I recently completed a round of edits for my newest novel! Revising a novel can be tricky business. While my process is still fresh in my head, I wanted to share it for anyone who might find it useful, or to satisfy your inexplicable curiosity.
I’m 99% sure there is no one right way to edit a novel. I’m certainly no expert, and I’m not suggesting you approach edits my way — I’m simply mapping out my own process so you can see what it looks like. If anyone happens to find this helpful, AMAZEBALLS.
Also, this doesn’t account for the kind of edit that requires a complete rewrite. That’s a whole different ballgame IMO, and I haven’t had to do that kind of edit based on an edit letter. *Knocks on every available wood surface within reach.*
So without further ado, these are my steps once I receive an edit letter from an agent, editor, critical partner (CP), or beta reader:
1. Freak out
I know — I’m so helpful, right? ? But seriously, it helps me to acknowledge the freak-out period so I can quickly move on from it.
Whenever an email pops into my inbox with a subject line indicating feedback lies therein, I inevitably freak out. My stomach drops, I utter some nonsensical whine, and my brain goes into this weird hyperactive mode where it thinks it can absorb all the contents of the letter by scanning it in 0.2 seconds and instantaneously know every possible solution to each point of feedback.
Honestly, that’s the best way I can explain what happens. It is what it is, it happens every time, and I just need to get this moment out of the way so I can actually read the thing straight through.
2. Read the whole letter
Once I’ve calmed down, I try to read the whole letter without thinking about solutions to each point of feedback. I just absorb what’s there, and re-read it several times before replying with a quick “thank you” note, starring the email, and setting it aside.
3. Set it aside
This part’s really important. I resist the temptation to dive into edits right away, ignoring the letter for a day or two. During this time, I’m daydreaming A LOT — in the shower, on my walk to work, while I cook, during interactions with other human beings, as I attempt to watch TV or read — basically, all the time. As my brain chugs away, my characters find different ways to interact, internalize, and operate… sort of on their own.
But in my brain.
Being an author is weird, you guys.
It’s really hard to explain what happens here, but it’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle rearranging itself in my mind so that when I sit down to work on a plan, it all sort of falls into place with several pieces missing. Some of it I’ll have to figure out later, but I’ll have a good sense of the work that needs to be done.
4. Re-read the letter
Once I’m ready to get to work, I re-read the letter again to make sure the initial plans in my brain solve for what’s actually in the letter.
5. Map out a plan
Next, I copy the edit letter into a Google doc or Word doc and mark it up. If it’s been organized into paragraphs (as it usually is), I break those up by each individual point of feedback, and add a bulleted list under each with my planned changes to solve XYZ problem. Later, as I make the edits, I modify each bullet point as I go:
- Yellow-highlighted bullet points: changes I plan to make
- Green-highlighted bullet points: changes I’ve made
- Red text bullet points: changes I disagree with, detailing my rationale
I also try to think of changes I can make to solve multiple points of feedback at once. For example, if I need to flesh out a character’s backstory and make a plot point less confusing, I’ll think of a way that particular character can contribute to a scene specific to that subplot. (I hope that makes sense.) So oftentimes, I’ll include similar bullet points in multiple sections.
There’s usually more red text when I begin edits than when I finish them — usually I’ll come around on a point of feedback as I keep re-reading and shuffling things around. But if I’ve finished edits, and something’s in red, it means I fairly strongly disagree.
Sometimes it can be hard to know when to push back on feedback. But as an author, you know your characters and plot best. For example, you’ve followed through the logic of how their motivations drive their actions more often than anyone else. Sometimes their motivations or actions will need finessing, but sometimes you’re so certain they’d say/do something in a particular scenario, that it’s OK to hold your ground. But I always explain why I haven’t made a certain change to see if the feedback-giver still disagrees.
6. Re-read the whole novel (OPTIONAL)
This depends on how long it’s been since I last worked on the novel in question. This time around, I’d already re-read it before getting the edit letter because I was so eager to get started.
If I do this step, I keep adding to the plan from step #5 as I get new ideas.
7. Tackle each point, big to small
Next, I start with the biggest change required, and dive into edits. If I’m adding entire chapters or scenes, I’ll revise them a couple of times before moving on. Vomit drafts are great as a first draft, but not a revision, as subsequent changes will depend on these edits. So I try to make these new scenes as clean as possible.
When I finish this edit, I follow that subplot or character arc throughout the novel to account for any ripple effects. Having recently re-read my novel helps me know exactly where these scenes are (and I’ll even know specific words/phrases to Ctrl-F search for).
Then I’ll move onto the next-biggest change required, and follow that thread to account for ripple effects, and the next-biggest change, and follow that thread, and so on.
8. Re-read the whole novel
Once all of the edits are in place, I start at the beginning and do an entire read-through, including scenes I haven’t touched yet. I’ll always catch some ripple effects I missed and find more opportunities to address the feedback, and sometimes I’ll find other things to improve that weren’t specified in the edit letter. I also make sure the novel flows well with the new changes in place.
9. Edit the edits
Next, I’ll go back to the beginning and review JUST the lines I edited to make the sentences pretty, and delete any useless words. So while this isn’t a complete read-through, it takes just as long.
10. Re-read the whole novel
Once I finish editing the edits, I do a little celebratory dance and think I’m done.
Next, I’ll write up an email to the feedback-giver: “Here are my edits!”
Next, I’ll think of that one last tweak I should probably make. I’ll open up the Word doc, make that tweak, and see what a massive improvement that was.
Then I’ll go back through the whole novel, because hell, if that one tweak made that paragraph that much better, THIS THING’S NOT FINISHED YET.
This time I might scan over sections that didn’t require any changes during step #6 because I already know there weren’t any ripple effects in those segments. But I’ll definitely re-read all the scenes with edits and finesse them even more.
This step only applies when an agent or editor is the feedback-giver! I don’t ask or expect my CPs or beta readers to read my novel again. Instead, if the changes were extensive enough to require all of the above, I’ll send it to a new round of readers.
Anywho, at this point, I’ll feel like I’ve done everything I possibly could to address the changes the feedback-giver wanted. And if I’ve missed the mark, tweaking my edits will only get me so far. If further edits are needed, we can continue the conversation.
By now, my planning doc is full of 95% green-highlighted bullet points (the changes I made) and 5% red text (the points I disagreed with). I’ll clean up this doc and send it to the feedback-giver so they have it as an optional quick-reference, and they can also read my rationale for the changes I didn’t make. Not every single edit is in this doc; that would be ridiculous. It’s just the main stuff.
Next, I’ll freak out and hover my cursor over the send button for 20 minutes, or until I get hungry — whichever comes first. Then I’ll hit send.
Finally, I’ll resolve to RELAX for a while. After all, I’ve earned it! This relaxation period usually lasts no more than 24 hours, until I find myself writing a blog post like this one, because I’ve been working so much that I simply don’t know how to stop. ? But I hope this was useful to other authors looking for different strategies on tackling an edit letter!
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