Editing Your First Novel: 7 Things You Must Know

I had written and completed numerous shorter works over the years, but The Conscience of Abe’s Turn: Season 1 Episodes 1-4 is the first full novel-length work I had ever written and edited to completion. The experience taught me a whole new set of lessons.

Some of these lessons I learned from my own editing experience. Others are classic truths of which I was merely reminded, and with which I know other writers wrestle regularly. We each have our own hurdles to jump over. Still you might encounter–or perhaps you are encountering–one of these.

Be prepared with these 7 lessons learned from editing a first novel:

  1. It will take 5 times as long as you think it will. When you estimate how long and hard you’ll need to work, start with however long you think it will take, and multiply times 5. If you think you can get through it in a couple weeks, estimate about 2 and a half months. Unless you have actually edited a novel-length work and have measured how long it takes you to get through, assume you’re going to underestimate by half an order of magnitude.

    And don’t give any excuses. “But I’m not like most writers. I like editing.” So you’ve already assumed it’s easy. It’s not. Multiply by 5. “But I’m using Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Manuscript Revision process.” Good for you! It will take you only a fraction of the time it takes everyone else… which is still 5 times longer than you think it will take. “But–” Hey! What did I say? Multiply by 5.

  2. “But I edit as I go along.” So you’ve convinced yourself that your novel will need no substantive editing, just line editing. At most, you’ll need to fix only a few typos. And indeed you will find those typos, and you should fix those typos. You will also find huge problems with your prose, your characters, your descriptions, your story lines, and everything else, problems that will make your manuscript read like crap. And this is the time and place to fix them. If you think that editing as you go will save you from revising your manuscript, figure out how long you think it will take, then multiply by 5 as above, and then multiply by 5 again.

  3. Your life may change while you’re editing your novel. Because you’ll be dedicating yourself to an activity you’re not used to. Writing uses primarily your right brain, whereas editing uses primarily your left brain. Even if you’ve exercised and stretched both halves of your brain, so that you can use them both and switch back and forth as need be, prolonged editing will still feel much different than prolonged writing. I experienced mood changes, lack of creativity, and lack of motivation. Afterward, I experienced a sudden renewed interest in the next phase of the project. Since the format of Abe’s Turn is chunked into novelette-sized stories, I’m considering moving to a rotating write/edit schedule with other writing work thrown in for spice, to keep myself from losing interest and falling asleep.

  4. It gets better as you go along. You’ll probably find that the first chapter needs to be heavily tweaked, revised, rewritten, recast, redone from scratch. But the last chapters are possibly fine as is, maybe with a few spelling and grammar errors fixed. What I found is that I had actually become a better writer and much more in-sync with the story, as the story progressed. So by the end, I had perfected the voice I wanted to use, the tone of the piece, the plot, the characters, everything. The beginning chapters had serious problems, on almost every page. But in the latter chapters, sometime whole scenes were absolutely wonderful just as I had originally written them. Maybe I needed to clarify a vague sentence here, or correct a misused word there. But that was it.

  5. It’s okay to finish. Really, it is. It’s okay, even though that means you’ll be done, committed, revealed and open to ridicule. Even though you won’t be able to make any more changes. Even though everyone will see what you’ve produced. Even though most of those who read it will probably hate it (because what you’ve written is worth writing). Even though most of those who hate it will tell you they loved it (because they don’t want to hurt your feelings). It’s still okay to finish, because that’s what you came all this way for, and you’ll never actually get it published unless you do finish it.

  6. It will never be right. Or at least, it will never be as good as you want it. You will never be done wanting to make changes. Want proof? Go to Amazon.com, or walk into your local Barnes & Noble, and check out the top sellers du jour. Crack one open and start reading. Odds are that within the first 5 pages, you’ll find at least one thing you’d change. Let it go. Even after you’re done, you will feel like you want to tweak it some more. Don’t. Let your editor take a shot at it, yes. But don’t keep going back and tweaking it, or else you’ll never finish it. And remember that it won’t be as bad as you think, because readers who love your work will love it despite its flaws, and people (probably non-readers) who hate it will hate it despite its perfection. If you want proof, look no further than Harry Potter.

  7. The last push through to the end is probably the hardest part about writing. I’m not quite sure why this is. Maybe it’s because when you first start, it’s all new and exciting, and as you near the finish line, your left brain gets tired out. Maybe it’s because of that fear of finishing, fear of commitment, or fear of success. Or maybe it won’t happen at all for you. But it did for me. The closer I got to the end, the harder it was to continue. Some things I found that helped: setting daily editing goals, loads of self-encouragement, and frequent breaks.

Maybe it’s just my imagination, but the editing phase of the writing process seems to get the short end of the stick. There is plenty of advice on how to write, how to write better, and how to write faster. But few articles I’ve read are about what to do after you’ve written your first draft. It may not be sexy or glamorous, but editing is a key phase of writing. And it can be difficult, depending on how good you are at it. And I don’t think you can completely off-load the editing phase onto a paid editor, because your editor doesn’t share your vision of your story, and it is your story. Maybe he can correct your grammar and offer suggestions for improvement, but only you can know whether it’s “right.” So you have to be the final arbiter, the final editor.

Keep writing!


Tim – Number 6 made me laugh. Not because it’s bad advice – it isn’t – but because, since I started writing on an almost-daily basis, I’ve found myself critiquing writers who are WAY more skilled than I am. I’ll be reading a magazine article and, instead of absorbing the information, I’ll be recasting the writer’s sentences. “That would have been funnier if he had said it this way…”

As for taking 5 times as long as you think will be needed to edit, hell, I could take 10 minutes just re-editing my above comment, let alone a damn novel. I suspect it would be 5 times as long as it took me to write the book, in my case.

Hi, Jim. 😀 Yeah, I’ve been critiquing other writers a lot lately, too, especially when it comes to fictional characters. Tonight, I was reading a Danielle Steel novel–best-seller–and I got to one point and said, “NO! He doesn’t do that! Because that’s not in his character. What’s she talking about? He does this instead!”

Eh, what do I know?


You’re at the part that I’m looking forward to – or so I’ve always thought. I edited and proofed law books for 12 years and loved it. Perhaps if it’s my words, my thoughts will change. Look, your at the home stretch. Soon you can slide in, roll over, gaze at the clouds and count your blessings in the sun’s rays. Perhaps even a few rain drops will fall on your cheeks just before you reach out and grasp the handle of your pot of gold near the rainbow. Congrats – you’re one step closer to being published.

Today Jan 3, 2009 I discovered your 7 lessons. How true they ring from my experience. It took me eight years to complete my first novel, yet to be out this spring, and it took lots of editing by myself mostly, my editor who was invaluable, and for the most part helpful feedback by manuscript readers. (Two readers were problematic, and I have learned alot about who to ask to be a reader.)

I found I learned how to be a much better writer by doing the process. I discovered my own voice in a more profound way that no one else can give you or do for you. Recently I read about a teacher who thinks discovering your own voice is akin to having your own unique fingerprint. It is. If you change another writer’s words it’s because you have a book in you, a voice to be heard.

Yes, I learned about that left side of the brain: a whole different process, like putting a puzzle together is how I sometimes experience editing. It’s a wonder any books ever get published as writing is far more arduous than I imagined, and yet, what a rewarding journey. Thank you for confirming what I have learned these last 8 years. I would say multiply times 8! Like renovating a house it takes far more time, energy and cost than you could ever imagine. But then, look at the results of the journey! Susan

I agree with Patty there about editing honing the editor’s writing skills. Writing without self-editing is like chucking in all the ingredients for a stew then not lighting the stove.

Re: Point 6

Do you find yourself in “editing mode” when you are reading for fun much? And if so, do you find it adds to or detracts from your enjoyment of whatever you are reading? For me, it makes most things I read more fun.

This is exactly what I have been going through – all these steps.I thought I was crazy – I’m not! Turns out I’m just editing. Which is truly painful. The I don’t want to go to church or the dentist kind of hell. You have to, but you’d rather cry in a closet. I think just knowing it’s a “normal” process will make it, if not easier, less destructive. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

“The I don’t want to go to the dentist kind of hell…” Ha! That made me laugh, Jenni. Thanks for the chuckle. I needed that. 🙂 Cheers, -TimK

I am both a professional writer and freelance editor. You’re right: the editing part isn’t glamorous, and as far as I can tell, people think it’s boring, too. So it’s hard to get people very interested in talking about it. You have proven here that it doesn’t have to be boring!

I’d add one more thing: When you get to the end of your editing rope, consider hiring a professional, or at least having a friend go over your work. It’s very hard to edit your own work. After all, you already know what you’re trying to say! Besides, not all writers, even great writers, are strong editors.

Editing, like writing, is hard. That means it’s important to not take it lightly. Thanks for your piece.

Excellent summary of the editing process. It helped me get to the arduous business at hand…liberating my manuscript.

One thing that helps me is having a ‘fragments’ file open at the same time so I can toss old bits away without feeling like I’ve lost anything, as I can always go back and salvage them if I change my mind, yet still move forward with the actual manuscript.

Another thing, at the end of an editing day, I email my manuscript to myself, in case my computer crashes or disks fail. This has saved me many a time.

Thanks again!

Hi J. Timothy King,
I am Chau Doan, I just finished my novel that I started 5 years ago. I share the point 6 and 7 with you. Tks for this post. I am quite tired at the end.
Good luck writers!

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Thank you! This was the encouragement and the reality check I needed.

You’re welcome, Jennifer! Best of luck on the piece you’re working on. -TimK

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