Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #19: How to Self-Edit


This is it! The last day of Novel Boot Camp! How did it arrive so quickly?

It’s a bittersweet moment filled with visions of sleep and relaxation but also the knowledge that I won’t be hearing from you all nearly as often.

But Boot Camp isn’t over yet! Tomorrow I will announce the contest winners (I know you’re all dying to know who was the best genre guesser). So make sure to check out the post in case you’re a winner!

For our very last Novel Boot Camp lecture, I wanted to focus on the future – your novel’s future. Whether you simply read the lectures or spent hours on every homework assignment, chances are your novel still has a long way to go.

But its journey doesn’t stop here! It’s time to dig deeper into the perilous activity of self editing. It’s a long and rough road, but you’re ready for it! Here are my best tips:

Start with the Big Picture

Most writers start the editing process off on the wrong foot right from the get go. They open their word document to page one and just dive right in. They spend countless minutes debating about whether his shirt is “baby blue” or “light blue.” They fiddle with punctuation marks. They flip-flop endlessly between using “and” or separating the sentence into two.

And then after all of this, they go back and read their revision and it’s…just okay.

This kind of teeny-tiny detail-oriented editing is the absolute last thing you should worry about. Polishing the tiny details before focusing on the big picture just makes it more difficult to let go of unnecessary scenes down the road.

Always start with the big picture and work your way smaller.

The First Editing Stage: Content

The first thing to focus on with your novel is the content. Read your novel from beginning to end and take notes. Be as thorough as possible in your note taking, but don’t change anything just yet. The key is to not waste time making changes until you are 100% sure that the scene will be kept.

Here are some things you will want to include in your notes:

  • Chapters that are boring, slow, or feel unnecessary.
  • Plot holes.
  • Inconsistencies.
  • Unbelievable character motivations.
  • Chapters or scenes without conflict.
  • Poorly conceived or missing character arcs.
  • Any ideas you have for improvements – big or small.

You may need to go over this list several times, expanding on your notes, before you begin making changes within the novel.

Even if you’re a discovery writer (aka a “pantser”), an outline at this stage in the game can really help you see the big picture and figure out how to move scenes and make cuts and additions. Solidifying any plot changes in an outline before revisions can save you a ton of time and stress in the long run.

After you do make the changes within the novel, you will want to do this process again. Go through your manuscript a second time and make notes without changing anything within the manuscript. Then assess your notes, make an outline or game plan, and do another round of editing.

Note that I call this an “editing stage,” not an “editing round.” Depending on the writer, you could go through this process 2-5 times and still have areas to work on.

Note also that the first round of content editing may be very close to rewriting the book from scratch, especially if you’ve learned of some major issues with the plot during your first round of note taking.

The Second Editing Stage: Style

After you’ve perfected the story, it’s time to move on to style or “voice.” If your voice is strong already, then this stage might not take as long for you, but if you’re still establishing your style, this stage could involve a lot of rewriting.

The easiest place to start is with a scene that you feel best demonstrates the style or voice you want for the novel. Consider carefully which elements of the writing you like best.

Now choose a scene in which you feel that the writing isn’t particularly strong. Try to “imitate” the voice/style you used in the passage that you do like. Keep fiddling until you get the writing to a place where you are happy with it.

If you don’t have any scenes with especially strong writing, it may be helpful to rewrite the same scene several times in different styles. Then choose the style that you feel best suits the book and incorporate that style throughout the novel.

It may take several rounds of editing to get the style solid and consistent.

The Third Editing Stage: Line

Line editing is what most writers think when they hear the word “editing.” This is the last stage of the editing process where the writer moves slowly and deliberately from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph making the language exactly what they want it to be.

A lot of writers and editors would lump the “style” and “line” editing as a single stage, but in my experience, when new writers are editing for the first time, their work is often so far from having a consistent style that an ordinary line edit would send them through their novel two dozens times before they’d settle on a style that suited their writing and the book.

It’s easier to establish your style ahead of time, then move through the book for the little things – cutting adverbs, improving emotional expression, rewording sentences that are clunky or unclear, etc.

If you’ve done the other two editing stages correctly and thoroughly, this stage might only take two rounds of editing.

How Do You Know When You’re Done?

Knowing exactly when editing is complete can be tricky. The biggest obstacle in the path of most writers is their thought process. Here are some particularly common and damaging ones:

  • “My agent/editor will fix this issue later.”  – Many writers are disillusioned about exactly how much work an agent or editor (at a publisher, not freelance) will be willing to do for you. They expect the novel to be pretty dang close to book store ready. Agents/editors have the pick of the litter so they have no motivation to work with you on a book that’s anything less than stellar.
  • “I need to get published right now! I need to see my book in stores!” – Hold your horses! Urgency is a huge factor in sloppy writing and editing, which will get you nowhere (see above). Don’t worry about when your book will hit shelves, worry about making it the best darn story you can make it.
  • “I’m naturally gifted and don’t need to work as hard as others.” – I can pretty much guarantee that this is not the case. Writing and editing is hard work for everyone. If you try to cut corners because of a belief that you are inherently gifted or talented, you’re going to be waiting the rest of your life for someone to recognize your brilliance.
  • “Nobody will even notice this issue.” – Yes, they will. If you noticed it, I can gosh-darn guarantee you that an agent, editor, or reader will.
  • “It would be easier to start over with a new novel.” – If this is the very first thing you’ve ever written, this may be true, but if you find yourself bouncing from project to project, you may be allergic to editing. No book is going to come out brilliantly conceived the first time. Every story takes a ton of work.
  • “This book is a mess and I hate it. I should quit writing.” – Never give up! Writing is a skill. It takes a lot of time and effort and learning. You don’t become an Olympic gymnast after your very first tumbling lesson, and you don’t become a published author the first time you put a story on the page.

If your thought process isn’t holding you back, you’ll know when you’re done editing when you don’t want to change anything anymore. If you go through your novel and can only think of changing a word here or there, then you’re probably finished. If something still doesn’t quite feel right, you’ve probably got more work to do.

Always remember that you’re writing because you love it, because you’re passionate about it. Never lose sight of that. Editing is a daunting task, but it’s worth it in the end. So go out and polish that book into something you can be proud of!

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #17: Dialogue Tags


Dialogue tags – they’re such a tiny little thing and yet they have a huge impact on the quality, flow, and professionalism of your novel. Dialogue tags are the little bits of text that attribute the dialogue to the speaker. The most common dialogue tag is “he said.” But they can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (many of them worse than others).

Not convinced of their importance? Think about how many of them grace the pages of your novel. All of those little buggers really add up, and they can give the impression that you’re a seasoned pro or an amateur without their sea legs.

Here’s how to master the use of dialogue tags:

Stick with the Basics

As tempting as it can be to veer off into the land of bizarre-o dialogue tags, it’s best to stick to the basics – the tried and true tags that readers don’t even notice. If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this:

Dialogue tags should be invisible.

Not like invisible ink invisible, but like seen-it-ten-thousand-times-and-don’t-even-care invisible. Dialogue tags are functional. They’re not intended to be fun or expressive or artistic. They’re like punctuation marks. Sometimes a semicolon makes more sense than a period, but you can’t just start throwing ampersands and asterisks around.

So what are the basic, invisible dialogue tags? For 95% of cases, stick to either “she said” or “he asked.” If you really absolutely have to convey the volume of the voice, an occasional “he whispered” or “she shouted” is okay.

Any other dialogue tags in your novel should be necessary for clarity. For example, you may wish to use “he lied” if the reader truly doesn’t know that a character was lying. Likewise, “he joked” might be used if it’s not clear that a character is joking. But the goal should be to make these things clear within the dialogue itself.

The dialogue tags should not be doing the heavy lifting.

Indicate Volume or Tone Upfront

If you do decide that you need to use a dialogue tag to convey volume or tone, put the dialogue tag before the text whenever possible. This allows the reader to read the dialogue with the correct tone or volume level the first time.

There is nothing more jarring than reading dialogue in a normal tone only to find out at the end of the text that the character was supposed to be screaming or whispering.

The longer the dialogue, the more important it is to indicate the volume or tone prior to the dialogue.

Dialogue Tags Only Describe the Dialogue

This is more of a punctuation mistake than anything else, but it can look unprofessional, especially when the issue is repeated throughout the manuscript.

Remember that dialogue tags only describe the dialogue. They cannot be used to describe actions. For example:

“Let’s go,” he ran down the road.  < Wrong!

“Let’s go.” He ran down the road. < Right!

Dialogue tags should also never be used to describe sounds other than dialogue. For example:

“You’re so funny,” he laughed. < Wrong!

“You’re so funny.” He laughed. < Right!

“You’re so funny,” he said, laughing. < Right!

Dialogue Tags Should Not Have Adverbs

I will admit that as far as editors go, I’m a bit more on the lenient side with adverbs than most. I might allow for one or two in a chapter if I feel that it’s the best way to convey a concept. And certain adverbs that fly below the radar I won’t necessarily mess with at all. But still, when it comes to dialogue tags, it’s best to forget about the adverbs.

Here are some examples of unneeded adverbs:

“We’re leaving,” she said decidedly. < It’s pretty clear that she’s made a decision. The adverb isn’t adding anything that isn’t already clear.

“Well why don’t I just kill myself then!” she said dramatically. < It’s pretty clear she’s being dramatic here. I don’t think anyone will question it.

“What exactly are you doing?” he said suspiciously. < Especially with context clues, no one is going to be confused about the fact that he’s suspicious.

Note that certain styles of omniscient POV might get away with using some adverbs in dialogue tags.

Use Dialogue Tags Sparingly

This is an element of dialogue tags that many aspiring writers don’t realize – you don’t have to use them. In fact, if you play your cards right, you can avoid them much of the time.

Remember that they serve a functional purpose. That purpose is to indicate to the reader who is speaking. If there is no doubt about who is speaking, then a dialogue tag isn’t needed.

For example, in a conversation with two people, after the pattern is established with the first two lines of dialogue, subsequent dialogue tags may not be necessary for a number of lines. You don’t want to go for pages without reminders of who is who, but you should be able to easily go several lines without dialogue tags.

Use Action in Place of Dialogue Tags

Another way to skip dialogue tags is to use actions, movements, gestures, facial expressions, etc. to convey who is speaking. For example:

Ash wiped sweat from his brow. “I don’t know, Amanda.”

She scrunched her mouth. “What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I mean I don’t know.”

She huffed. “Whatever.”

“Why do you always have to be that way.” Ash turned to go.

Amanda paused, bit her lip. “I’m sorry, okay?”

The scene above doesn’t have a single dialogue tag. Using action in place of dialogue tags reads quick and punchy and can add a professional touch to your writing.

Homework: Reduce and Simplify Your Dialogue Tags

Choose a chunk of your text to analyze or start at the beginning and go through as much of your novel as you have time to work through. Find your dialogue tags and work on improving them by:

  • Cutting unneeded tags.
  • Using action in place of dialogue tags where possible.
  • Cutting adverbs from dialogue tags.
  • Replacing “fancy” dialogue tags with the more standard invisible ones.

Read a few scenes with this new approach to dialogue tags and enjoy the smooth, professional feel of your novel.

Not sure you’ve got this punctuation thing down? Check out my Ultimate Guide on Punctuating Dialogue.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 10.41.51 AM 93-facebookgroup

I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.