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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Editing historical fiction, my way

I am in the middle of edits for two of my books, one a young adult novel and one a 400 page adult novel. These are the edits I make before I send out to my agent, a publisher, or in some cases the public. There will be other edits later, but as some publishing houses edit very heavily, some hardly at all, it pays to be picky with your work.

Recently I have seen a plethora of writing books suggesting that you should edit in 'one pass'.

This does not work for me because of the amount of research I need to check. So here is my editing process. It takes as long as the actual writing of the book.


I always work with a printed copy of the manuscript, and initially I am editing for story. 
I read like a reader and not a writer, to identify  whether the nuts and bolts of the story work. At its heart, story is about change, so if it's getting static, alarm bells ring. I mark parts that are slow or boring with a big red pen. Though sometimes boring does not mean cutting stuff, but adding more detail to make it interesting and bring it to life. 

Usually the first time I print out the draft it needs a lot of re-working -  new chunks need to be written and others lopped off. At this stage I do extensive re-writes. That copy is then like an old rag covered in scribble and crossings out and is re-cycled onto our log-burner!

After more work on the computer to streamline the story, I'm ready for a more detailed edit. Usually I send this newer version out to some readers so I can incorporate their comments when I work on the next edit. One way of speeding it up is to mark all the pages that need edits with sticky post-its. I use the same manuscript and just go through it with different colours for each editing pass. Then with the copy next to me with its rainbow fringe, I trawl through the manuscript a page at a time making all the necessary alterations. At this point I am usually fuelled by coffee, a looming deadline, and a desperation to get it finished and move onto the next book.

Here are the passes I make:
  • edit for character. Go through each major character's arc of action and emotion. Check what they are doing in the scenes where they are absent, and try to refer to these actions in the scenes where they are present. Get a sense of their daily routine - for example how long it takes them to dress, their relationship with servants or 'betters', and their class in relation to other characters. Check how they are feeling;  that it is consistent, and that it has development.  Make sure their attitudes are consistent with the period.
  • edit for theme. Highlight any themes that drive the novel, make sure sub-plots echo these themes. Look for metaphor, symbol and meaning. Try to find parallels with today, and highlight  them. They will be useful when you have to promote or tell people about your book.
  • edit for time-scale. In historical fiction it is particularly important to get dates right, and for the narrative to fit within certain fixed parameters or historical milestones. Check travelling times - horseback and boat are very slow, but mail can be surprisingly quick.
  • edit like the most eagle-eyed historian. I have made small errors in my books, (really sorry ) but not because I did not care - I did my best to make the history right! Often it is little things (like the taking for granted of walls and hedges before the enclosures act) that catch you out. Question everything and double check your research. Keep notes in case someone queries your sources. Make notes about where you have changed, bent, or ignored  supposedly 'known facts', and why. Two books down the line you might not remember why, but an expert reading your book is bound to write to you and ask.
  • edit for anachronistic dialogue, and for dialogue that fits the character. It is easy to slip into modernism in dialogue, and the quickest way to lose your historical atmosphere. Seemingly innocuous phrases like 'Oh my God' have taken on a distinctly teenage flavour since OMG!
  • edit for good English - cut out uninteresting language, spelling mistakes, faulty grammar and typos, or get someone else to proofread it.
My novel grows about 10% during this edit as I re-work dialogue, fill plot loopholes and deepen character.
What is your editing process? Do you have any tips or tricks?


  1. I love the picture with the sticky notes. It's nice to see hard copy editing. I feel guilty for how many times I have to print out drafts as I go through edits as my manuscripts change, but there is only so much editing/rewriting I can do on the computer before I need to "see" what I'm doing. Thanks for this insight into your process!

    1. Hi Susan, thanks for commenting. Yes, I find it wasteful how much paper i use, but I try to use recycled paper (ie the previous novel's proof's reverse pages) to minimize the danage to our trees! Trouble is... I write such thick books! I probably need a bigger editor's pencil!

  2. Thanks for sharing your extensive process. I usually edit from hardcopy too. My initial edit usually takes the form of outlining: I read through my draft, chapter by chapter, summarize what has happened, and in red, type in what's missing, what questions need to be answered, etc. to make the next draft work. After the new re-write, it's a matter of tightening and polishing character, setting details, etc.

    1. That's a good idea typing in red. I hadn't thought of doing that! Strange how the simplest things often don't occur to us! I sometimes use big asterisks when I'm unsure of something, and then go through the manuscript with the search facility for asterisks. So time-consuming all this editing, but it makes such a difference.

  3. I have a slightly different editing process - Generally when I complete a chapter of key scene, before I move forward on the next chapter, I end up going back and editing, rewrite and tighten. Once I'm happy with that specific chunk of prose, I move on and start the next section. Once the entire book is complete, I go back and make multiple passes looking at, as you suggested, character arcs, characterization, language, descriptions, slow points, overall flow etc.

    I find the ongoing editing works for me. It keeps me focused on plot and what moves the story forward for the reader and, given that my available writing time tends to be episodic, it ensures I'm back in the right mode by using the editing time to re-acclimate, so to speak.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Dean. Your method sounds great for the reader - very thorough! And of course you're right, it all depends on how much time you have to fit it in with your other commitments.

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