The 10 Writing and Editing Stages of the Successful Novel

I know that tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and all the cool kids are therefore writing about all the things they’re thankful for. I definitely have many, many things to thank the universe for this year: a lovely new home, a cat-and-puppy duo to bring daily smiles to my face, wonderful friends and family and a man I’m crazy about who hangs his hat in that very-same lovely new home. But this past weekend I taught a course on independent publishing for Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and one of the questions that came up was on the process of editing a novel: how many edits are there, how many people are involved, when do you know the book is done? I’ve been thinking about the subject a bit since that time, and pulled up this post that I wrote a few years ago for my editing business. I’ve updated a bit, but the salient parts remain the same. What does it take to write and edit a novel? A lot, as it turns out… 

Image of coffee cup pens and notebooks.

When you’re in the midst of writing a novel, it can frequently seem like you’re never going to make your way out of the weeds. How long do you spend on editing? When do you start? When should beta readers come into the picture? Taking those questions into consideration, I’ve drawn up a blueprint below of ten writing stages from the moment you first begin scribbling your novel to that final successful flush when you either submit to agents/publishers or publish the book yourself. Hopefully, if you’re unclear about the process or just feel like you’re missing a step, this post will help you navigate this long and winding road.

(1)    Draft. Write like the wind. While there are no set rules in the writing craft, many writers hold that the most effective way to complete a novel is to blaze through the first draft and then go back and work through revisions once you have a more clear idea of what you’re trying to say. There may be times when you’re forced to go back and rework plot quirks or unexpected twists, but the goal right now is to get the bones of your novel down on paper.

(2)    Rest. Once the first draft is done, give yourself some time away from the book. Some people take two days; some take two years. During that time, don’t obsess. Don’t even think about it for a while—trust me, your subconscious will still be working through all the twists and tangles you were consciously agonizing over during the drafting process.

(3)    Solo Revision. Clean up your completed draft. Address any glaring plot holes. Let yourself sit with the novel for a while.

(4)    Beta Read. Once you’ve finished your solo revision and before bringing in an editor, it’s time for the beta reader – an objective reader who can look through the novel for any big plot holes or character issues. Let your betas know specifically what you’re looking for feedback on, whether it be pacing, plot, character development, dialogue, writing style, or all of the above.  For more on how to effectively utilize beta readers, you can check out this re-post I did a few months back here on Maine Crime Writers.

(5)    Beta Revision. Armed with the feedback from your betas, it’s time to tackle another rewrite. During this particular revision, don’t obsess about making things perfect. If you find yourself stumped about how to address an issue your betas raised, relax. Do the best you can, being sure to make note of the challenges you’re facing and any concerns you have. Then, once the beta revision is completed, it’s time to bring in your second wave of defense.

(6)    Content Edit. The content edit is precisely what it sounds like: an edit of the content of your novel, focused on big-picture issues like pacing, plot, character, and story flow. This is a more intensive edit than the beta read, but is often focused on the same concerns. You’ll ideally already have an editor waiting in the wings as you finish the beta revision, so they can get straight to work once you’re done. Send the completed manuscript to that editor along with any questions or concerns you have. Wait. Take a breath. Don’t harass your editor. For heaven’s sake, don’t start rewriting the novel on your own. Chill out or, better yet, start working on the next book!

(7)    Content Rewrite. When you get your manuscript back from the editor, it’s bound to come with a lot of red ink. Often with a content editor, the changes may require a comprehensive, structural rewrite. Don’t panic. A good editor should not only tell you what isn’t working in your book, but can help you come up with a plan to address the issues and make any necessary changes. If you find yourself stumped, talk to your editor and beta readers. This is why it’s important to purchase an editing package that includes consultations and revisions—it does you little good to have a comprehensive edit done and then be left hanging when it comes time to rewrite.

(8)    Copy Edit. The copy edit is a line-by-line edit of your novel as a whole, focusing on the language as a whole. A good copy editor will be looking at syntax, repetition, dialogue, sentence and paragraph structure, punctuation, spelling, and a slew of other writing-related concerns. This is the final polish that makes your novel shine. While the copy editor is hard at work, dive back into the next book secure in the knowledge that you’re rapidly approaching the end of the process.

(9)    Copy Edit Revisions. There’s typically a lot less red ink after a copy edit than with a content edit, and the rewrite consequently is a much less painful process. This is, however, part of the process that’s less subjective than the content edit. You can safely make the call on your own as to whether the good guy gets the girl at the end of the final act – regardless of what your editor might say… But please take your editor’s advice seriously when it comes to things like ellipses, em-dashes, and the proper use of the Queen’s English. You’ve paid them – presumably, quite well – for a reason, and they should know their stuff. If you have questions about any of the mark-up, be sure to ask. More often than not, editors will have an answer regarding the choices they’ve made.

(10)Proofread. The proofreader should be the last person to look at your novel. Some editors also offer proofreading services, while some do not. Either way, proofreaders are crucial to the process. Make sure that you bring the proofreader in after you’ve made your last revisions. Once you have the proofread novel back, you are officially ready to enter the next phase: Publishing or submitting to agents and/or publishers.

And that, my friends, is everything your typical novelist goes through from conception to publication — and that doesn’t even take into account the multitude of revisions and redrafts you’re likely to do on your own, in between betas and editors and proofreaders. Whoever said this writing business is easy was clearly fooling himself!

Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries, the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mysteries, and the recently released children’s book Maya Picks a Puppy. You can learn more about her work at http://www.jenblood.com. 

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3 Responses to The 10 Writing and Editing Stages of the Successful Novel

  1. Thanks Jen, these are very well thought out and logical.

    Like

  2. Maureen Milliken says:

    Great! Thanks! I thought I was finished and now I have to start all over! Seriously though, a great set of guidelines for every writer.

    Like

  3. Great info, Jen. I think we need to reference this again in the weekend update so it doesn’t get missed in the holiday chaos.

    Kate

    Like

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