A handy guide for editing novels, stories, and scripts
Whether it be fiction or nonfiction, editing is crucial when it comes to writing. Not all approaches work for all mediums though. After all, you wouldn’t edit a poem the same way you’d edit an essay. So, this guide is going to focus on the most productive way to edit fiction, short or long.
Personally, I have a bad habit of editing whilst I write. It’s a habit I’m actively trying to break because of how counterproductive and pointless it is. Spending 20 minutes crafting the perfect sentence isn’t helpful when you’re writing your first draft. It slows you down, distracts you from the actual story, and when you come to edit it, you are more than likely going to change it anyway.
In the eternal words of Ernest Hemingway, ‘the first draft of anything is shit.’
Before you start
Take a break
The best thing you can do before you dive into the editing process is to take a break. It isn’t always the easiest, but try to spend a few days not thinking about it. Preferably a couple of weeks. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done considering how long you’ve spent writing it. It will be worth it in the long run though because coming into the editing process with a fresh set of eyes is vital. It gives your mind the time it needs to process what you’ve already written and what you want to write.
Read it yourself
It’s also beneficial to go back and read what you’ve written before you edit. Make some notes on what works and what doesn’t but don’t start mowing through it like a tractor harvesting corn. By reading through your work, you’ll be less focused on the finer details of sentence structure and more likely to spot any plot holes or issues with pacing. Don’t fix them straight away though. If you make a list and you’re checking it twice (yes, that’s a Christmas pun written in May), you’ll be able to tackle the biggest issues first.
How you edit is important
To get the most out of editing, you need to start with the frame before you can focus on the aesthetics. After all, if there is a plot hole, what difference does it make if you change ‘is’ to ‘are’ when you’re going to have to rewrite the entire chapter. However, if you try to do too much at once it can become overwhelming and knock the story out of balance.
To combat this, the best approach is to focus on one area per draft. For the best outcome, I find the order below to be the most useful, but as always, it’s important to find what works best for you. If you need to edit your characters before the structure, then that’s what you should do.
The first thing to pay attention to is the structure of the story. If the foundations of the story aren’t solid, it will crumble under the scrutiny of the reader. So, it’s important to ensure there are no plot holes, that the central conflict is clear, and that the narrative follows the proper point of view throughout. Is it about who it’s supposed to be about?
It is also important to check if your story fulfils its genre expectations. Does your story successfully convey the message you wish to impart? Does the action/tension/suspense rise as you build towards your ending? Do certain events seem out of place or distract from the main story a little too much? Are all of your characters necessary, because if they aren’t, why are they there?
Strong characters are the cornerstone of every great story. If they are flat and unrealistic it is a lot harder to keep the reader’s interest. So, after you’ve cut any unnecessary characters, it’s time to assess the remains.
Of course, every main character should be well established, but they aren’t the only characters. It’s also important to focus on your background characters, so keep them in mind whilst editing. One of the key factors is how consistent and emotionally believable each character is, but it’s also vital that their motivations are clear. Are their character arcs resolved by the end? Do they develop and change with the story? And most importantly, will your intended audience find them engaging?
Every single event/scene and sequence of events should help build a story to its finish. If a scene doesn’t do this, you need to ask yourself why it’s there. Each scene should be able to stand on its own whilst also serving the overarching plot. They should also match the tone of the story. So, if you notice a part that doesn’t quite fit, you either need to cut it or edit it.
The best way to asses each scene is to ask yourself whether or not it serves a clear dramatic purpose. Besides this, you should check if it contrasts or matches the scenes either side of it in the way that you intended? What are the opening and closing elements of the scene and do they need to be shortened or extended? Does the individual scene’s pace fit with the part of the story you are telling? If every scene has a clear structure and fits in relation to the rest, then it is time to move on.
Dialogue can help to drive a story/conflict forward, but it can also be unnecessary and distracting. That’s why it’s crucial that every line of speech serves the action in each scene. The best advice I have ever heard in relation to dialogue is that if you are unsure, cut it, and then cut some more.
So, how can you tell if the dialogue is worth keeping, changing, or cutting? Firstly, you need to ask what the purpose of the line is? If it doesn’t develop a character, drive the action forward, or serve any real purpose, it isn’t needed. It’s also important to ensure that what’s being said matches the unique voice of the character speaking. Their speech pattern and tone should be consistent throughout. And finally, is the right thing being said at the right time? If not, where should this information be revealed for the biggest effect?
5. Finishing Touches
At this stage, after spending days, weeks, months, or years rewriting your masterpiece, it is time to perfect it. The best way to do this is to go over it line by line, word for word, and ensure that everything you’ve written will captivate the reader. Grammar and spelling should be checked at this stage.
This is also a good time to check for anything that could turn any readers away. Names like rak’la’thar’guul or Fijhnlakjophlii are too long and complicated. If the reader is forced to skip a name or word, it will ruin their immersion every time that word appears, so change it. Or at the very least, shorten it after it’s been properly introduced.
But wait, it’s not over yet
After you’ve finished this process, it’s time to start again, from the start. Not eternally though, just until you are happy with the finished product. Then, of course, it’s time to obtain some beta readers, but that’s a story for another time.
Originally published at https://www.cult-fiction.net on May 4, 2019.