7 Elements to Watch for as You Edit Your Own Novel

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Guest post by Rachelle Rea Cobb, Author & Editor

You lean back in your chair, fingers sore from typing so long. You just finished your novel, and you bask for a moment in the glow of accomplishment. Whether your first novel or your fifteenth, the sense of having done something few others do, tell a meaningful story, is something to celebrate.

But then what?

Then the somehow more exhausting work of editing begins. Or it should begin. But you just don’t know where to start!

I can help!

Hi, I’m Rachelle, and I’m an editor who specializes in fiction. If you’re a fiction writer, you might sympathize with a lot of my clients, who come to me expressing overwhelm at the mere idea of editing their own novel. They just don’t know where to start! They don’t know how to polish the story they worked so hard to get down on paper.

So here is where I recommend beginning (and where I begin myself when working on my own novels!).

Polish your Dialogue: Take note of your balance between dialogue and description. Do you lean more toward one or the other? Most writers are stronger writers of either description or dialogue.

If you are stronger at dialogue, watch out for several lines of dialogue falling in a row on a page without any speaker tags or action beats (more on those in a moment). Several lines of dialogue without any description can confuse your reader because they’ll lose sight of who is speaking.

If you “set the scene” more and favor description, make sure your conversations flow naturally, without too much description in between, lest the conversations feel stilted and slow.

Here’s an article I wrote specifically about crafting killer dialogue.

Incorporate Action Beats instead of Speaker Tags: Speaker tags include the following

  • he said
  • she yelled
  • he explained
  • she whispered

These speaker tags are out of vogue, so use action beats instead, like these:

  • he frowned
  • she smiled

These require different punctuation. Instead of “I do,” she said. Try: “I do.” She smiled. (With a period, instead of a comma.)

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Banish the Passive Voice: Beware of “be” verbs (is/was/were, etc.). Always, always, always aim for active voice. Example: “I am hungry.” vs. “My stomach growled.” Which one tells more of a story? Run a Search for the “be” verbs and see how many you can replace with more active verbs and sentence structures.

Banish the Elusive “It” too: I’m not a fan of the word “it” because “it” can easily cause confusion. What does “it” mean? This is not always clear. Run a search for “it” and challenge yourself to eliminate this word from your manuscript as much as possible. That won’t be completely possible, of course, but make it a goal and your reader will hardly ever be confused.

Write Interesting Characters: As you reread your novel, pay attention to your characters’ growth arcs. Each of your characters should have individual goals and motivations, as well as conflicts that threaten their goals.

Respect Reader Expectations of Plot/Genre: For example, I’m a huge reader of inspirational romances and I’m such a sucker for happily ever after’s. But romance readers have certain expectations of that genre, as do all genre loyalists. In any good romance, the author must convince the reader of one core truth: the hero and heroine are better together. Whatever genre you’re writing, research the “rules” you must follow and read a lot within your chosen genre.

Theme: Don’t forget about incorporating a central theme! Often a first draft has many sub-themes that have yet to be fully developed. Identify one (two at the max) to draw out further in your rewrite stage. A central theme will give your novel a sense of cohesion.


Before you rush off to implement any of these ideas, I suggest you take a break (if you haven’t already) from your manuscript first before beginning self-editing. (Here’s why.) These seven fixes aren’t quick, but they do make a difference on the road to taking your manuscript from first draft to polished novel.

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Rachelle Rae Cobb is an editor and author whose mission is to make your words work for you so you can accomplish your goals as a writer and a blogger. She is the author of three historical fiction novels as well as Write Well: A Grammar Guide.

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