Have you ever wondered if there are ways for you to check basic issues in your manuscript before you send your novel to an editor? While it’s impossible to see your manuscript in a fresh light (because you know too much about it), you can adopt a developmental self-editing checklist. This means that you can ensure you’re aware of common issues and you can scan your work to correct them.
Because the more you fix some of the more basic problems, the more a developmental editor can focus on the more complex issues.
Too many basic problems in a novel will ensure the editor likely thinks you’re not yet ready for some of the more in-depth and detailed feedback.
So, let’s take this from the top and start with structure.
Here are the things you need to take note of:
- Your wordcount
- Whether your novel has chapters
- If so, a breakdown of each chapter’s wordcount
- The number of parts or sections in your book – for example, you might split your book into three parts
Now, either check or bear in mind (if you already know) the normal accepted wordcount ranges for your genre.
For example, fantasy novels can be very long.
If you’re publishing yourself, you don’t have to worry so much. But if your novel has a long wordcount it’s possible that it’s currently in an overwritten stage of development.
That’s fine because the most important thing to do earlier in the writing process is to get your story down and then worry about the editing and cutting later. Some people’s first and early drafts are bare bones which need fleshing out, and others are full of detail that will later need to be cut back. Either of these situations is absolutely normal and nothing to worry about.
In terms of overlong wordcounts, part of the editing process is to condense and refine your story until you have a stronger narrative.
Once you have a list of each chapter’s wordcount you can start to look for any that are unusually long. I’ve sometimes sent clients a bar graph to illustrate this. While it’s fine to have varying chapter lengths and longer chapters, beware of any that look on a bar graph like a skyscraper next to a bunch of single or double storey buildings!
On your chapter wordcount list, highlight the very longest chapters and at some point go back and look at them. Some might have a slower pace, some might be better split into two, etc. But be mindful of where they are in the overall structure of the novel. That brings me to wordcount and structure.
Wordcount and structure
If you convert your chapter wordcounts into a bar graph, you might notice various patterns. There’s no one pattern you should be looking for. But very long chapters that far exceed others are a potential red flag. There are other potential red flags too.
The classical three act structure or a modern four act structure (which simply chops the long middle act in half) need to be considered when checking the interaction between wordcount and structure.
This is because you want your novel to be well paced and not flat in sections.
If you find your chapter wordcounts are getting too long towards the end, that could be a red flag that your pacing is slowing at the exact point where it should be speeding up. Your final 25% of your novel includes the climax. The climax might not start at 75%, but the overall dramatic arc should rise as you move towards the end. One way to ensure that your pacing is good here is to shorten your chapters.
A set of very long final chapters after shorter chapters can leave the reader feeling exhausted and wondering when the story is going to end. It will feel as if the pace has slowed down.
Likewise, in the middle of your novel, be very careful you don’t have a great long chapter that could be slow in pace. Otherwise the centre of your novel could look like a collapsed tent.
You can’t afford to lose readers at this stage. But some will bail if your novel is dragging too much.
If you do have a longer chapter there, make sure it moves well and has strong midpoint content that moves the characters into the point of no return, where they cannot return to their previous lives and have to keep on fighting forward.
I recommend KM Weiland’s book on structure to get an understanding of the important structural points of a novel. It’s called Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.
Splitting your book into parts
This is fine and pretty standard, but it might be worth checking to see if the wordcount of your parts or sections indicate a choppy structure. Maybe you have too many short sections and then very long ones. This is not to say it can’t work, but it’s worth examining to see if there is an issue (or not).
If you don’t use chapters and only section your novel, you may well find your sections are different lengths and are more frequent.
The next thing to look at is point of view and tense, etc.
Are you writing in the present tense? Some people hate it! It’s also the first tense we learn as children. For example:
I go to school. I sit on a stool.
It’s very basic when we first learn it. There tends to be a subject-verb-object pattern.
There are very good first person novels around, but one problem that can occur with less experienced writers is they fall into old patterns of starting sentences with the subject. This can become bland and repetitive.
The trick is to keep at it until you loosen up your first person into more complicated sentence structures. It can be done, but you’re working against early educational conditioning.
If you’re writing in past tense, it’s more invisible and you’re less likely to get blowback.
It’s also much easier to pull off because past tense is the standard literary tense. You will have absorbed a lot of past tense narration in your life so that it might feel second nature to write that way.
Then there’s first versus third person. (For second person, you can read Iain Banks’ novel Complicity which is partly written in second person.)
I once attended a writing group many years ago where one person complained about first person writing, only to be followed by another complaining about third person.
My take away is that you can’t please everyone, so just write what you feel is best for your story.
Some people think third is less intimate. But this is not true. I can’t recall where I heard this, but I tend to agree with the person who said that first person narrators can lie to the reader, whereas third person narrators can only lie to themselves. This is because the first person narrator controls the flow of information and we’re stuck in their head. They can be a very unreliable narrator. Third person narration allows the reader to get a wider shot. They can see the gap between what the character believes to be true and what is true.
But third person narration can be very intimate – this requires going into deep third and integrating their internal dialogue with the main narrative. And also ensuring you remove filter words like ‘he thought’ and ‘she wondered’ where possible.
One issue that comes up a lot with viewpoint is head hopping. Some authors are jumping from one character’s head to another in the same scene.
Often the only switch is a new paragraph, but that is not a conventional way to change viewpoints.
Starting a new section after a line break would be the normal way to switch viewpoints. However, you cannot go back and forth between viewpoints in a single scene without fragmenting your narrative, disrupting the flow of the story, and giving your readers whiplash.
Choose the best point of view for any scene, or any section of a scene. Don’t jump into any other heads without having a line break first. Minimise the number of times you do this in one scene. Preferably only once or twice, but it can depend on the length of the scene.
Head hopping is very common and it’s worth doing a sweep of your manuscript to see if you’re accidentally switching viewpoints.
You can save your editor time and let them focus on higher level issues instead. An editor can also pick up the more subtle viewpoint issues easier when the more obvious ones are removed.
Characters and character hierarchy
Some novels have few characters and others have huge casts. Either way can work, but the more characters you have, the more time you need to flesh them out. Fantasy or historical novels with large casts can work if there is plenty of time to build the characters during the course of the story.
Large casts in shorter novels can leave the reader confused and trying to remember who is who.
It’s worth thinking about your characters in terms of a hierarchy.
Who is the most important character in your book? Maybe there’s two (particularly in romance). Maybe there’s more.
But you need to establish a hierarchy where the most important characters get the most time.
The secondary characters don’t get as much time, and neither do their subplots. Minor characters should be unnamed where possible – some will be named, but there’s no point naming walk-on parts like waiters, etc, who will never appear again, or who are not important enough for the reader to remember.
Naming a character can be an indication that the reader needs to remember this person.
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to the major and secondary characters so much. But when you don’t need to name someone, don’t bother unless you have a small cast of characters. With a large cast, you can’t afford to throw in any unnecessary names.
Returning to the hierarchy – think of it as a pyramid. Few people at the top, who represent the main character or characters. More in the middle who will be the secondary characters – except for novels with small casts. Potentially a larger group of background characters at the bottom, but in reality you might not have many of those. Especially if you have a shorter cast list.
On to this hierarchy you should superimpose a reverse pyramid. The people at the top get the most time. The people at the bottom get the least.
Character names that are too similar
I know it’s tempting to have character names that are similar, or maybe you haven’t thought about the similarity of some of your names. If your novel is very long with a big cast, you will find it more difficult to use names that start with a different letter of the alphabet.
Why does it matter?
Well, the human eye doesn’t read every letter in a text. It reads for shapes. This is why it’s easy to make spelling errors and not notice when you read it back. Your brain fills in the missing letters without you realising.
If two words look too similar, it can be confusing. Too similar will mean:
- Starting with the same letter
- Being around the same length
Examples would include Anna versus Anya. But you could have Anna and Alexandra because they have a different length and shape to the human eye.
You can make a list of your characters and check for names that are too similar. Compounding factors include:
- The two characters appearing in the same scene which will be more confusing to the reader
- The two characters being the same sex
Plots and plot hierarchy
This is similar to the issues with character. You can’t afford to have too many plots running because it gets confusing.
If you have a longer novel, you have more room to explore subplots.
If your novel is shorter, you are limited and need to stay more focused.
Your main plots should relate to your main characters. If they relate to secondary or minor characters then you could have the wrong central characters.
The opening chapter(s) of your novel are your chance to hook your reader. Many book buyers will browse the opening chapters or a Kindle sample before they decide to purchase. You can’t afford to lose them by having a slow warmup at the outset.
It’s fine to have a slow warmup when you’re working through early drafts. In fact, it’s common, because you’re getting to know your world and characters.
Later you need to find the best point to start and ensure things move well in a way that hooks your reader and draws them in.
Copywriter Eugene Schwarz once said that the purpose of a first line is to get the reader to read the second line. And the point of the second line is to get the reader to read the third, and so on.
While you don’t need to start with the best first line in history, you do want something that will make the reader carry on to the second and third, and so on. This doesn’t just mean decent writing, but intriguing character(s) and an interesting situation.
What makes a good opening hook actually depends on the plot and genre. But since there are so many books out there to read, you simply cannot afford to take too long to get into your story. It’s also worth remembering that the human attention span is shorter than it used to be.
Once your story is finished, you don’t need to spend much time wrapping things up. For example, you might be tempted to show your characters in the future and what happened to them.
The downside of this is you are dragging out your ending with scenes that have no conflict, drama, high stakes, etc, so there won’t be the same momentum. These kinds of scenes can’t compete with the climax.
It’s perfectly fine to let your readers imagine the lives of the characters in the future.
A shorter resolution will hit a better note.
Again, I recommend KM Weiland’s book on structure listed below. She talks about the importance of a short resolution.
Writing out full scenes of dialogue is generally not a good idea. Here are some reasons why:
- You bury the most important parts of the dialogue with less important chat
- Dialogue can spark and ignite a scene, but if it goes on too long, with no real purpose, it can start to get exhausting to read
- Most human communication is non-verbal, therefore you will miss out on a lot if you focus too much on speech at the expense of body language and facial expression, etc
Also, check your speech tags in your dialogue. Some writers make mistakes with the punctuation:
“I went for a walk today.” She said.
The example above is wrong because the speech tag should not be a new sentence. It should be:
“I went for a walk today,” she said.
Also, remember that you don’t always need to use speech tags. You can replace them with action:
“I went for a walk today.” She glanced down at her muddy boots.
If you only report speech and no body language or visual information, it can feel like the reader is left to eavesdrop on a conversation rather than seeing it play out.
You are essentially only using one sense – hearing.
Other senses like smell, touch, sight, and taste are left out.
Obviously, some of these senses might be irrelevant to the scene, but while some authors like to have dialogue interactions devoid of thought, visual imagery, etc, it can lead to the reader being in the dark when it comes to seeing the characters. Yes, they can imagine some of it for themselves, but sensory information in fiction triggers the human brain – if you say a room smells of lavender, the reader’s brain will respond to this information as if they can smell it themselves.
Sometimes dialogue without additional input works well to create a fluid and sparky conversation. Just be aware that if it goes on too long, it can be detrimental to the scene.
As above, it’s best to remember that leaving out sensory information leaves a narrative flatter and less immersive. Sensory information can draw your reader into your world and make it more vibrant. There are five senses you can explore, plus thought.
Developmental self-editing checklist
If you’re considering a developmental edit or a manuscript critique, you can decide to do a pre-edit scan for at least some of the items below. However, if you prefer to let a professional deal with it, that’s fine. Some writers like to do some checks before they send their manuscripts off.
Here’s your checklist:
- Overall wordcount – then check if it seems in line with genre expectations. But at this point, before professional editing, it’s fine if it’s longer since you still have time to condense and refine
- Chapter wordcounts and check to see if any are oddly long compared to others
- Are they very long in the middle or at the end where you need to be more careful about pacing?
- If you use sections, check to see if they’re unusually choppy in length
- Writing in present tense? Check you’re not using basic and repetitive sentence construction
- Head hopping is a big problem in manuscripts – each scene or section of a scene should be seen through the eyes of one character only. If you want to switch viewpoints, have a line break and switch to the other character
- When you have more than one viewpoint character in your novel, consider who has the best viewpoint for any scene. Who would be most impacted, feel the most emotional impact, the highest stakes, etc?
- Character hierarchy – don’t have too many main characters, especially in shorter novels
- Character numbers – longer novels can have more characters but shorter ones will lack the space
- Avoid naming walk-on characters if they don’t need to be remembered by the reader
- Avoid character names that look too similar to the human eye
- Does your main plot connect to your main character(s) or secondary characters. If the latter, you have the wrong main characters
- Your opening chapters are your big chance to hook your readers. Slow warmups are fine during the writing, but once you polish your novel you should strengthen the opening with an eye to hook your reader
- Resolutions should be short because the main conflict and stakes of the novel have been resolved already so it will not be possible to maintain momentum in a drawn-out resolution. Readers will get bored
- Check your speech tags and punctuation of speech tags
- Remember that dialogue that goes on too long without other sensory input or thoughts can start to drag the pace
- You don’t need to include an entire conversation – you can focus on the most important parts and summarise some of it
- Sensory information brings narratives to life and makes it easier for the reader to immerse themselves in the world of the story
There are other issues I could have covered, including theme, and whether your ending matches the promise of your beginning or strangely goes off in a different direction.
Also, does your novel fit with the desired genre?
One of the most common problems I see in manuscripts relates to psychology and the tendency of characters to often forget important events and not respond to what would be real-life triggers.
For example, if someone goes out at night and gets beaten up, they should not swan out the door later in the book without a care in the world. They should be cautious, fearful, and suffering internal conflict if they need to go out, but can’t or won’t.
It should be part of their character arc to overcome these fears.
The fears also contribute to the raising of the stakes and the potential for danger. If the character is worried, the reader is worried for them. If the character doesn’t care, the reader doesn’t feel any tension and this is an example of a missed opportunity when it comes to – character arc, high stakes, credible character development and action, pacing (which gets faster in the face of danger and slower when there’s none), and so on.
I’ve written more about this problem in a different post:
Looking for professional feedback?
If you’re looking for some developmental feedback on your novel, I offer a number of services and can tailor them to your needs. If you are on a budget, I can do an opening chapters developmental edit where I go over the first 10-15000 words of your novel and synopsis with margin comments and a report. Not only will this help with strengthening your opening but some issues will apply to the rest of your novel and once you’re aware of them, you can fix them yourself. Head hopping would be an example of this.
You can also opt for a manuscript critique – my full critiques tend to be quite long, but I do offer a shorter report. Recent full reports have gone to 17,000 words (when necessary) and shorter ones can be around half that length.
You also have the option of a full developmental edit – the most expensive service. I normally do four passes of the novel in a single edit, but I do have the option of three passes which is slightly cheaper. However, I don’t offer two or one pass developmental edits because they only work best for a final check after a previous round or two of editing.
If you want to check my services out, you can go here: