Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Whether you’re a professional editor or a writer going through your own work, you probably either have a system you use to evaluate each manuscript or wish that you did.
There are so many, many areas to a piece of long fiction, how can you be sure you’ve checked each, weighed the value of each, polished each?
And if you change one area, how do you remind yourself to re-check those other areas that you already looked at?
And. . . where do you even start this checking and polishing, this editing?
It’s likely that you easily catch problems and errors in the areas where you’re strongest as a writer or editor—if you nail character goals and motivation, you might want to start your edit there. Or, you may look to your own problem areas first, assuming you’ll need to spend more time in those areas. So if punctuation is a weak spot, that may be where you begin your edits.
You probably look at big-picture issues first and work toward the fine details. That makes sense since changes in big-picture items will change a lot of the fine details. Yet, if you can’t stand to read a manuscript with typos and weak word choices, don’t feel that you can’t change them as you edit and rewrite. That is, if editing the detail stuff along the way helps you, then do it. But don’t forget to systematically check those details again after you’ve made major changes.
Changes in any area, but especially in large-picture or story-wide issues, will necessitate change throughout the manuscript. Be ready to evaluate the manuscript again after making large-picture changes. Make sure changes—both items added in and items taken out—are carried through the story.
I don’t intend to lay out some standard, absolute path for editing; as writers approach their craft in a manner that works for them, so should editors. Do what works for you and your organizational patterns and for your writers and their projects.
Yet, don’t merely wing it, guessing your way through your edits.
Know the items to look for and know how to address problem areas. Think ahead—anticipate how changes in one element or scene or plot thread will change elements and scenes and plot threads later in the story.
Be flexible. Realize that one story or one writer’s style may require an approach different from any you’ve undertaken before. Don’t lock yourself into an inflexible checklist—be aware that each story has its own needs. You may find a unique dilemma that will require a fix you haven’t tried before.
Stories are similar in makeup, yet no two will require the same edit.
And remember that you may have to work backwards. If you find something that needs attention at the end of the story, you’ll probably have to change multiple areas earlier in the story to bring about that needed change.
Allow yourself to think beyond one-step fixes—you may need to layer your corrections in order to fix or change a problem area. A weak character may need a new personality quirk, may need to lose part of his history, and may need a different character for his best friend.
Be bold in your prescriptions. On the flip side, don’t overlook the simple.
Rely on experience, but be open to the unexpected.
Know the rules, yet allow your writer (and yourself) freedom and flexibility.
I’d like to look at areas you’ll want to consider as you edit. Many will be the same kinds of areas writers consider as they create. The emphasis, however, may be a bit different.
Writers must make sure they include fascinating characters and plots that keep a reader’s attention. Editors (and writers who self-edit) will check for fascinating characters and plots as well. They may also consider what additional characters would mean for the story or what a sub-plot could add.
Writers are often concerned with the story in their heads and with getting that story to the page. Editors are often concerned with the elements of the story that are not yet on the page—they look to see what’s missing. Editors also focus on weeding out distractions from the core story—characters who don’t fit, settings that don’t work, dialogue that adds nothing, sub-plots that dilute the main plot, and digressions and rabbit trails and non-productive elements that either neuter the power of the story or actually detract from it.
Editing can be art, but there are standards and practices and even tips and tricks you can bring to your edits to ensure you’ve been complete in your evaluation.
You may have your specialties, as most people do in the tasks that they perform often. But no one wants to overlook other important elements simply because they focus on certain other elements.
Perhaps you tend to focus on the big picture and story-wide issues. Wouldn’t you like tips for checking out the details?
And if you’re a stickler for details, wouldn’t you like a refresher on how to consider the big-picture items?
Let’s consider areas that editors do look at and should look at, and simply put them in lists with a bit of explanation. This way you’ll know areas you’ll want to cover in an edit.
You may find that you take every area mentioned here into account each time you edit. You may find some areas that you’ve never considered. Or, you may find that some areas are not those you think an editor should be concerned with.
I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing what other editors consider important. If you’ve got something to add to this list, please share.
I’m simply going to split the elements into big-picture areas and fine-detail areas. I realize there will be overlap and I’m sure we wouldn’t all arrange the areas in the same way. I’m using this method since I think about story in this manner, with story-wide issues that affect the whole manuscript and fine details that can be edited without necessarily making changes to the full story.
Yet, as I said, there may be overlap. Some fine-detail issues can have great impact on the story as a whole.
~ Questions to ask—
Is it interesting and engrossing
Is there enough to sustain the story through the final page
Are there too many sub-plots, not enough sub-plots
Are major plot issues resolved
Is plot introduced in an engaging way
Does the story make sense
Are there hooks; are they logical; are they related to the rest of the plot
Is plot engaging, inevitable, believable
Is the plot full enough or does it feel thin
Is the premise right for the story that’s been written
Has reader expectation been whetted and then satisfied
Is there a focus or is the plot scattered
Does the story start in the right place
~ Steps to take/what plot should do—
Weed out coincidence
Maintain forward movement
Move logically from point to point
Resolve plot threads
Root out author intrusion
Whether you consider the opening event or the protagonist’s acceptance of his call to action the inciting incident, make sure you have both
Make sure the ending is sufficient in terms of length and depth for the story
Make sure the ending is inevitable
Make sure the ending doesn’t drag; make it satisfy the reader
Make sure the black moment and climax are strong enough for the story
Use back story sparingly and blend it so it doesn’t stop story momentum
~ Questions to ask—
Are lead characters interesting enough for the story
Do lead characters have sufficient motivation to move through the plot
Is the antagonist strong enough, a good complement to the protagonist
Do characters have strengths and weaknesses
Are character goals clear
Are characters well-rounded
Are all featured characters vital to the plot
Is character motivation appropriate for the story that developed from it
~ Steps to take/what character should do—
Make sure there are enough characters to carry the plot
Make sure there are no unnecessary characters
Give the main character secondary characters to support him
Give the main character characters strong enough to challenge him
Fit characters to genre and era
Give characters appropriate and sufficient habits, quirks, favorite words, speech patterns, dreams, goals and motivations, and hot buttons that other characters can push
Make characters three-dimensional—include thoughts, actions, and reactions
~ Questions to ask—
Is it conveyed sufficiently
Is it appropriate for the story
Would a different setting work better
Is setting used to advance plot, to create tone, to increase tension
Are readers given a clear sense of place and time for each scene
~ Steps to take/what setting should do—
Make sure setting details are appropriate to story and scene
Make sure setting doesn’t overwhelm action and plot
Include props that characters can handle and use
~ Questions to ask—
Does dialogue advance the story
Is dialogue appropriate to character
Is dialogue appropriate to the scene
Does dialogue increase conflict
~ Steps to take/what dialogue should do—
Ensure that characters sound sufficiently different
Make sure it is dialogue and not conversation
Use genre-appropriate dialogue tags
Keep adverbs in dialogue tags to a minimum, unless genre allows them
Make sure there are a sufficient number of scenes
Make sure individual scenes satisfy and that they are different in terms of action events, character combinations, dialogue patterns, and type of conflict
Give scenes variety in length, format, depth, and pattern
Use a variety of settings for scenes (or play against variety and stick to only a few settings)
Make sure scenes are in the best order to cause problems for the character and induce tension in the reader
Point of view
~ Questions to ask—
Is it the right POV for the story and for the scene; would another be better
Is POV clear
Is POV maintained within scenes
Should POV change with scenes
Who should be the viewpoint character in each scene
~ Steps to take/what point of view should do—
Make sure that viewpoint character doesn’t change within scenes (no head-hopping)
Make sure viewpoint character knows only what he could really know
Use a change in POV or viewpoint character to bring story and character closer to the reader or to hold the reader at a distance when necessary
~ Questions to ask—
Does pace vary
Is the pace of each scene appropriate
Does pace influence tone
Does pace increase/decrease tension
~ Questions to ask—
Is there sufficient conflict in each scene and between characters
Does conflict escalate
~ Steps to take/what conflict should do—
Make characters and readers uncomfortable
Increase conflict as the story progresses
Ensure conflict between characters and between protagonist and himself and within the antagonist
~ Steps to take/what balance should do—
Ensure balance between elements; make sure no one element overwhelms
Balance character thoughts, dialogue, and actions with setting and description
Balance sections, scenes, chapters, and acts
Spelling, grammar, and punctuation
Each must be checked; never assume they’re correct.
Maintain consistency in all three
Be sure you’ve shown character emotions
Make sure you tapped into reader emotion
Go after more than one emotional event; induce more than one emotion per story
Enhance the writer’s style as long as it serves the story
Make sure the style is cohesive
Check dates, technology and inventions, historical events. Anything that can be verified needs to be verified.
Delete unintended repetition
Make sure words are character, era, scene, and genre appropriate
Cut out unnecessary words
Understand how humor affects character, scene, tone, and plot, and use humor when appropriate
Use specific verbs
Remove weak phrasing
Take out clichés and the writer’s pet words
Make every sentence and each word count
Use variety in construction and in sentence length
Ensure variety in rhythm without producing annoying patterns
Consider giving characters unique sentence constructions
Be sure that the passage of time is both clear and possible.
Make sure readers understand the timing of events and scenes
Make sure that each section, bit of dialogue, scene, and chapter is clear
Ensure the tone achieved is what the writer intended and appropriate for the story
General questions and reminders
Has the writer made the reader care about the character and his dilemma?
Is the story entertaining?
Is there enough story to the story?
Is the story different enough to catch a reader’s attention?
Does the story move fast enough?
Does the story catch either the reader’s mind or heart, perhaps both?
Put the elements to work—make each do double or triple duty. Make dialogue advance plot and reveal character and up the conflict level.
Remember the reader—don’t edit in a vacuum.
Remember the writer—she may have ideas of her own.
This could go on much longer and in more detail. But I hope it gives you a helpful list of the areas to look at when you edit.
May I suggest that you look closest at those areas that don’t appeal to you or that give you problems? Take time to review the elements of fiction that you’re weakest in. Why not strengthen them, help yourself to be an even stronger editor?
If you’re a writer who’s using this list to self-edit, I suggest you take all the time needed to work your way through your edits. Editing, good editing, doesn’t happen in an instant. Don’t be surprised if you spend as many hours on an edit as you do working on one of your drafts. A good edit deserves the time.
And a good book deserves an outstanding edit.