Monday, January 24, 2011

12 Novel Editing Tips

I recently read that blog readers don't always follow links, so in case you missed my blog post at Gumbo Writer's blog, here it is.

As a developmental copyeditor, I do more than correct grammar and punctuation.  I also look at the big picture.  In a fiction manuscript, I watch for mistakes made in plot, characterization, dialogue, pace, tension, conflict, and more.  The beginning should hook, the middle shouldn’t sag, and the end should satisfy.  Unfortunately, writers have a difficult time finding these flaws in their work.  Sometimes they’re too personally invested in a particular scene or phrase.  Other times, they simply don’t know what to search for.  Here’s a list of several issues I encounter frequently.

  1. Show, don’t tell:  Put the reader inside the character’s head.  Show him how the character feels and what she experiences.  Avoid “telling” words like: heard, saw, noticed, smelled, thought, etc.  For example, instead of saying, “She saw Jim kissing Joelle and wanted to kill them both.”  You could say, “Jim kissed Joelle, and Nancy’s stomach turned.  How could he do this to her after all they’d been through?  Well, if that jerk thought he was getting away with betraying her trust, he was in for a big surprise.”

  1. Unrealistic dialogue:  Sometimes dialogue is realistic, but doesn’t suit a character.  For example, a grandmother wouldn’t say, “Dude.  That’s so rad, man!”  However, there are times when dialogue simply isn’t realistic.  If people wouldn’t say it in real life, your characters shouldn’t say it either.

  1. Boring dialogue:  Always make sure there’s a point to the dialogue and that one character doesn’t go on and on and on.  We all know someone like that in real life, but we don’t want them slowing down our story.

  1. Dialogue that reads like transcripts:  This happens when two (or more) characters are talking and the writer doesn’t have them do anything more than that.  In reality, people never just sit and talk, even when they’re sitting and talking.  They might fidget, take a sip of coffee, look around the room, gaze into each other’s eyes, etc.  All of these actions tell us more about the characters and possibly the plot.  Conversations should also show the characters interacting with the scenery to remind us where they are.  The atmosphere in a rowdy country bar would be different than at a quiet, romantic restaurant.

  1. Scenes that don’t move the story forward:  This is a tough one because there are times when a scene is well written, but it just doesn’t fit with the story.  Always ask yourself what’s the purpose of the scene.  If it doesn’t move the plot forward or develop the characters, then the scene’s purpose is in question.

  1. Too many details:  Some writers write beautiful passages that go on forever.  Others describe every little detail in the scene, leaving nothing for the reader to imagine themselves.  Both of these scenarios should be avoided.  Readers like just enough information to allow their imaginations to fill in the rest rather than having the author spoon feed them every last detail.

  1. Not enough details:  On the other hand, sometimes writers don’t add enough details, so the reader feels like the characters are living in a box.  Balance between both styles is key.

  1. One dimensional characters:  These characters haven’t been fully developed.  We might know what they look like and what they do for a living, but we don’t have an idea as to who they really are.  Show us their personality.  How is this character different from that one?

  1. Flawless/perfect heroes or heroines:  Nobody’s perfect and people don’t want to read about someone who is.  Boring.  Plus, it’s harder for readers to relate to the hero or heroine if he/she seems too good to be true.  Characters need to be at least a little flawed so they can learn and grow by the end of the novel.

  1. Unlikable characters:  While it’s okay for us to hate the villain, we don’t want to hate the hero or heroine.  Granted, sometimes either one of these characters may come across as blunt, bitchy, aggressive, or strong willed, but they must have some sort of vulnerability, something that shows, deep down, they’re good people.

  1. Flat beginnings:  This often happens when a writer starts at the wrong place.  Either too far in the past or too far in the present.  (Prologues are an exception.)  The ONLY place to start your story is at the inciting incident.  What situation or event changed your character’s life forever?

  1. Lack of GMCs:  Many writers have never heard of GMCs.  Others know the acronym stands for: goals, motivations, and conflicts, and may even believe they understand the concept, but more often than not, they don’t.  If a story’s GMCs are missing or weak, the book probably won’t sell.

Writing a novel and writing one that’s publishable are two different things.  In the end, it all comes down to knowledge.  How well do you know the craft?  This list is a good place to start.

Lynnette Labelle is a certified copyeditor and proofreader, and the editor of LoveBytes, RWA Online’s newsletter.  She offers writing coach services and teaches courses one-on-one as well as in a group setting.  Look for her next online course called “Hook, Line, and Sinker” coming soon.  Check out Lynnette’s website and blog at:

This article will appear in the January/February issue of LoveBytes, RWA Online's newsletter.


  1. I LOVE these tips! These are so helpful and are often things you don't think of. Great post!

  2. I'm glad you laid these out. I usually follow links, but not always. Thanks!
    Ann Best, Author

  3. These tips are helpful and I have already taken notes. Followed the links and enjoyed your visit to Gumbo btw. :)

  4. These are some of the most influential tips for my writing. I love them. Thanks for sharing and posting them.

  5. Excellent, excellent points and a great go-to editing list.