How to Edit Your Novel: A Series

I’ve been promising an editing/polishing series for some time now and here it is. Ta da!!!


Okay, editing really is that exciting, just not necessarily in every moment. Because I guarantee if you put in the sufficient effort and if you’re not afraid to strike and strike hard you will always come out with a better story than you had before. That’s the point of editing—to take your baby and raise it into something awesome.


I’m going to start with the obvious parts. You’re going to have typos in this new baby you just birthed and a good edit will get rid of them. For those of you who already know these parts, I congratulate you. Bear with me as we remind everyone else of the basics. The basics are important.

1. Spell Check. It requires almost no effort on your end and yet it saves you hours of what people back in the day before word processors would agonize over. Hopefully you’ve had it turned on and fixed most of those red underlines as you went along. But you may have missed some. So first off why don’t you go spell check that newly crafted novel of yours so all the obvious mistakes get out of the way. Go on, get!

2. Grammar Check. This one doesn’t always work, but it certainly can help sometimes and is worth a look at least once. I’ve especially found it helpful in figuring out lay, laid, lie, lying, lain. It may catch other things like double words such as this this kind of mistake. This is easy stuff you can do without much thought, so make sure it gets done.


You’d be surprised how many manuscripts I’ve seen (and good gracious, I’m not even an agent) where the format is complete crap—and at writers conferences no less! Poor format is highly likely to get you a pass, even if you’re the most brilliant writer in the world. So the next thing you need to do before we dig deep is make sure you have the proper format.

Now if an agency has specifications they prefer, be sure and follow those when submitting material. However, there is a standard format that will work in most situations.


Using a flashy font won’t get you any extra attention, unless that goal was to get your manuscript chucked in the trash immediately. Some of you may think you can sneak in extra stuff by making the font smaller, but that, my friends, is why agents ask for word counts. Just stick to the standard font.

The document itself should be double spaced with indents for paragraphs and no extra spaces between paragraphs. Something like this:


Single spaced with a space between paragraphs should only be employed if the agency wants you to paste the first several words/pages into the body of an email. In that case it’s better to do it like this:


There should be one-inch margins on all sides of the document. Don’t forget the title page with the title of course, and your contact info. And in the header, make sure to include page numbers not starting on the title page. Most recommend including your book’s title and your last name beside the page number so that the agent reading knows who it came from if they decide they like it. They get a bajillion submissions a day, so they may not remember exactly whose manuscript they are reading (even though your contact info is on page one, I’d still recommend doing this).


I’m surprised how often I still see this done wrong. Let me list a few examples of the good and bad so you know how this works.

Correct: “I actually do want want to eat your hamburger if you usually don’t mind.” All of this is contained inside the double quotes.

Correct: “I actually do want want to eat your hamburger if you usually don’t mind,” my favorite spammer said. With the comma on the inside of the quotes and the attribution on the outside. Everything will be lower caps unless it’s a proper name. See next example.

Correct: “I actually do want want to eat your hamburger if you usually don’t mind,” Davis said. Because it’s a proper name, it’s capped as it usually would be.

Wrong: “I actually do want want to eat your hamburger if you usually don’t mind” , The postman said.

Wrong: “I actually do want want to eat your hamburger if you usually don’t mind” ! Exclaimed the crazy spammer.

Wrong: “I actually do want want to eat your hamburger if you usually don’t mind.” Davis said. Unless it’s a question or exclamation, if it’s followed by attribution ALWAYS use a comma.

Oh, and do try and avoid this: “I actually do want want to eat your hamburger if you usually don’t mind,” Davis said. “Me fail English, that’s unpossible!” he continued. We already know this is Davis, no need to attribute again.


Many of you probably know this already, but for those of us who had old school teachers teaching it old school, here is the new gospel to live by when it comes to sentences. Don’t add two spaces after the end of any sentence. Ever. Don’t believe me? It’s on Writer’s Digest as well as other numerous grammar sites.

It’s an easy fix. You can do a find and replace with the find being two spaces and the replace being one.

Dashes are meant to signify abruptness. For example if I want to display my ADD—ooh, candy! Or if someone was interrupting my—ahem, my thoughts. Get my meaning? An ellipses is when I’m dreaming of that…special someone… And I just…trail off… Use them right. Please!

Lastly the semicolon. Here’s the thing. Don’t insert them just to look smart. You won’t. Only use them when you’re certain it’s right. Here’s a very fun to follow guide by The Oatmeal on How to Use a Semicolon. When in doubt, don’t semicolon.


Now that we have all of that beginning stuff out of the way, we can get into the meat of editing. So make sure your manuscript has all of these tips applied to it and then move on to the next in the series. What you’ll see over the next few days:

Thanks to all you veterans for being patient with this first post. We’ve got to make sure everyone starts at square one. See you tomorrow with Going Cold, Then Going Bold.


28 thoughts on “How to Edit Your Novel: A Series

  1. I was all nodding until the double space after periods. There is an exception! I’m one of those people that likes submitting in Courier. Because Courier is a monospace font, it is expected I double space after a period, to make it notable. (Why I like Courier… Yeah, that’s a secret. 😉 )

    • Ugh, well, glad Courier has someone to like it. I think the very first novel I wrote was in Courier, because that was still the standard then. Now most agencies I’ve encountered want Times New Roman, I think because of Word Processors and the easy of submitting word counts when before Courier gave them a definite feel for how long the book via pages. I believe screenplays are still sticking to Courier as the font of choice. But thanks for bringing to our attention the exception. 🙂

    • Nice daydream! Sometimes I wish we had a machine where we could record a scene in our head, then examine it on screen to see better how it’s happening. But I guess the struggle is the point.

  2. I’m always amazed that so many writers don’t know the basics you’ve addressed here. Thanks for posting. I’d like to add another one. Parentheses shouldn’t be used at all or only in very rare and appropriate situations. Technically, whatever appears in parentheses should be extraneous information. This means it’s not necessary to the topic. And if it’s not necessary? It has no business in the text. If you feel it’s necessary, then it should be set off with commas or dashes (if used sparingly).

    • That’s a great piece of advice. I think I’ve used parenthesis in previous manuscripts. Now I’m curious to see if there are any in my most recent iteration of SHADE. I don’t think there is, but after reading this I want to make sure it’s free of them. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. Great advice, thanks for sharing! 🙂 Lol, I’ve had trouble with knowing when to use ellipses and dashes. Thanks for clearing that up. Now I need to go back and make sure I’ve used them properly. Looking forward to the next post in the series! 🙂

  4. Jae, After reading your conference notes it occurred to me I need to edit some more and here you have a whole series on editing! Awesome!! This first one was a blast to read AND helpful. I love the examples. I’ll be reading up on the rest of the posts in this series ASAP! Thanks for having such a GREAT blog!!!

    • Aw, you’re all kinds of nice. I’m going to come back to this comment whenever I’m having a bad day. 😀 I’m glad you find it helpful. Hopefully this strengthens everyone’s chances of scoring an agent when the time comes. 😀

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