Polishing a Novel


The Prime Writers have been having a chat about a tricky bit of novel writing. The first draft is finished, as is the second, third, and fourteenth, depending on how you count these things. You’ve filled in the major plot holes and moved the scaffolding around, checked your character arcs; all the heavy lifting has been done. Now it’s time for working on the detail. Call it what you like – editing, polishing, the nitty-gritty, the picky, the finickity. Today on the blog, Claire Fuller share’s some tips from her and fellow Prime Writers

Print out your manuscript and read it aloud. And then do it again, and maybe even again, editing in between each print and read. Nothing spots mistakes of rhythm and sentence construction than hearing your own words.“Reading aloud also helps me identify any bits which are dull,” says Jon Teckman. “If I get bored reading and can’t wait to move on to the next bit, then so too will my reader.”

Keep an ongoing list of ‘fluff’ words. These are either fillers, or words that add nothing to the sentence. I had to take hundreds of iterations of ‘that’ out of Our Endless Numbered Days. All my fellow Prime Writers search for these types of word, including Fleur Smithwick: “I search for quite, just, rather, seemed, very, and plenty more.” Here’s my list of ‘fluff’ words. Feel free to use it, but make sure you add some of your own. And if you’re writing in Word you can use the search facility to find them.

Pay particular attention to dialogue. I read dialogue sections aloud even more times to make sure they sound realistic, but are still a pared down version of real speech. Martine Bailey’s tip is to cut the dialogue back by a third to make it sharp and less explanatory.

Check for repetitions. Apparently I used the word ‘naked’ twenty billion times in my second novel, Swimming Lessons (thanks for the spot, Juliet Annan), and it’s not even that kind of book. It’s not only individual words you have to be careful of: “I also do a search for the phrases I overuse and take out all but one of each,” says Beth Miller.
I often lift out a paragraph (or make blank lines above and below it) and edit it as if it is a piece of flash fiction. Then I can make sure every word is necessary and every word is working the hardest it can. I’m happy to use a thesaurus, but I make sure I choose alternative words that fit the style of my writing.

Check the shape on the page. This is something I’ve haven’t tried yet, but S.D. Sykes does it all the time: “It sounds a bit mad, but I can normally tell by the shape of the words and spaces in a paragraph if the writing is going to be what I’m aiming for. I know the shapes I like!” Vanessa Lafaye and Claire Douglas do it too, so it must be worth trying.

Check for adverbs. I do a search for words ending in ‘ly’ and also for other adverbs like almost, often and always. I check they’re necessary and consider whether a stronger verb might work better.

Change the layout. Sometimes I will layout my manuscript in Word so it looks similar to a book format, just so I can see it differently. (To do this alter the margins to 10cm for the top; 5cm for the bottom; 4cm for both sides; Times New Roman 11pt; and justify.) Lots of writers change the format of their manuscript. Louise Walters says, “A change in layout is really important. It’s a good trick when I’m self-editing to let me to see my writing afresh.” Christine Breen also reads her novels on different platforms: “I’ve even sent it to myself on Kindle as a pdf. Working between my macbook and my iPad also helps. Each new perspective makes a difference.”

Check beginnings and endings. “I check the start and end of each chapter,” says Sarah Vaughan. I check they’re strong and they don’t repeat the same style of opening each time.

Any genre has to get the facts correct. “But because I write historical fiction,” says Jason Hewitt, “this is particularly important. I will have done all my research before and during the writing process, but when I’m reading through I’ll highlight each fact that I need to double-check and then check them one more time, ticking them off on the printed manuscript when I’m happy the detail is correct. This also helps me clarify those few occasions where I know, for the sake of the story I have veered from any factual truth.”

There are probably plenty more ways you can polish a manuscript; please share how you do it in the comments . And click to read more from Claire on  finishing your first draft, or  revising.