Five editing hacks by Gillian McAllister

A series of guest articles from Sunday Times bestselling author GILLIAN McALLISTER on getting agented and published. This week, five tips for efficient editing.

There is definitely no getting around the fact that writing a novel takes ages. Basically it takes me nine months to a year, depending on what else I have on. But I have learnt a few things (hacks, if you will) in the few years I’ve spent seriously writing which make the technology side of it easier.

The first, and most important, hack is: do not call your central character Ed. You will never be able to find his name in amongst all of the words with ‘Ed’ in them. It will be frustrating and boring when you need to navigate to a scene with him in.

But the main hacks are:


Colour code your work

This SAVED me when I was (slowly going mad) writing a Sliding-Doors style split narrative. I talked about colour-coding index cards (and Excel boxes) in this post, and it’s perhaps even more useful to colour the actual text of your manuscript. This way, when editing, or when simply scrolling back to check something, you can immediately identify which narrative/time period/character you’re in or with. It is weird to write in lime green text sometimes, but it works.


Use a local Wiki

This tip is stolen, from Becky Chambers, who I went to see speak at Waterstones. This is an especially useful tip if you are world building or writing a series. You can write your own Wikipedia of your character, your planets, your world’s creatures, whatever. It could also, I imagine, be an insane form of procrastination, so don’t let it take over.


Teach your Word document that chapters are numbers

Oh, for the love of God, teach Microsoft Word that each chapter number is a number. You need to go into ‘styles’ and mark it as a heading. But then, it does two things: 1. it automatically keeps the page breaks before them so you do not need to hit enter fifty times only to have everything move around in the edit and 2. it will know when you insert another chapter and re-number! And you won’t have to sit and literally count your chapters the day your book is due.


Add a comment where you stop editing.

Word has a feature where you can navigate through comments and tracked changes, skipping from one to the next. You can leave a comment saying ‘here’ and then you know exactly where you edited to last time.


Have a central list

A big part of getting a first draft down, for me, is learning to ignore the self-doubt demons and the rubbish bits and the unfinished parts. So every time I think ‘I need to fix this!’ I write down whatever it is in another, separate, word document, and add to it as I go along. I also use square brackets in my manuscript a lot, so that where I know something is not finalised (such as a specific location I need to look at on Streetview, etc), I can find it easily and fix it.

Gillian McAllister is a former lawyer and Sunday Times Top 10 bestselling author of Everything But The TruthAnything You Do SayNo Further QuestionsThe Evidence Against YouHow to Disappear and That Night.

Her latest release is Wrong Place Wrong Time which has been sold in over 35 languages.

She lives out in the countryside with her husband, son and dog. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @gillianmauthor. She also blogs at [Bio updated May 2023]

Buy your copy of Wrong Place Wrong Time at The Bath Novel Awards Bookshop. For any book bought through our shop we receive a small sales commission from 100% of this commission goes towards the funding of our free entries scheme for writers on a low income.