Great writing requires rewriting, editing, and polishing your manuscript to perfection. But many of us do this haphazardly. We read our novels over and over, fixing mistakes as we see them until there are no more mistakes to find. But we always find more.
There is a better way.
Writers are rarely taught a clear editing method. It wasn’t until I started training as a professional editor that I was introduced to methodical editing.
As I learned this technique, I wondered why no one had ever taught me this as a writer. I had studied creative writing in college, attended many writers conferences, subscribed to magazines, read books…yet no one had ever explained that editing was an orderly process with discrete steps.
Because this method has helped me not only as an editor but as a writer, I am eager to share it with you.
But first, I must advise you that this method will be ineffective with an incomplete manuscript, because one of the first things we’ll look at is plot, and we can’t analyze that until it’s all written. Many problems with your manuscript will not be apparent until you can look at the whole thing. So finish first. Then edit.
Before you start editing, do a fast read-through of your first draft, in as short a time as you possibly can. Two or three days. Do this on paper or an e-version, whichever is more comfortable for you, but in a way that’s different from how you write. If you write on a laptop, don’t do your read-through on it. Put the book on an e-reader or print it out.
On this first read-through, you’re not looking for typos or other small errors. You’re looking to see that the major story elements are in place.
Every editor and writer has their own definition of “story.” Mine is this:
Character + Plot = Story
You must have both sympathetic characters and a profluent plot to create an engaging story. Profluent is an excellent word that not enough writers know. John Gardner uses it in The Art of Fiction to describe a plot that comprises “a sequence of causally related events” that flow like a river.
Don’t edit yet. Just make notes. If one of your characters has a fear of public speaking but suddenly makes an impassioned speech in a huge crowd, don’t stop to fix the scene right then. Just make a note to add a bit showing how she overcame her fear.
Edit in Order
Once you have a stack of notes from your read-through, you’re ready to edit. You will have identified the manuscript’s biggest problems, and hopefully you were able to ignore the little ones, like typos.
To edit thoroughly, you must make several passes through your manuscript. The key is to take these passes in an appropriate order. I divide the elements of fiction into Primary and Secondary categories. Here are the Primary Elements:
Viewpoint is subordinate to Character, and Structure and Pacing are subordinate to Plot. So if your manuscript is in pretty good shape, you could take one pass to address Character and Viewpoint and another to address Plot, Structure, and Pacing. But if your draft is pretty sloppy, you’ll be better off taking each one separately.
In Plot Versus Character, Jeff Gerke notes that some writers are best at character creation while others excel at plot development. Your read-through should have revealed which one is your weakness. Concentrate on that area first. Then polish the other.
I include Setting in the Primary Elements because any change to the setting will have a cascade effect on the Secondary Elements. Setting should also be integral to Plot and should have a strong effect on Character.
If your earlier editing passes produced massive changes in Character, Plot, or Setting, you may want to stop and do another fast read-through of the book to reassess. Make sure all of the Primary Elements are fixed to your liking before you proceed to the Secondary Elements:
The goal here is to save yourself the trouble of editing Secondary Elements that wind up being deleted or rewritten because of changes to the Primary Elements.
For example, if you change the setting of your novel from Victorian London to Roaring ’20s New York, Dialog and Descriptions will all change. If you are writing in deep character point of view, Voice will change to American rather than British English.
Mechanics, which we so often obsess over, especially in critique groups, should actually be the last thing dealt with. There’s no point ensuring that you’ve styled King’s Cross Station correctly if you wind up changing it to Grand Central Terminal.
By making a separate editing pass for each element in turn, you give yourself space to focus on executing each one excellently before moving on to the next. This methodical approach will not only make your editing better, it will make it easier.
Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She has edited nonfiction, Bible studies, and novels for the general market and the Christian submarket and teaches at writers conferences. Find her online at kristenstieffel.com.
As promised, all this month I’ll be giving away goodies to celebrate the launch of my new website! Today I’m giving away three mini-lessons written by Dr. Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. Today you can win:
Writing and Selling Devotions
Writing and Selling Comedy and Humor
Small, Easy Ways to Break Into Print
Leave your name and email in the comments. I’ll pick a winner next week – good luck!