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Tips for Editing Your Novel (or Memoir)

book inc director J. Greg Phelan shares some helpful editing techniques that he's learned over the years from mentors and books and applied to his novel.

By J. Greg Phelan

May 25, 2023

Editing my own work can be intimidating. After spending so much time and effort finding my beats and filling out my characters, I often struggle with editing my sentences, trying to decide what’s working, what needs to be fixed or refined, and what needs to go. Thankfully, I’ve received some great self-editing advice over the years from mentors and from books which helped steer me in the right direction.

I recently shared my favorite tips during a self-editing workshop with my fellow writers in the Book Revision Lab. Following are some of my favorites. (Stay tuned, as I will be sharing more editing tips in future columns.)

1. Read Aloud

The first tip came from my mentor, David Gates, who convinced me the best thing you can do to improve your prose is to read it aloud. For a long time, I resisted. I didn’t see how reading aloud was any different from reading words silently in my mind until I experienced the benefit for myself. Reading aloud puts the work in your ear, enabling you to hear how your words would be experienced by your readers, in their brains as opposed to yours. You’ll hear clear as day what sentences are easy to read and what ones may make readers stumble, helping you quickly discern prose that needs to be fixed. It’s not easy to read your prose aloud. It takes time and concentration, and your significant other might also think you’re going crazy when they hear you muttering at your desk. But believe me, it’s worth it. 

2. Boost Your Grammar Chops

Another mentor of mine, Brian Morton, once told me my prose would read a lot more cleanly if I shored up my grammar. For instance, my faulty parallelism. I didn’t even know what faulty parallelism even was. (Here’s an example: I like to run, garden, and cooking. See the problem? That’s an easy one to fix, but sometimes faulty parallelism can be hard to spot). I figured I’d better give it a go. 

Using an editing tool like Grammarly can help alert you to grammar issues as you go, of course. And plugging blocks of prose into ChatGPT can give you insight as well. But as Brian recommended to me, it’s worth doing some self-study to boost your grammar chops, to make you a better writer and editor.  

Brian recommended some grammar books I found very useful.

  • Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams & Gregory Columb
  • The Handbook of Good English by Edward D. Johnson

 Other classics include:

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Elements of Style by Shrunk and White

 And there are a ton of other good ones. Grammar books aren’t generally something you read straight through, of course—better to take it slow, say one chapter at a time, and chip away.  

3. Don’t Just Cut

In the past when I edited my work, I used to be laser-focused on taking out words, thinking that was what editing was all about. Yes, concision is critically important, but if cutting out words is all you do when you edit, your work may very well end up feeling desiccated and lifeless. That’s what happened to my novel until Haruki Murakami showed me a better way. In his terrific book, What I Think About When I Think About Running, he describes how he alternates his editing approach from draft to draft. During one draft, he focuses on adding words to make the story fuller and more realized. The next draft he will cut back on excess words, focusing on concision. By alternating these approaches, expanding then cutting, he finds the right balance. This has been very helpful to me, freeing me up to stay open deep into the revision process to still explore and add new ideas. 

4. Each Pass-Through Focus on One Thing

Another common error was every time I edited my work I tried to fix everything. Eventually, I realized a more practical approach was to focus on one editing technique per passthrough. I’ve learned it doesn’t really matter which technique I choose. Merely focusing on one thing helped me look at my book in a new way, the key I’m convinced to effectively self-editing your work. 

Here are some focus areas I’ve found useful that you might try during your self-editing pass-throughs––

  • Making your nouns more specific and interesting
  • Making your verbs more active, honing on replacing was, is. 
  • Getting rid of overused words
  • Targeting cutting a set percentage or number of words. 
  •  Getting your dialogue right
  • Honing every scene with a particular character
  •  Tightening your chronology

 But that’s just a few–every work is different, and calls for different areas of focus at different times in the process. Again the key is to pick one and give it a go. 

5. Set the Bar High

While it’s helpful and important to take feedback, especially from fresh readers who are encouraging and positive, ultimately you’re the decider. It’s your intention and taste that determines the rightness of your prose. But set your bar high!  

During an interview I had with the great Alice McDermott, she emphasized we should read our own work with the same level of concentration, curiosity, and expectation as the books we love. All the while we should remind ourselves, no matter how impatient we are to get it done, that unless we feel the same excitement and sense of discovery reading our own prose as we hope to feel as a reader, we still have work to do. So keep at it!

J. Greg Phelan

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.