Tips on Editing Fiction

Self-Editing Tips for Fiction

When editing fiction, I consider the following issues with each book. Yet every author should attempt to satisfy these criteria as well, before turning the book over to an editor. As a result, their books will be much less expensive to have professionally edited. Whenever I line edit a book, I base my total price on the editing speed I can achieve in the sample edit (e.g., how many words per hour I can edit of that author’s work). This is why editing prices can vary so drastically. It all depends on the level of edit needed.

Before you hire an editor, answer these questions: 

The Hook: Did you start the book’s first paragraph with a Hook? Did you immediately give the reader a reason to care? The first paragraph and even the first sentence are prime real estate, in terms of hooking readers. Some literary agents won’t read past the first page before either rejecting a book or deciding to read further. Don’t waste this important space with trivial details or overdone plot beginnings. One that comes to mind, because I see it so often with authors’ first books, is to describe the protagonist waking up and beginning his or her day. (Yawn.) When I encounter a manuscript with a ho-hum beginning page, I skim through the rest of the book to see if I can find a more dramatic scene to start the book with. Quite often, the author has already written many passages of stellar prose, but the scenes are not in a prominent position—they’re buried somewhere else in the book.

Plot: Is the plot riveting? Believable? Logical? Focused or scattered? Do the time line and the progression of events make sense? Did you eliminate contrived plot devices, implausible coincidences, and deus ex machina? Did you resolve the major plot threads by the end of the book, or, conversely, if it’s a series did you leave enough unresolved plot threads to make the reader buy the next book to get answers? Is the ending the right length: not too long (which could bore the reader) and not too short (which might leave the reader unsatisfied)?

Conflict: Is there enough conflict in multiple scenes throughout the book? Does it escalate from the book’s beginning to end? Raise the stakes as the story moves forward. Conflict keeps the reader turning the pages. A well-known bit of screenwriting advice says that you should pit the main character against an adversary or an obstacle that is stronger, more cunning, or more challenging than he or she is.

Pacing: Vary the pacing in scenes. However, you need a series of thrilling, intriguing events to carry the reader from the Hook to the Climax. This applies not only to the overall book, but to each of its parts: a chapter or even a scene.

Structure and Focus: Is the story disorganized, all over the place? Why are you telling this story? What’s your point?

Backstory: Don’t plop the backstory down at the very beginning in Chapter 1, like a load of sludge that slows the action; start the book with a dramatic event, even if it’s out of chronological order. You can add the backstory later—and usually a lot less of it than you first intended.

Characters: You need engaging characters who spout off lively, unconventional dialogue. They can be characters people will love or those we love to hate, but make sure they are well rounded and that you provide intricate details about their lives and thought processes. They need both strengths and weaknesses.

Setting: Vary the locations of your scenes. Don’t set five scenes in a bar or a restaurant (unless you’re writing a remake of Cheers). Flesh out the details to create atmosphere and appeal to all of the senses, but don’t let the setting overpower the plot.

Revising Plot Elements: Be sure to evaluate how each change will affect other parts of the book.

Emotion: Allow the main character to evolve emotionally, through experiences undergone and actions undertaken. Give readers the opportunity to feel vicarious emotions. In one of the novels I edited, I noticed how skillfully the author did this: when the “antagonists” carry out a horrific attack on the “protagonists,” the main character devises a clever form of payback that totally satisfies the reader’s need for revenge.

Point of View: Choose the right POV or POVs for the story and maintain clarity and consistency.

Inessential Elements: Eliminate digressions and distractions that lead the story nowhere. You might need to cut entire scenes, dialogue, unimportant characters, or subplots that take the reader’s focus away from the main plot.

Clarity of Writing: Try to simplify your writing. Don’t pack each sentence with so much information and so many long clauses that each detail loses drama and impact. Although most novelists are too close to their work to actually do a good line edit, you can make things easier for the editor you eventually hire by striving to express yourself with clarity.