Can you give some tips for formatting and editing a novel manuscript?

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Formatting can be pushed to the last thing you do, to be honest, because the editing process will most likely move (or remove) a lot of elements around. Entire chapters may move! So don’t worry so much about the formatting.

When I draft a novel, or novella, I usually don’t worry about:


Emdash’s (- - is fine, you can clean it up)

Stray spaces at the end of paragraphs or sentences

All of the little stuff will be fixed in editing. Everyone is a little bit different—an you’ll find your person style—but for me I’ve learned that the sooner I can get an idea out, the easier it will be to finish something that can be edited. Steven Pressfield calls these elements “Resistance” in his book The War of Art. Worrying about formatting, or how clean a manuscript is, before finishing the first draft is a good example of the way your mind tries to resist doing the hard work. I’m super guilty of this! I love productivity hacks, haha. But it’s all resistance to the work that needs to be done.

As for editing a novel: There’s no easy way to do it. It will take the time it takes, and just know that you will get much better at it the more you dive in.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

Do a full read of the novel without making any notes as you’re reading — when you’re done, journal about how you feel about it. Did it feel like a complete story? Did you enjoy reading it? Were there big issues that you know you need to fix?

If you haven’t outlined it ahead of time (I don’t!) - create a reverse outline. I stole this from Jeff Vandermeer’s book on writing Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. It just means to create the outline as you re-read the finished manuscript, as opposed to ahead of starting the writing

Do a structural re-read - Does the structure of the story make sense? Does it have a beginning, middle, end? Are there any loose plots?

Can you cut the first 100 words? This is an interesting one because it seems so weird. But if you can cut the first 100 words, or 300 words, or chapter from the book — and if the story /character/intro still makes sense, then cut it!

The reason for this is: we often take about an entire chapter to “spin up” the voice, or world, or characters. This writing is often not useful at all. Get to the action, get to where the voice is humming early.

Try it out! Cut the first 300 words, go take a walk, and try to read again from the beginning.

Then, when you’re set on structure/plot, start copy editing - this is when you can start going sentence-by-sentence and look for opportunities to improve the writing at a granular level, fix spelling, fix grammar, etc.

You don’t want to start this too early, because like I said: you might cut the entire chapter! So save it until the end, if you can

Pass it to someone you think will give you honest feedback - this is the hardest part. But your friends or partner will probably be unhelpful readers. They have too much invested in not rocking the boat, or know how long you’ve been working on this project. Try to find another writer, or a really good reader, who you can trust to give you the good stuff. Then ask:

Were there any times they were bored?

Did they believe the world/characters/story?

What parts did they like the best?

Put it away for a while, move on to the next project. This is hard too because you’ve spent so long on it that it feels like the most important thing in the world. But the best editing you can do is put the novel in a box for a month, or two, or three, and then come back to it once you’ve completely forgotten about the characters and the internal story you have. This is beneficial because: You know the story best! So it’s really easy to skip over elements the you know but have not written down. But the fresh reader won’t know those things… because you haven’t written them down, or sign posted them.

Good luck!

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