Over the last number of months, we have covered every step of how to write a book. Now we get to the part that will save you money on editing costs, if you do it right. Hopefully, you will be able to implement the suggestions to keep errors to a minimum, and as such reducing the time your editor will have to spend on your manuscript. This is a LONG post which covers the Queen’s Editing a Novel Checklist.
Editing a Novel Checklist
1. Point of View
The first point on the Editing a Novel Checklist, is one of the most important decisions you will make regarding your manuscript, is the point of view. Will your story be told in past or present tense? Who will be telling the story? You have several options:
- first person?
- third person (limited or omniscient?)
- which character’s POV?
- one POV or multiple POVs?
Your point of view will most probably determine which tense comes most naturally to you, and that’s the tense you should stick with to ensure that revisions are kept to a minimum.
It’s common for writers to make mistakes in present tense, especially in dialogue. If you have that challenge, imagine you’re talking to a friend, rather than writing.
Expert Tip: Use active language, because passive language is harder to write and read. Your readers are more likely to buy your next book, if your book is easy to read.
2. Sentence structure
You know what you want to say, but it doesn’t always come out right. Sentence structure can be hard, much like building a house, which it’s number 2 on the Editing a Novel Checklist. You have all the bricks, concrete, roofing materials and plumbing, but if you don’t know how to put it together, you end up with something that only looks like a house. Likewise, all the best vocabulary in the world, without structure, will only result in pages of writing, and not a book.
Sentence structure matters for many reasons, but mainly, because where you use your modifiers, can influence the meaning of your sentence. Modifiers are describing words or phrases, and used in the wrong place, it can cause confusion.
3. Sentence Fragments
Otherwise known as incomplete sentences, sentence fragments lack verbs or subjects. In order for your sentence to be complete, it must have a subject, object and verb. Don’t ignore this important step on the Editing a Novel Checklist.
4. Run-on Sentences
Ideally, a sentence should convey no more than two thoughts. When a sentence is inappropriately joined, we call it a run-on sentence. It doesn’t have much to do with the length of the sentence, but rather with the punctuation. There are two types of run-on sentences:
- Fused sentences – These sentences contain clauses that run into one another without any punctuation.
- Comma splices – This is where two complete sentences are joined by a comma, and no connecting words.
To avoid run-on sentences, read through each sentence, making sure that it offers no more than two thoughts, and apply periods, semi-colons, colons, coordinating conjunctions or subordinating conjunctions to correctly fuse your sentences. Don’t ignore this step of the Editing a Novel Checklist.
5. Choppy Sentences
Some writers have a choppy writing style that manifests in short sentence with no transitions to link them together. Read your work out loud to see if that is your writing style, and find ways to link the sentences together to make it more coherent. You may consider rewriting some of them.
6. Excessive Subordination
The opposite of choppy sentences, excessive subordination is when you link together too many thoughts that should be broken into more sentences.
7. Parallel Structure
When writing a sentence, you should ensure that you use the same structural or grammatical principle. For instance:
Don’t say: I want to read, write and eating cake.
DO say: I want to read, write and eat cake. OR: I like reading, writing and eating cake.
8. Word use
The most useful trick to writing in a way that readers enjoy, is to write in simple language, using powerful words. But, and this is a big but: don’t overwhelm your readers with jargon. That sounds contradictory. Not at all.
Of the sentences below, which sounds better and best?
- She consumed a porcelain vessel of hot, dark chicory blend with four teaspoons full of white table sugar.
- She took her coffee black, with four sugars.
- Black with four sugars, just the way she liked it.
Let’s try another one:
- She fulfilled her passion for the written word and became a writer who specialized in writing the information that would then be placed on the websites of her clients.
- She was a digital copywriter.
- Digital copywriting was her passion, and a natural career choice.
Most of us like to over-explain. Step 8 of the Editing a Novel Checklist is to SIMPLIFY. Bad writing teachers teach us to focus on the word-count, rather than the content, so we tend to use as many words as possible to get the message across. However, long sentences (like the first sentences in the two examples above) can become confusing. Are we talking about her, her coffee or her career? Just how much detail is really relevant to the message you are trying to relay? Don’t insult your readers’ intelligence by explaining things in too much detail. Not only does too much (irrelevant) information make your writing boring, but it also creates more margins for error.
Read the second sentences again and you will see that I’ve basically just shortened the sentences to contain the same information, but in condensed form.
In the third sentence of each set, I started the sentence with a power word. Don’t you think those sentences have a lot more “color”? Starting your sentences with a power word also enables you to show more and tell less. Let the reader’s subconscious fill in the details, as it will spark their imaginations and they will enjoy your book so much more. As an author, your role is to open up the reader’s imagination, rather than to fill it with your own narrative.
Expert Tip: Try to start at least one sentence per paragraph with a power word to improve your writing dramatically. Avoid using The, In, They, and similar words in the beginning of your sentences.
We’re going to be breaking rules in this section of the Editing a Novel Checklist. Why? Because nobody talks the way we were taught at school. Take your laptop to the nearest coffee shop to go eavesdrop for an hour or so and you will hear that people use words and phrases, rather than sentences to communicate, for example:
“Darling, I enjoyed the fish you cooked. It was delicious.”
“I sure am glad you enjoyed it.”
It’s technically and grammatically correct, but it is boring and people don’t really talk like that. We talk like this:
“Hmm…Fish is nice.”
“Is it? Awesome!”
Fear of breaking rules is one of the main reasons why many writers struggle with (or are completely averse to) writing dialogue, but I want to encourage you to give it a try. Dialogue is vital in a story, because:
- people communicate with words, actions and silences
- it reveals character
- it moves the story along
Rules for dialogue:
- Avoid long blocks of dialogue. Intersperse it with movement and action.
- Remember that dialogue is not a real conversation, but rather transition between scenes.
- Use dialogue instead of adverbs to reveal emotion.
- Let your dialogue reveal back stories.
- Avoid dialects, as most writers have a hard time conveying it.
- Research your characters thoroughly to ensure you apply the right ‘voice’.
- Let the dialogue pour out first, and refine it later on in the editing process.
- Sidestep the obvious.
- Cultivate the element of surprise. Reveal shocking facts via dialogue.
- Convey silence. Silence speaks volumes.
10. Punctuation in Dialogue
This part of the Editing a Novel Checklist covers punctuation in dialogue.
- Place periods, exclamation marks, and question marks inside the quotation marks.
“Susan dropped by.”
“What is your daughter’s name?”
“I love you!”
- Place a comma after an attribution that is followed by dialogue.
John said, “Susan dropped by.”
- Place the comma inside the quotation mark when you punctuate with a comma followed by attribution.
“Susan is going with me,” John said.
- Place the comma inside the quotation mark when you punctuate with a comma followed by a pronoun attribution. The pronoun is not capitalized.
“She is going with me,” he said.
- When the speaker becomes distracted, use ellipses inside the quotation marks.
“I’m not sure…”
- If the speaker is cut off or interrupted, use an em-dash inside the quotation marks.
“Damn right you’re not going!”
- Break lines of dialogue by non-dialogue using em-dashes or commas.
“I know,” she said, rolling her eyes, “that you are not going.”
“I know”, she rolled her eyes – “that you are not going.”
- If your character starts saying one thing, but changes his or her mind, use an em-dash.
“I don’t think– I mean, I know she’s going.”
I realize that following all these rules can be a pain, but your editor will appreciate you following the guidelines, and it will likely translate into savings on the editing process.
Please don’t skip this section of the Editing a Novel Checklist just because your spelling is good. There’s more to it than that – I promise. Unless you’ve worked with clients in different countries, you may not be fully aware of the spelling differences between British and American English.
12. Document Language
Remember when you set up your computer for the first time and it asked for your preferred language? Most people click on the first “English” they see, because English is English, right? Not so fast. Depending on who your audience is, you need to set up your document language (in Word or Google Docs) for the appropriate version of English. You will get to choose from a range of versions, including UK, US, South Africa, Canada and Australia, depending on what the software supports. By choosing the appropriate version based on your audience, you will save yourself (and your editor!) a lot of time on revisions and diminish errors.
13. Word and Spelling Variations
English was a complicated language before all its users started changing the spelling and mixing up the names of items… In South Africa, a boot can be a shoe, or a car’s trunk. Above, I used the word dialogue (UK English), but my American readers (to whom I catered for 99% of this book), write dialog. Americans also use a z instead of an s in words ending with “ise” ad “ising”, and add an extra s in plurals of words ending in s. It can be super confusing… so in addition to your language setting, also use an online dictionary to look at spelling variations if you’re unsure.
British English – American English
Aubergine – eggplant
boot – trunk
anticlockwise – counterclockwise
baking tray – cookie sheet
biscuit – cookie or cracker
bonnet (car) – hood
braces – suspenders
car park – parking lot
chips – French fries
cot – crib
courgette – zucchini
driving licence – driver’s license
dummy (baby’s) – pacifier
fish fingers – fish sticks
Garden – yard
hob – stovetop
holiday – vacation
lorry – truck
maize – corn
mobile phone – cell phone
power point – electrical outlet
shopping trolley – shopping cart
solicitor – lawyer
sweets – candy
tap – faucet / spigot (gives tap water)
timber – lumber
zebra crossing – crosswalk
zip – zipper
Did you find the Editing a Novel Checklist helpful?
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