How to Edit & Proofread a Novel

Many people have written a lot on the process of editing a novel to make it error-free and publishable. Almost all of this information is piecemeal however. There never seems to be a comprehensive list that (new) authors should follow to get the job done. This page is my attempt at rectifying this problem.

First, the provisos and general comments.

  1. Novel editing is an iterative process. It means that this list can’t be followed once, from top to bottom, and when you get there, the job is done. I’ve attempted to highlight where you need to repeat the process over and over, but be aware right from the beginning, editing can begin before you’ve written much, or you can wait until the end, and you’ll probably have to do (parts of) this checklist multiple times.
  2. This editing process doesn’t cover planning, timelining or any of the processes that you must do before you start writing. This is the post-writing process, even if you do it in segments as you write.

What is Writing? / How to Write a Novel

George R.R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame, once said “…there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners…”. Read the full quote here. I very much agree with this comment. I’m absolutely a gardener (I have a general plan but create most of my world as I write and inspiration strikes. I assumed Martin was an architect because his novels are so dense and intricate, but I guess I was wrong.

If you’re an architect, then you’ll end up with a planning document (or set of documents) listing every pertinent detail before you begin. If this is the case, then you need proofreading more than editing. You still need a thorough edit though as your novel might not be consistent – people make mistakes – but in theory, you’ve got it all down pat already.

If you’re a gardener, like me and Martin, then you have a bigger problem. Well, you exchange 1 problem for another. An architect has to spend a huge amount of time, well, architecting. This, in theory, prevents (most) editing problems, but takes a lot of time. If you’re a gardener, you have to do huge amounts of consistency checking.

Whatever your process, you’ll need to set aside a lot of time to check your work. Writing is actually only half of the job, by time spent.

What is Proofreading?

Proofreading is actually a pretty simple process, but a very important one. Someone – not you – takes the text (raw text, without any embellishments like pretty fonts, etc) and proofs each paragraph, line, word for line-level mistakes. Notice how I started big (paragraphs) and got smaller (words)? That’s deliberate, because proofing a text works at that level. Everything else is editing. Here’s a good process:

  1. Take the text, and nuke it (I’m borrowing Smashwords’ terminology here) by copy-and-pasting it all into Notepad or anything that’ll strip out all formatting and leave you with nothing but pure text. Paste it into Word or whatever editor you use, set everything to a 12-point, fixed-width font. Typically, this’ll be a Courier font. All of this makes the text basic and boring – but very easy to read. The punctuation will be spaced widely, so easier to spot and confirm.
  2. Why not start with a spellchecker? Keep in mind, in any novel (especially fantasy and sci-fi) there will be piles of spelling mistakes, and a lot will be legit – names, invented things, ideas, etc. I actually create a custom dictionary for each project and keep it in the same folder as my novel text, planning documents, etc. For example, my Upheaving Nidola series has a Nidola.dic file in its main folder, which includes all character and place names and a bunch of other invented words.
  3. A lot of people recommend reading the text backwards, a paragraph at a time. This is a brilliant idea, because it stops you from getting involved in the story, which allows you to focus on the actual words, punctuation, etc. If you decide to read the text through forwards, just beware that you’re proofing, not reading.
  4. So, what are we looking for:
    1. Legitimate spelling mistakes.
    2. Words that are the wrong word. You know, you meant to type “to” but it came out of your keyboard as “do”. A spellchecker’ll never find it, and it’s insidious, but you need to get them all.
    3. Punctuation problems.
      1. Commas that should be full stops and vice versa.
      2. Open or close quotes that are missing their partner.
      3. Commas inside of quotes, if you’re following British punctuation, or commas outside of quotes if you’re following US punctuation style.
      4. Dashes inside compound adjectives that have a leading or trailing space.
      5. Dashes separating clauses in sentences that are missing their leading and trailing spaces.
      6. The dreaded combination of multiple question marks and/or exclamation marks!!?!!
      7. Piles of other problems of this type. Basically, anything that looks wrong, non-standard or just icky. There are standard rules for punctuation, even based on genre, but I prefer a little flexibility. It’s a matter of style, as long as it’s not garish. I once talked about this with an author whose proofreader removed all of his ellipses (3 dots in a row: “…”) and replaced them with dashes. He was horrified.
    4. Spacing problems, and by this I literally mean the space bar.
      1. Do a search and replace for ”  ” (2 spaces) and replace it with ” ” (1 space). Keep doing this until there are 0 instances of 2 spaces in a row.
      2. Do a search and replace for “^p ” (new paragraph, space) and replace it with “^p” (new paragraph but with no space.
      3. Do a search and replace for ” ^p” (space, new paragraph) and replace it with “^p” (new paragraph but with no space.
    5. Special character problems. For example, I do most of my writing on my Android tablet, which doesn’t automatically change (” “) into (“ ”)  or ( ‘ ) into ( ’ )so I end up with lots of ugly single and double quotes throughout my text. I have to manually search and replace these. You might also need to do this with other characters.
    6. Capitalisation problems. Seriously people – there’s no place for capitalising random words for effect. The standard is to use italics, but never bold. That said – again – I’ve seen it done to excellent effect.
    7. Structural problems at the sentence level:
      1. Run-on sentences / clauses.
      2. Sentence fragments.
      3. Read any university-level grammar treatise when you’re having trouble sleeping. They’re full of these types of sentence-level problems and you’ll need 1 or more excellent proofreaders to find them and kill them without ruining your personal style.

I personally recommend you find at least 3 good proofreaders. They’ll all spot different things.

What is Editing?

Proofreading a novel is time-consuming, but a relatively straightforward process. It’s length is based on word count and not much else. Editing is a whole different, multi-tentacled beast. Editing a novel looks for higher level problems. It demands more of the editor, who has to immerse themselves in the text, get to know everything about it and use this deep knowledge to ferret out any inconsistencies.

Here’s the main tasks for the editor:

  1. Consistency checking. If the body was found in the bedroom at the end of the hallway on the first floor of the townhouse at the beginning of the murder mystery, then you already have 5 facts that have to be consistent all the way through the book (series). There’s literally nothing worse than the murder later admitting to killing her in the kitchen on the ground floor. Your book just died, or it should. Aspects of consistency:
    1. As mentioned above – all facts have to stay the same. Check out the infamous U-bend / S-bend problem with Harry Potter.
    2. Timing of events. A common problem is where the author gets so wrapped up in detailing events that they take too long, or not enough time. You know, like in most Hollywood movies: The bomb has 30 seconds on the clock while the 2 main characters profess their love over 5 minutes of screen time and the support characters google “defusing a bomb”, read the resulting 50 page document and call the lovebirds with instructions. They manage to defuse it 20 minutes later with only 1 second on the 30-second clock. Aaargh!!!?!?!”!!”>!>!!”<@
    3. Distances between places. If your character spent a week walking from town A to town B in book 1, how’d it manage to take a month by horseback in book 3?
    4. What were the characters wearing at all points in time?
    5. What did they know at all points in time?
    6. Is the sequence of events reasonable, logical and even possible? How often do you read a novel where the characters make logical leaps which just don’t sit right?
      1. “Yes captain, there was an artificial, red hair found on the body. It must therefore be a clown from the circus that left last week. No captain, it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with anything else. I followed the circus and apprehended the criminal. How’d I know it was him? Because he has big feet and so did the murderer. Why no, captain, no-one else on earth has big feet so it must be him.”
    7. Gaping plot holes. Sometimes the plot is so badly broken that it can’t possibly even happen!
      1. I read a book a while ago about a girl who died, became a guardian angel, saving souls and wotnot. She got a bit hot and heavy with the leather jacket wearing supervisor, all kissy kissy and stuff. Then they were tasked with finding and saving a baby that was born to a human and a guardian angel from demons. Then end result is that neither guardian angels nor demons can touch the baby without immediately dying. Sure enough, she has to touch the baby, but doesn’t die. Apparently she was also born to a guardian angel (her mother) and a human. OK, so why isn’t her boyfriend toast? What about all of the other guardian angels she’s been touching throughout the book? Plot hole! he whole book’s fundamentally flawed.
  2. Pace. So many books suffer from the typical problem that parts progress too quickly while others are grindingly slow. This is commonly in the middle, where the author decides to send their protagonist on a long journey, and tell us about every little gripe they have along the way. Keep the pace consistent, or at least logical, and fast enough to keep the reader hooked.
  3. Each chapter needs a killer intro and it has to end with a hook to keep the reader reading. You can’t give them an excuse to put the book down, and the editor needs to make sure these hooks are sufficiently engrossing.
  4. Almost a proofreading task, but they should also look for words, phrases, idioms and the like which are overused and don’t fit the context. In a period piece, look for new words that didn’t exist when the story is set, and things like that.
  5. Make sure the reader is always aware of perspective and who’s actually doing what. It’s a common problem to overuse general pronouns like “him” and “she” to the point that the flow is confusing.

When to Edit

This is a very bad question to ask, but also eminently reasonable, especially for novice writers. I can only tell you what I do / prefer.

  1. I edit inline as I write, but only very quick highlights – not actual editing – so I don’t interrupt the flow of my writing. I’m a gardener, not an architect (see above).
  2. I send my alpha text (full of holes and comments) out to a few trusted proofreader/editors a few chapters at a time. How many depends on the length of the chapters, the projected length of the book and where there’s a logical section break.
  3. When I finish the alpha text, I follow my own proofreading and editing processes, rewrite a lot, then send the whole thing out to my proofreader/editors again.
  4. I iterate through this until I run out of time am happy with the final text. Most of the work sits with me, but then, it’s my job, not theirs.

What About Editing For Length?

I’m going to be really controversial here. I don’t like this at all. I never do it, and I think it’s a waste of time. First up, for context, if you read the blogs or whatever of pretty much any author who’s more successful than me (all of them) then they all talk about their time spent or process for editing their novels down to the length they want. You know, cutting out the chaff, and wotnot. I strenuously disagree with the whole concept. Here’s why:

  1. Some authors write short, dense works while others write wordy, descriptive works. Whatever it is, it’s your style and editing for length, to me, is just like saying your style is wrong, so change it!
  2. Amazon recently changed their Kindle Select payment system. In brief (read the details elsewhere) they pay authors for rented books based on page count. I originally assumed they’d average out each page for that you’d get your traditional $1.80 – $2 for each book, and they’d divide that sum by your number of pages, but that’s not how it works. They calculate an average page based on the words (standardised page size, font, etc) and pay you for each page. I used to get about $2 for each copy of my 118k-word book rented, like everyone else. Now, my 330 page paperback comes out as 585 Kindle Edition Normalised Pages, which should earn me almost $4 for each rented copy, if the reader reads it all, and some other blog I read was right about the payout for each page. So, basically, longer books now pay a lot more for rentals from Kindle Select. Gone is the incentive to churn out lots of short books and sell them all for $0.99.

Some Points of Style

Show, Don’t Tell

One of the most common pieces of advice novice writers will read, and complain about, is this: Show, Don’t Tell. And yet, no-one seems to ever tell you what it actually means, therefore it seems to be complete B.S.

It’s not B.S. It’s excellent advice, but first you need to actually understand it. It’s also sort of the exact opposite of culling for length. Here’s an example:

Version 1

Barry could see a shadow moving back and forth under the door, so was hesitant to open it. It could be the killer. But the only exit was through this room. Tentatively, he gripped the door handle, paused to steel himself for what was to come, turned and yanked hard…

Version 2

A flicker of light drew Barry’s attention to the shaft of light piercing the din of his hiding place. It swayed back and forth as someone moved about in the living room. Or is it just a candle flickering in the breeze? Damn! Did I leave the window open? With his wife’s blood still staining his cuffed sleeves, he paused at the door handle. What if it’s her killer? I don’t have a weapon? Hell, I don’t think I could use one even if I did. Impotent rage mixed with frustration as he burst through the door, screaming with all his might, as he headed for the front door.

Analysis

In what I hope would count as a fairly common example of Show, Don’t Tell, I’ve got 2 versions of a scene. What’s the difference? I’ve underlined the obvious points of Telling, but there’s pretty much the same number of underlines in each, so what’s the difference? It’s all a matter of style. In the first, it’s like a bullet-point list of things you (the author) are simply telling the reader. Add in some grammar and there you have it – a chapter. The second in qualitatively different, if not really quantitatively different (in underlines). In the second I’ve attempted (quickly and badly) to create atmosphere for the reader by putting the character first, not the events.

And that, in a nutshell, is Show, Don’t Tell. Draw your reader into the story by putting your characters at its centre, not their external actions. Your readers are reading your story to identify with the protagonist and follow them on an engaging journey, so give them that, not a list of things that happen.

The Evils of [Everything But] “Said”

Supposedly, one of the main, easy to spot things that separates novice authors from pros is that pros stick to saidasked and replied, while us novices add too much flourish, which just ends up sounding stupid. Supposedly, you should expunge everything else from your test and use said and its variants for everything. The logic is that said quickly becomes invisible to the readers, so is preferred to everything else.

There’s a certain logic to it, but I still personally disagree. Let me tell you why I actually don’t have a problem with this rule though, even as I don’t follow it.

Terrible Example

“Why did you do it?” Barry exclaimed.

“Evil does as it wants”, Barry’s wife’s killer taunted.

“But why my poor wife?” Barry aggravated.

“Because you looked at me funny on the train!” the killer blustered.

Most competent authors’ problem with novice writers straying from said is the mess above. It’s not even logical – it’s farcical in fact. The words aren’t used correctly and if it was seen in a real book, it would just scream, I’m adding emotion with over-the-top verbs, which is simply ridiculous. Sadly, I’ve seen this junk far too many times.

Fixing It The Wrong Way

“Why did you do it?” Barry asked.

“Evil does as it wants”, Barry’s wife’s killer said.

“But why my poor wife?” Barry asked.

“Because you looked at me funny on the train!” the killer replied.

Replacing the disaster from above with variations of said doesn’t improve a thing. But this isn’t the point. This is absolutely not the point of the rule. Let’s try again.

Using “said” Right (sort of – if I’d put more time into it)

Tears streamed down Barry’s face, blurring his vision, just as his wife’s killed closed in on his kneeling form. “Why did you do it?” he asked, struggling against his bonds.

The killer was taunting him as he rolled the bloodstained blade through his gaunt fingers. “Evil does as it wants”, he said, as Mary’s blood flicked across Barry’s face, tainting his tears.

The whole situation made no sense at all. He’d never met this psychopath before. “But why my poor wife?” Barry asked.

The killer pulled back at that. Abruptly, he sauntered off across the room and flopped onto the couch. He extended his right arm fully, pointing the hunting knife straight at Barry’s broken heart. “Because you looked at me funny on the train!” the killer replied.

By this point, we don’t even actually need the “he asked”, “he said”, “Barry asked” and “the killer replied” speech tags. We could justly delete them, and this is what those “pro” authors would have you do, and it’s what I usually do.

I think a little differently on this issue. I say:

  • Using said everywhere most definitely does not become invisible. Quite the opposite – the more I see it, the more it annoys me, to the point that I have to stop reading the book.
  • Using appropriate question tags is welcome and informative. Apparently, we’re supposed to use description (Show, Don’t Tell) to explain the emotions, so almost all tags are unnecessary, but I say a well-placed question tag that isn’t infuriating is still better than saidsaid, said all day.
  • Using description is still often better than any question tag.

The Evil Adverb

The next style problem is the evil adverb. So many “pro” authors claim you should extinguish all adverbs (and often most adjectives) to keep your narrative clean and fast-paced (of whatever the excuse) that it’s another cliche of what separates “real” authors from us “try-hards” (myself included). The general advice is that if you need adverbs, you’re actually just using inappropriate verbs.

Some Examples

“Please stop”, Barry quietly said. “Please stop”, Barry whispered.
“I like causing pain”, the serial killer stated flatly. “I like causing pain”, the serial killer deadpanned.
“Lay your fingers on the bench”, the killer said sternly. “Lay your fingers on the bench”, the killer demanded.

It’s very true that a lot of authors misuse verbs and then feel the need to support them with superfluous adverbs, but I don’t think this is the end of the story. My rule is:

My (Modified) Rule

Only use adverbs when they add meaning / nuance to the verb.

What it means is that you shouldn’t be relying on adverbs to provide meaning when a more specific verb would do the job, but you should use adverbs when you want to add nuance to an already-good verb.

“Please stop”, Barry whispered. “Please stop”, Barry forlornly whispered.
“I like causing pain”, the serial killer deadpanned. “I like causing pain”, the serial killer maniacally deadpanned.
“Lay your fingers on the bench”, the killer demanded. “Lay your fingers on the bench”, the killer cruelly demanded.

In each of the above (dodgy) examples, the verb says the “how?” while the adverb adds another layer of style, without saying the same thing as the verb. In the second, I’ve even created a conflict between the adverb and verb, which highlights the psychotic nature of the serial killer and makes the scene more eerie.

If you want to follow the traditional advice, I recommend searching your text for “ly ” and all of its variants to see if you really need all of those adverbs:

  • “ly “
  • “ly,”
  • “ly.”
  • “ly?”
  • “ly!”

There are tools to automate these things, but I won’t cover them here. You can also do a find-and-replace for “ly” and replace it with “ly” but with a different background colour.

After that, you’ll have to give special attention to the even more evil very, a lotmuch, many and words like that. I might add a list and/or a procedure to a future version of this page if enough people request it.

Don’t Do As I Say

Every author has blind spots in their own writing, and it’s critically important to find them and kill the problems they cause. Here’s my list of 2 huge blind spots, and how to find/fix them.

  1. We all overuse certain words that we like or just subconsciously prefer. I can’t tell you what these are, obviously, but I can give you some hints about how to hunt them down.
    1. Return to your favourite word-counter tool (see my checklist, below) and use it to build you a list of your 100 (or more) most commonly used words. Most of the top 100 will be obvious and necessary (a, an, the, character names, etc) but probably close to the bottom of the list will be a few words that just look odd. Use the Find tool of whatever word processor you use, re-read each paragraph containing the offending word, and maybe the page surrounding that, and decide if you need to find a synonym. I recommend http://www.dictionary.reference.com/ for synonyms. Why think when someone else has already done the work. Just be appropriate and creative.
    2. Just read the whole text again, from beginning to end, at top speed. Treat it as someone else’s work, and see if anything pops out. This happens to me, so I highlight it (in yellow – see below) and move on.
    3. Highlight this issue for your editors and specifically ask them to look out for words that annoy them or are repeated too frequently.
    4. Mine include these horrible (mostly) adverbs (see what I’ve done here ;):
      1. definitely
      2. obviously
      3. most likely
      4. like (meaning “as if”), although I do deliberately leave this is often, if it’s appropriate
      5. deliberately
      6. probably
      7. appropriate
  2. We’re all guilty of over- and under-exposition (giving too much or too little detail). There’s a fine line (sometimes a 10 lane highway) between appropriate world-building (especially in sci-fi and fantasy) and just crapping on about something that you find interesting / exciting and your readers will find boring / tedious. My advice here – seriously – is to read a pile of crap fiction in your genre. Well, not crap, but mediocre at best.
    1. Go to Amazon, select the Kindle Store from the left of the search box and search for literally anything. When it returns an unimportant search, select the magical Advanced Search option.
    2. In Amazon’s magical, well-hidden Advanced Search feature, you can choose your genre, type in anything you’re interested in and select the mighty Sort Results By: Price: Low to High. Oh the beauty!
    3. Anyway, so search for a pile of books that might be interesting, but sort the results so you get an easy view of the ones that are free that day on a Kindle Select promotion (the list therefore changes daily), and purchase a few of them for free. But, only purchase the books with 3 or fewer stars and a few negative reviews that complain about things like weak characters, unbelievable plots, waffling styles, etc. ie, find a bunch of books like yours, but done badly.
    4. Now, read them all. Trust me, you’ll learn so much more from reading crap books in your genre than anything I can try to teach you or bullet on a checklist. Whatever annoys you in those crap books, review in yours.

My Editing Process / Checklist

Let’s keep it brief. Do all of this. Well, here’s what I do – the technical stuff first.

  1.  I use a system of colour highlighting as I write, for editing. Whenever I write anything that I’m not sure of – for any reason – I highlight the background in yellow. Why yellow? Only because the WPS Office suite I use on my tablet defaults to yellow, so this is easiest. The colour isn’t important, as long as it’s consistent.
  2. Any time (often while writing) that I don’t feel like being creative, I can simply scan the text for these yellow highlights, re-read the section, figure out why I highlighted it, and fix it. It’s fixed when it’s no longer highlighted in yellow, but I often change the colour. More on that later. The most common reasons for yellow highlights are:
    1. I’m not sure if I spelled the word correctly – don’t rely on the spellchecker here. If you know it might be wrong, highlight it anyway. You might have incorrectly spelled it as a different, but real word.
    2. I’m not sure if the word I used means what I think it means. I’ll look it up on http://dictionary.reference.com/.
    3. I might have a fact wrong or a story inconsistency. Basically, I added something to my world but think I’ve mentioned it before and might have said something different.
    4. A placeholder name or fact. I suck at coming up with names, for example, so I’ll often add XXX and YYY to my novel, then try to keep XXX and YYY consistent until I copy and paste in the names later. These are all highlighted so I don’t miss anything.
    5. I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
    6. My yellow highlights are often changed to another colour. Also, after I’ve finished a section (chapter, part, the whole book) I re-read the whole thing, front to back, and add more highlights. Here’s my personal colour list. Feel free to invent your own. All of these are background colours.
  3. I scan the whole text (usually using my word processor’s Find feature, obviously) for all quotes and thoughts by all characters. I assign a different colour to each (main) character, and highlight the text (not background) of all quotes according to who said/thought it. At some point in the editing process I’ll have to go back over every quote by every character, 1 character at a time, and make sure their way of speaking is consistent. My pirates have to always talk like pirates, prefer the same words and abbreviations, have the same accent, etc. This point is all about how they talk, not what they say. What they say should have been covered in the previous section (green highlights).
  4. I dump my whole text into a word-counter tool (such as http://wordcounttools.com/). It’s not about the word count though. The good tools highlight words that are used very commonly, word density, reading level and a bunch of other stuff. For the most part, I’m interested in any words that I seem to overuse. This is a very coarse measurement, but it’s a good place to start looking for words where you need to diversify and find synonyms, or just delete.
 Colour Purpose
 Yellow General highlights with no specific purpose / definition. Typically, the first step here is to figure out why I highlighted it – to be sorted out later, when I’m in an editing mood.
 Green A fact about anything in the book. These must all be looked up in my Overview file (you have one, right?) which is the compendium of all facts about all things, people and places in the book’s universe, as well as a bullet-point list of everything that happens in the story. I look up the green sections here. If I don’t find them, I add them. If they’re already in the Overview file, I verify the facts are the same. If they’re not, I change my story.
 Purple Time references. I leave these in until the end of the editing process, so when reviewing the story in any context, I can quickly make sure the events happen at logical times, spans of time, etc. Literally anything that references time in any way is highlighted here. I’m very aggressive on highlighting these as I can always unhighlight them later.
 Mustard All distance references. I treat these the same as the time references. This allows me to make sure all of my distances are consistent. Typically, these will go from green (to be added to my Overview file and map) to mustard.

Keep in mind, this is just my list, and it’s not necessarily even complete. I’m thinking of adding a few more colours. For example, numbers of things. As my world gets more complex, I have more characters (including bit-characters, sometimes without names even) moving in different directions and it can be difficult to keep track of things. Exactly how many dwarves have I killed so far on this mission? Did I start out with enough at the beginning of the day? I’ll update this blog page as I add more to my standard system.

This is all very time-consuming, but if you want your world to be consistent, then don’t skimp on the editing, and highlighting things makes it easier – trust me.

At the end of the above process, what you should have is a technically consistent text, but what about the higher-level stuff I mentioned earlier? What about pacing, style, plot holes and making sure the text flows in a realistic way? Surely this is all the most important part of the editing process? Well, yes it is. And, unfortunately, I can’t do much to help you with that. It’s not reasonable to try to create a list of rules or procedure(s) to find and exterminate higher-level, creativity problems. For this, all you can do it the following:

  1. Find / beg / bribe / hire multiple people to do a high-level edit of your book, which basically means they have to read it and tell you what they think. Be careful who you choose. By preference, you want people who:
    1. Do like the genre.
    2. Don’t like the genre, but will edit it anyway.
    3. Don’t like you, so they’ll be more honest / critical.
    4. Are methodical and well-organised.
    5. Speak your language very well and have a sound understanding of grammar.
  2. Write a checklist of things for your editors to look for. If they’re not experienced editors, all they’ll do it read the text as they would any normal book and give you useless comments like “yeah, it was cool”. Be specific and set high expectations. You’ll notice my example below is actually called my Sample Beta Reading Checklist. I’m calling it that because this is really a beta reader checklist. A professional editor won’t need it, and probably already has a much longer, better checklist. Mine’s really for your freebie friends / family to work with.
  3. Write a questionnaire for the editors to complete.
  4. Set a deadline for completion. If you don’t, your editors will get back to you in 6 months, if you’re lucky. Even the paid editors will dump your text at the bottom of their pile if there’s no deadline. Your friends will need one even more.

Sample Beta Reading Checklist

  • Why not include a proofreading list too:
    • Typos
      • misspelled words
      • wrong words used (even if they’re real words)
      • punctuation problems
      • grammar problems
  • Describe any inconsistencies and/or plot holes. Include the location(s) in the text (page numbers) and the reason(s) the editor thinks it’s a plot hole. Remember, it might not be a real problem. You know what you’re planning for book 2 but the editor might not, so they may find a hole that you planned, and will cover later.
  • Continuity errors
  • Timing errors
  • Distance errors
  • Inconsistent characterisation (see my section above about highlighting all quotes from each character to make sure their voice is consistent and identifiable)
  • Too much / not enough description. This is especially important in sci-fi / fantasy, which rely on description for world-building, but it can get out of hand.
  • Anything at all that the editor really likes or dislikes, even if they can’t explain why.
  • Word choices, styles, idioms and metaphors that don’t sit right or suit the context.
  • Repetitive use of certain words / phrases.
  • Inappropriate / unexpected perspective and/or point-of-view changes.
  • Confusion caused by unclear text. For example, overuse of “he/she/his/her”, etc.

Sample Beta Reader Questionnaire

  1. What did you think about the story:
    1. Did you orient yourself to the story and world quickly? Why not?
    2. Did it hold your interest throughout? Why not? Where?
    3. Did it get too slow or lose your interest? Why? Where?
    4. Was it ever too fast? Why? Where?
    5. Was it ever confusing? Why? Where?
    6. Was it upsetting in any way? (too gory, childish, explicit…) Why? Where?
  2. What did you think about the characters:
    1. Could you relate to the main characters? Why not? Which one(s)?
    2. Were there any characters that you didn’t like and think need to be changed? (excluding “bad guys” who you’re supposed to not like)
    3. Were the characters (good and bad) believable? Were their motives consistent with their characters? Why not? Which ones?
    4. Were there too many / too few characters? Which ones could be done without?
    5. Did you ever get confused about which character is which? Why? Which ones?
    6. Was the inter-character dialog realistic and believable? Why not? Which characters? When?
    7. Was each character’s internal dialog realistic and believable? Why not? Which characters? When?
  3. What did you think about the world:
    1. Was the imagined world interesting?
    2. Could you imagine the world from the descriptions? Why not? Where?
    3. Was the world appropriately believable?
    4. Was the world internally consistent?
  4. Was the story’s conflict interesting?
  5. If this is a latter part of a series / serial:
    1. Have you read (any of) the previous book(s)?
    2. Did this next book meet your expectations for the series? Why not?
    3. Could you (re)orient yourself to this world, considering its place in the series/serial?
  6. Did you like the ending? Was it satisfying?
    1. If the story is part of a series, was this an appropriate place to end this book?
  7. How would you review this book, as it is now?
    1. What star rating would you give it on Amazon? (our of 5)
    2. How would you rate the book on Amazon’s other dimensions:
      1. How would you describe the plot of this book?   Predictable / Some twists / Full of surprises
      2. Which of these words best describes the mood?   Hopeful / Dark / Nostalgic / Light-hearted / Suspenseful / Thoughtful
      3. How would you describe the pace?   Slow / Steady / Fast
      4. How would you describe the characters?   One-dimensional / Developed / Complex
    3. If you had to write a review for this book, would would it say?

Changelog

You should feel free to completely ignore this section, and indeed everything that follows it. It won’t help you learn to proofread or edit anything.

I added this changelog (the name borrowed from IT / programming) for people who’ve visited this page a few times and might want to know if/what’s new. This section will tell you if there’s anything new for you to check out.

Date Change(s)
 11 Nov 2015
  • Initial document
 13 Nov 2015
  • Added this changelog
  • Added the section: Don’t Do As I Say

5 thoughts on “How to Edit & Proofread a Novel”

    1. I thought about including complete checklistset but decided against it for 2 reasons:
      1) Making it printable is pointless in the modern, net-connected world. I’very never met half of my standard proofreaders and only contact them online. I might consider a Google Formby later though – that’s a good idea, except for problem #2.
      2) Each checklist should be customised to the book, it’s genre and the needs of the author. A simple checklist will usually be too generic.

      Like

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