4 Ways To Edit Your Book Back on Track

530973.stock.xchngWhen you go back to edit, do you ever find your book has lost its way? Not sure what it is anymore? Too close to it to see it clearly?

This happens with many manuscripts I see. Writers query these novels still unsure of what it is and how they got there.

Here are my tips for the editing process.

How to get your book back on track:

1. Focus on the big picture

It’s so easy to get scrambled about the little details, but remember, the plot has to work as a whole first. Editing a full-length novel is no small feat. So develop a plan that keeps you editing in stages: big picture, small picture, then line editing. I recommend not to start with the small things, always start with the big picture and work your way down to line level.

2. Remember why you connected with the premise

Premise is everything. It has to be believable and make us feel things–just from hearing it or reading it on the back cover copy. Go back to the beginning and remember when this idea was shiny and new. And why this idea is the one you ran with. Go back to those feelings and rediscover the emotions that the premise revealed.

3. Think about your characters outside the framework of the novel

Instead of imagining your characters inside a box, that is the pages, think about your characters living life outside that box. i.e. What was their childhood really like? Click here for more questions to ask your characters.

4. Share it with another writer or reader

Beta readers or critique partners can be a big help. Yes, you are the one that knows your story best, but getting a second opinion is getting fresh eyes–and a much coveted reader’s opinion.

Q: What do you do when your manuscript has lost its way?

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

23 thoughts on “4 Ways To Edit Your Book Back on Track

  1. I’ve been writing a fantasy trilogy for almost two years now. When I started the third book, I realized just how imperfect my first book was. Before I got too far into the third book, I went back to the first one. Since I started writing this trilogy, I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing and English. It’s amazing how amateur my first book read to me when I went back to it. I’m now in the process of revising the entire first book, line by line. I changed the POV, and was able to incorporate details in that would tie loose ends together along the way. I know my characters so much more now. I am kicking myself for sending out queries for that first book as soon as I finished it and edited it. I even queried you! I don’t blame any agents for rejecting it, and I’m still surprised that an agent is reviewing the first book as we speak (in its nearly original version). I changed small things so many times, I decided to put it away for a while. I was too wrapped up in it to see the flaws. Once I went back to it with fresh eyes, I was able to see all of the flaws. My advice for writers who lose that initial spark in their manuscript is to simply put it away for a little while. When you really miss it or get that idea to make it great, go back to it and reconnect with your characters. Read it with a critical eye, as a reader and not a writer. It’s only then that you’ll be able to separate yourself from it and see what needs to be changed. As a reader, you’ll know what readers want and what’s keeping them hooked and what isn’t. Make your protagonist someone people want to root for and care about. When you succeed at that, magic happens.

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  2. This is great advice, Carly. It’s so easy to get bogged down in fine tuning too soon. Focusing on big picture stuff first makes so much sense. I also agree with the other commentor about stepping away and returning with a (slightly!) more objective eye.


  3. Editing my first novel has been a repetitive process. I got some advice that addressed small things, so I worked on those first … exactly the wrong approach. For my second novel, I have several readers, which has been a real benefit for focusing on the big picture. For the rewrite on the second novel, I used critique from my readers and my own notes on the characters to identify about a dozen ‘meta issues.’ I have finished going through those and am now starting a mid-level rewrite generally following the order of chapters in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King)


  4. A very timely post: I’m in the process of implementing edits from the manuscript evaluation program I did with Barbara Kyle.

    Merci for the reminder to focus on the big picture before zeroing in on the line edits.


  5. Wow did I need this today. Thank you for these basic reminders that never seem to be basic. I’m editing my first book right now and have been going about it exactly wrong for an entire YEAR. I’d been ignoring the big picture because I knew it had problems I didn’t want to address. Since I started dealing with those bigger issues head-on, everything has become so much clearer, and my story (and my writing!) is getting better and better. Even as I go through making the big changes, it’s so easy to keep getting swept down that river or minutia. I needed this reminded today – thank you!


  6. Hi Carly,
    Love your insight! So excited as I just finished editing my 3rd book and need to format before submitting but it’s always good to be able to edit once again after putting down the pen for a while. Just returned from Europe where I was able to do more research for it. I also now have ideas for my 4th book. My husband is able to assist me in the editing which has been a great asset especially in character development. It’s been fun as we sometimes randomly throughout the day say things to each other like “you know, I was thinking, maybe…”


    1. It’s such a great feeling to edit my manuscript. As I see the word count go down, I feel like I’m losing weight without going to the gym. Thanks for reminding me to start with the “fat stuff” and then get to the skinny–just what I needed to hear today.


  7. OMG this was just the perfect moment for me! My editing has been bogging down and now I understand what I was doing wrong! Trying to fix the big picture at the same time as the fussy little stuff was making me feel like I wasn’t making progress…. thanks!


  8. Well into the edits on the final part of my trilogy. Working with feedback from the beta readers. However well you think the process is going, it’s always good to step back and keep asking yourself those questions. Also reading again the first two volumes since I don;t want to trip myself up with those little details.


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  10. Thanks to the advices you gave about editing in your book “Getting Published in the 21st Century: Advice from a Literary Agent” I edited my debut novel from 190K to 120K. I used different color markers and trimmed down every single detail that didn’t add anything in the story of the protagonist, no matter how much the detail amuse me. In the book you had given “You will know it’s a darling if” that section helped me the most.


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