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My 10 Top Tips for Revising and Self-Editing Your Novel or Creative Non-Fiction

Everyone - well, mostly - knows that finishing a first draft is just the beginning of writing a novel or creative non-fiction that really works. If the definition of an editor is the person who helps you to write the book you think you've already written, then when you're self-editing, you need to keep in touch with what you hope you've written, while getting ruthlessly real about what you actually have written.

Debi Alper and I developed and have co-taught the six-week online course Self-Editing Your Novel at Jericho Writers for many years now, and when the next course starts course starts on 26th March we'll be edging towards our 500th student. Each student's work is focused on their own book, and Debi - who these days does the day-to-day feedback - knows better than anyone how differently different writers work.

But while as a writer you write the first draft "for yourself", to find out what this story is, one of the things you're doing at this second-draft, editing stage, is writing it "for your reader". So an interactive, workshop setup like the course shows you how potential readers read your work, and in a context where there's a safe, private space, and a shared vocabulary and purpose. And you learn as much by being a reader for your course-mates: I've lost count of how often a student, commenting on someone else's work, has said, "And I've just realised that applies to my novel because..." 

There really is no substitute for that kind of insight. But over those years, through those students, Debi and I have gathered a list of helpful ways to work when you're revising, so if you can't sign up to the course just now, here are my top tips for making your novel or non-fiction shine.

1) Don't Fiddle: This is why. Macro: when you've got an overview of what needs doing, make a plan of campaign and stick to it. If you find it really doesn't work, don't drift into other stuff; you need to step back for a moment and make a new plan. Micro: when you're up-close one small change may well have implications or prompt worries about elsewhere. Don't get diverted: make a note, and keep going.

2) Take Stock: don't just dive in and do the first thing that occurs to you. At least do a fast-and-forwards read, not solving problems but simply finding them. If your book has really got out of hand, here's how to tame it.

3) Study the story at macro scale: which means plot and structure. To get the big picture, use synopses, bullet-points, a grid, chapter summaries (that's what we do on the Self-Editing course) or something else which will expose not only the shape and size of the story, but, absolutely crucially, the chain of cause-and-effect as embodied in the characters and their actions.

4) Study your characters: they need to be convincing and vivid as characters-in-action, and also consistent. Clarfying for yourself who they are and how to write them will also help you to see whether they're consistent throughout the novel, even through changes and apparently startling actions.

5) Study the voice of the narrative: the narrative voice, the characters' voices in dialogue and thoughts, and how the latter inflect and colour the narrative in free indirect style

6) Study feedback from beta-readers. Don't take it as Holy Writ, but triage into accept-adapt-ignore, and then integrate the result into your overall plan of work. If - which is very likely - the beta-readers talk about their experience as readers ("saggy middle", "head-hopping", "don't care enough about the characters") but can't (or don't) say anything about the root cause of those, try my diagnostic post to turn feedback into things you can work on.

7) If all this shows there are basic writing tools - not rules, of course - which you don't really understand or haven't learnt to use, then spend a bit of time on practising them: point-of-view, psychic distance, showing-and-telling, and scene-building, for example.

It's much easier to explore and practice these skills away from your novel, because you're not constrained by its needs. So set yourself little exercises and stories purely to do that, like practising your tennis serve away from the pressure of a game. On the Self-Editing course one of the weeks works on psychic distance, because it's such an astonishing game-changer for so many writers: we know, because we see it in the writing, and because course after course our students tell us so.

8) Make a master To-Do list, and get stuck in. I suggest starting with macro plot-and-structure, but sometimes apparently micro-scale problems reveal a larger issue. Hopefully, your fast-and-forwards, problem-finding read will have highlighted some, but there may be more: don't despair, and don't get lured into fiddling. If you're having a rough day or are short of time, pick some low-hanging fruit from the list: change that character's name all through, or check the geography of a single scene, and you can pat yourself on the back for a job done. If you're still daunted, click through for more on how to eat that elephant.

9) Spit and polish. At the end of this revised draft, you should have a book which is much, much further along its road to being ready to fly. If you know that, for example, you need a separate pass for filtering (as I do), or you've been (sensibly) ignoring the punctuation or spellings that you don't find easy, this is a good time to do those passes. Then, do another, hopefully final, fast-and-forwards, problem-finding read: hard-copy pretty much essential here, I'd say, and reading aloud is best of all.

You may indeed find that all it needs is some comma-tidying. If you do... you're a better polisher than me. If you don't, take heart: many writers, especially the not-so-experienced, need at least one more iteration of the read-and-find-problems, write-and-solve-problems cycle before the book really begins to sing. But it's certainly true that although finishing a first draft is a huge achievement, if you really embrace the revising process with a willingness to reconsider everything, then the improvement between first and second drafts is likely to be the single biggest jump in your story's quality.

10) And that's where a course like the Self-Editing Your Novel course comes in, because a good course (and it is a good course, I know because of the feedback we've got over the years, and our publication record) is a fast-track through that reconsidering. It shines a light on what needs considering, supports you while you do it, and helps you develop your handling of the crucial tools. Many of the groups have stayed together afterwards in their cohort's private course forum, building on the trust that has grown up among them, either simply for support and friendship, or for actual workshopping.

And if you'd just like more Itch posts on these topics, and dozens of others from first drafts to being published, click through to the Tool-Kit.

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