that baby aside. Put it away and don’t look at it for … how long can you wait? A few weeks? A couple of months would be even better. Work on another project for long enough that you can come back to your finished manuscript with “fresh eyes.”

“I don’t need to do that, I edit as I go along, so when I’m finished I just need to proofread it and it’s ready for publishing.” Yup, that came up in the discussion. It’s not uncommon, but all the authors on the panel cautioned against this strategy. Developmental or structural editing addresses the manuscript as a whole—there needs to be a completed story in order to edit one. It’s one thing to take a look at what you wrote yesterday (or whenever you last sat down to work on your story) and do some cleanup on that, but don’t overdo it. Otherwise you may end up either editing all the life and personality out of the work (by trying to follow all the “rules”) or have a picture-perfect Chapter 1…and nothing else!

Now sit down and read through it. Take notes on anything that you notice that doesn’t sound right, that you have a better idea how to handle, that doesn’t work as well as you thought it did when you wrote it. Look for plot holes, continuity issues, and learn what your “first draft style” is—some writers overwrite and tighten things up in the revision stage, others write spare first drafts and expand their descriptions or other neglected aspects in later versions.

Here’s where the various authors’ strategies diverged…! Some approaches:

  • Do you write mysteries or thrillers? One self-published author on the panel noted that he’ll do one pass to make sure all his “Chekhov’s guns and red herrings” are in order.
  • Break the manuscript down by scenes. In each scene, your main character has a goal, which should be evident to the reader within the first few paragraphs (whether or not they are going to achieve it). When editing, review the action and elements of each scene to make sure everything is in some way relevant to that goal and not wandering off into left field.
  • Here’s an extra-intense strategy if you’re up for it—color code your entire manuscript based on these five elements: plot, character development, setting, subplot movement, and atmosphere/theme. Every scene needs the first two—if not, something needs to be added, or the scene combined with another scene. Every scene should have at least three colors in it when you’re done highlighting. If not, it’s incomplete and you can then see what needs to be revised or added.
  • Reverse outlining is a great strategy that was recommended as well. Even if you’re a “pantser,” this will show you the flow of your story and make it easier to see where there are extraneous elements or vital pieces missing. Create an outline of what you actually wrote, then compare it to the three-act structure, or the Hero’s Journey, or whatever you think is most applicable for you. The point is to create a visual guide to help you see if you are lacking conflicts or challenges or resolutions to them, or if you leap into the central crisis without necessary preparation.
  • Another method the whole panel agreed on: read your manuscript out loud. Print it out or export it to your Kindle, and read every word out loud to yourself—or if you have a very good friend or helpful family member, have them read it to you. This is a fantastic way to notice when dialogue doesn’t sound the way real people speak, and for locating repetitiveness and awkward phrasing.

Their final thoughts:

  • Try out different tools and methods and find the ones that work for you, that you enjoy.
  • Use beta readers and make sure they are well-read in your genre.
  • Errors will make it through. Books from the big traditional New York publishers have a few errors in them. It’s an unavoidable part of the business. That said, don’t publish a mess because you think readers don’t care—they do.
  • Hire professional editors! Don’t try to do everything yourself. Grammarly is not an editor. Your friend the English major is not an editor. There’s more to it than you might realize. Ask for sample edits from a number of editors to find the right person to work with.

Most of all, never stop growing, never stop trying new things, and enjoy the journey. 💜 Happy writing!

Robin J Samuels is the owner of Shadowcat Editing, an independent editing service where every client receives personalized editing and proofreading services tailored to their specific needs. Shadowcat specializes in fiction genres including romance, urban fantasy, thrillers, and LGBTQ, and nonfiction material on the subjects of business, finance, and self-help. In her spare time Robin is a devoted cat-mom, sometime webcomic author, and an expert-level binge-watching TV junkie.

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