How To Improve Your Novel: On Getting Feedback From An Editor

Thomas Hardy's edited manuscript of 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles'

Last month I sent my first novel ‘Pentecost’ to a freelance editor for an Editorial Review. I truly believe it’s important to pay for an objective viewpoint, if you don’t already have an editor with a publishing house. In this video, I explain why you need an editor and the process for finding one.

I engaged Steve Parolini, The Novel Doctor after a process of interviewing several editors by email. He’ll be coming on the blog soon to talk about the editing process. Meanwhile, this is my viewpoint (from the scary end!) The draft I sent him was the 3rd whole draft, meaning I had done significant rewrites from the first draft and also tidied up based on reading the book aloud.

How it feels

A few weeks after sending my draft, I received an email from Steve with my editorial review as an attachment. I didn’t open that email for 10 days. I was that scared of what it would say.

A first novel is a difficult thing. You’re still learning the craft but you also want to get it out there. Getting it out there means criticism. Criticism hurts. I didn’t want to read the review as I didn’t want to get hurt. That’s the bottom line, folks!

After being an idiot for a while, I decided that if I wasn’t going to open that email, then I was going to let myself and you guys down. I have been writing ‘Pentecost’ pretty much in public since November NaNoWriMo last year. I share the truth and lessons learned with you along the way. This is just another lesson. It didn’t stop the nerves, but I managed to print the document and put it on my desk. After a bit more time looking at it I finally read it, and actually it wasn’t that bad after all.

Fear of criticism is worse than the actual criticism. Like most fears, it pales in comparison to what we have built up in our heads. If I really want to be a pro novelist (and I do) then I have to take a hell of a lot more criticism than this!

What did the Editorial Review say?

Steve (bless him!) understands the pain of the new writer. He starts, like every good reviewer, with some positive feedback to draw you down the page. I particularly liked “The story in general feels a little like a hybrid of an Indiana Jones movie and a Dan Brown novel. Not a bad place to be.

Of course, I paid for a critical review that would help me improve the novel, so there wasn’t much of that before we hit what could be improved. I still don’t want to give away too much about the plot. (Sample chapters will be up before Christmas.)

The review covered the following: big picture issues, plot, dialogue, redundancy, setting, and characters. Each of these was pulled apart and Steve gave suggestions on what could be improved or changed to make the book more publishable. The plot tips were excellent in terms of holes that needed filling. When you write a novel, you think you have included key information needed to understand certain aspects but sometimes it’s missing on the page and only exists in your brain.

I changed the opening scene to make the whole premise more powerful. This was pretty hard because it was one of the most certain things in my mind. But hey, I am paying for improvements so I knuckled down and changed the scene! I wrote new scenes to make a couple of characters stronger and changed the direction of the antagonist. This was quite difficult to do as well because of how set aspects were in my head.

Overall, I found these rewrites to be a lot of hard work. More first draft type of effort than rewriting/editing. But the book is definitely improved by it, so thank you Steve!

Check out Steve’s article on this topic: The Editor’s Hat: 11 tips for your second draft

Is it worth paying for a freelance editor?

I think it’s critical, especially for beginning writers or if you are self-publishing. I am really over the criticism that the books of independent authors are of a lower quality than traditionally published. There is no excuse for it really. We all need reviews of our work and critique groups only go so far. Please do budget for an editor but make sure you get a good one! (Interview them first)

How did I do the rewrite afterwards?

After reflecting on Steve’s comments, I decided which advice I wanted to use. I went through the Editorial Review with a pen and highlighted everything important and where I could make changes.

I then went through the novel again and wrote each scene into a 1-liner with the main plot points. I put the existing scene on one side of a page and then left the other side blank for me to add in rewrite points. See above left for what this looks like.

I then went through the novel again rewriting as per the new ideas. The first few scenes are quite heavily rewritten and I did change aspects of the antagonist and the shadowy organization behind the scenes. I then had to go through the rest of the book to ensure consistency. I added two entirely new scenes which helped improve several of the characters. I have addressed about 80% of the comments and am happy with the result.

Next Steps

I have another re-read and tidy up to do for myself and then I will be giving the novel to beta readers. These are a few handpicked thriller lovers who will give me some feedback to make any final changes. Then the book goes to my copy-editor while I write the blurb and also a pitch which is required for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) I will be posting the first few chapters here before Christmas. I am aiming for Feb 1st book launch which you will hear more about!

A few people have asked about my publishing intentions given I am a huge supporter of self-publishing. Well, I am actually a huge fan of all kinds of publishing hence the tag line of the blog is about adventures in writing, publishing and book marketing. I love indie publishing but I still want a traditional print publishing deal, and next year I will be going to ThrillerFest to meet agents and learn more about the industry. (Ticket is booked!)

But I am not sitting around waiting for rejections. I am going to indie publish anyway in February and get an ebook and POD book out there. I will promote it here and on twitter and elsewhere, and also enter ABNA. I am aiming at drawing attention to myself so that agents/publishers/editors will be more interested in what I am doing when I do pitch. I have a platform, I hope to have the readers by then, and of course I will be into the next book. So that’s the plan!

Have you paid for an editor your book? What were your experiences? Please do leave your opinion in the comments.


You can now get free chapters of Pentecost on the Facebook page by clicking here.


Images: Flickr CC Nic’s events ,

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  1. says

    I paid for an editor and while pricey, I must say I loved and hated it. I learned a lot from it and am very grateful to my editor who opened my eyes. Lessons came together and I understood more.

    I also hated it because like most writers, I have a fragile ego. It was tough at times to see all the red markings not to mention going through the notes.

    I go more over about my editing experience along with the cost, on my site. I think all indie authors should do it and I know that in a few months when I release my book, it’ll be greatly improved because of her.

  2. says

    I agree with you. When I wrote the initial draft of my first novel, I thought it was perfect but how shocked I was when my editorial review came back with major plot issues. However, I swallowed my pride and rewrote and now I, and my publisher, loves it. We need the harsh criticism to improve.


  3. says

    I think outside editorial advice can be very useful, and it was crucial in my journey from unpublished to published, although you have to be aware that their comments may be wrong solutions for you – see my blog if you want more info.

    But what really I wanted to ask was, aren’t you worried that if you self-publish Pentecost as an ebook, you’ll lose the chance of what you call a traditional print deal? Things may be different in the USA to the UK, but here I don’t think you’d get a deal from a print publisher, at least not from one of the major publishing houses, if the book was already available as an ebook. I’m not being anti-self publishing, it’s just my understanding of the situation re traditional print deals.

  4. says

    Hi Joanna. What an interesting post. I too beleive that the fear of something bad happening is actually worse that what possibly could happen. One just need to develop a bit of think skin, especially useful for people who write. I am still working on it.

    I haven’t followed your blog for long, but it caught my eye the moment I saw it. So much so that I have added it to my blog roll of a few hand picked ones. I am really looking forward to your upcoming posts, as well as the archived ones. Cheers :)

  5. says

    Very nice to read about your experiences with a freelance editor, as I have been considering doing the same thing. Great to hear about the good and the bad sides of paying for an editor.

    We’re in a similar situation, in the final revisions of the first novel and wanting to go indie.

  6. says

    And by the way, good luck with the final revisions and with publishing it!

    Which self publishing system have you decided to use? Smashwords or Lulu?

    • says

      Hi B. I am using Lightning Source which is the company Lulu use for printing so the price is better. It’s good for people who know a bit about the process as there is no handholding.
      I will also use Kindle for Amazon and Smashwords for iBookstore and the other stores.
      Thanks, Joanna

  7. Holly says

    This is a great article. I am currently working with a copy editor and I submit her 10,000 words every 2 weeks. I personally need that sort of discipline as with 2 small children and a day job I’d never get it done otherwise! The copy editing is essential but also the comments on characters and plot and suggestions of where I could expand or reduce. At first I was worried that this would interfere eighths creative process but it hasn’t at all it’s just a great great help.I want to write the best novel I can as I want to make a career out if it so I’ll do anything to make that happen.

  8. says

    Brave post! We all feel like jelly when we get comments back – I’ve always felt that way when getting notes from an editor at a publisher. But I can never rest until I’ve read them all, and I have to open the email straight away (usually with gnashing of teeth – we all have blind spots that only an outsider can spot). It sounds like you did a good job of finding an editor who would be the right fit for the kind of novel you want to write, as you’re happy with what he’s encouraged you to do. Thanks for sharing your modus operandi for dealing with the rewrites – and hope you stay on track for ABNA!

  9. says

    Congrats Joanna,

    it’s awesome to witness the process of preparing your novel. It’s such an adventure and seems to be quite a hassle sometimes. I plan on writing a book myself, but it’s going to be in the future when my business is more epic than it is now.

    But I’m aiming for self-publishing, because I hate hate hate it when people edit my stuff.

    I hope you find a publisher that wants to stuck his teeth into your novel. Shine bright, Joanna !

  10. says

    Call me a glutton but I adore an editorial critique. I’ve been through it a handful of times for non-fiction (through publishers) and have just paid a freelance editor to critique my novel (my third, but the first which I’ll try to publish). I’m delighted with the results for a few reasons: 1. I feel that the product is better. I had some bad writing habits that none of my readers caught, mechanics really, that I can now eliminate. 2. I can push my novel to the next level with the feedback I got–mostly in terms of character but even pointers about sequels. 3. The best part–I feel like I got a writing course, or a seminar, dedicated entirely (and selfishly) to me. My learning curve accelerated in a way that very few writing books and real writing courses have managed to do. I think I could babble endlessly about the high value but I did just want to chime in about how great I have found the experience.

  11. says

    Thank you so much for this advice. I’ve been toying with the idea of employing the services of an editor and was unsure as to whether that would be a wwaste of money. You have helped me make up my mind and first thing tomorrow I shall send my manuscript to one.

  12. says

    Hi, I have just finished a non fiction book on spirituality and enlightenment . So very niche market I guess… I would like to have a professional critique of it and I am wondering if I should look for an editor which is familiar with the topic? And can you recommend one?

  13. says

    I’ve had an editor review my novel, but all I got back was an edited text with some changes and deletions. Some were typos, but a lot was several paragraphs worth. I know he wants it shorter, livelier, but most of the stuff deleted was still what I thought was needed for the novel. Maybe it would be OK if rephrased, or shortened, or scattered about elsewhere in bits. Maybe leave it all out and adjust elsewhere as needed.
    I don’t know, as I just got back a copy with the changes made.
    Is the editor process supposed to be just ‘trust me, these changes will help’ or is it supposed to be an interactive learning experience?

    • says

      Hi Mike, you need to address that with your editor in terms of the way you work. I tend to get the document back from my editor/s covered in red ink or full MS-Word commented and marked up and then I go through each proposed change and decide whether or not to accept it. You get the final say, but I usually end up making about 80% of the changes suggested, because having an external eye is critical. Check out this article for beta readers and other steps to editing:

  14. Andrea says

    This is fantastic! I have just finished my first book and I did a generic search on next steps. Your guidance, by far, is the most helpful and informative. Much thanks! and cudos!

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