Polishing a Novel

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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. It’s what I call editing, or polishing – the nitty-gritty, the picky, the finickity. Here are some ideas for how I and some of my fellow Prime Writers go about it:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.”
  9. 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.
  10. 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; share how you do it in the comments below.

There are probably plenty more ways you can polish a manuscript; please share how you do it in the comments below. And click to read the first post in this series about finishing your first draft, or the second post about revising.

29 thoughts on “Polishing a Novel

  1. All very good points Claire. Your point on dialogue especially caught my eye; dialogue has to sound like speech, specifically the sort of speech patterns your character would use, and the only way to check this is to read it aloud. On a similar note, I don’t know how many times I’ve seen films/TV where the lines sound false and the rhythm is unnatural – you can tell the words look great on paper but when read aloud they clunk.


  2. Thanks for the post, these are all great tips. I read everything I write out loud, blog post, fiction, essays. I agree that it’s easy to spot a word or phrase or sentence that needs revision. I need to work on dialogue, have been taught that it needs to move the story forward, which my character’s words don’t always do. Thanks!


  3. Gosh, I loved this – especially point 5. I’ve not thought about treating paragraphs as if they were flash fiction but it makes perfect sense. Goodbye extraneous words and hello draft number 427……


  4. What a great list, Claire! I really like the idea of working on each paragraph as an entity in its own right. Reading aloud works for me, too.

    For my oft-repeated words, I refer to my spreadsheet of such things (and there are many) and then tick off each one as I search (and invariably replace). Not my favourite task, it has to be said. I also search for “the the”.

    The layout idea you mention in point 8 has been invaluable, too. Having the work on Kindle means I can easily change the font size so that I am not re-reading the book over and over in its familiar ‘shape’. I also highlight things to check and then review them later on.)

    One of my writer friends suggests reading it back to front but that’s one thing I just didn’t get on with.


  5. Dear Claire,

    As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve spent hours researching something that might end up being one sentence.
    I smiled about the list of “fluff” words. Doug, who was a relentless editor, pointed out my overuse of words like ‘shuffle.’ I was appalled when I did a search for the word and found over 50 occurrences. Now Yussell is the only character allowed to shuffle.
    Thank you for all the good advice.




  6. This is a great list! I’ve already started a list of fluff words and ones I know I repeat a lot, so I can search for them directly when I start the editing process. I’ll be making a list of the others – especially those points I haven’t come across before – as well for when I start!
    Thanks for your list, it’ll come in handy! 🙂


      • Well, keep in mind I have been writing for over 50 years…10 years of writing was in fits and starts with long periods of daily work intermixed. The polishing was more like four years…:)
        One thing I have discovered is that even if the novel is not aligning well, excerpts may still be publishable (as happened resulting in a Pushcart Prize nomination, to my surprise) and stories can even be saved/developed from it. I may rearrange the whole thing and use only part one of two parts, and one protagonist instead of a male and female each with their own portions. Onward we go. Best wishes to you!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Clare I feel you sitting beside me telling me that a word doesn’t need to be there or this part of the chapter is making my mind wonder etc so lose it. But the part I found most interesting was the shape of the page, I never thought about that but I instinctively know what Sykes is up to. Everything helps, I’ll also try the reformat trick next time I get tired. It’s just trying to see the words in closeup with the whole picture in focus in your mind’s eye at the same time – that’s not easy!!!!


  8. Pingback: Ten Eleven Ideas for Revising a Novel | Claire Fuller

  9. All useful tips, many of which I do, especially removing my ticks (really, just etc). I also find I have to check all uses of ‘though’ and ‘through’, ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ and others. My real weakness is that every time I attempt to read out loud, I collapse with embarrassment and boredom (because I know every word) within a few sentences. So I only do this with paragraphs that continue to bother me in the final stages.


  10. Great tips. I also print out a copy of each draft and read it through, highlight, add, amend, take out, then go back onto the laptop and do the changes. I can do this over and over and over again too. I also get my hubby to read it through. He is great for catching things that don’t make sense or over use of certain words!


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