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This article started out as advice for a fellow writer after she wrote her first novel length story, during NaNoWriMo. The advice deals primarily with "big picture" editing, getting the plot of your first draft fixed ready for you to get your sleeves rolled up and doing the actual rewriting. A book I find useful for more detailed advice about that stage is "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" by Browne and King, who are professional editors.

These are the steps I've used to edit several novel and novella length stories. Of course there were variations for the different stories and everybody works differently, so don't take this as set in stone. It's a starting point, a basic recipe you can add your own variations to each time you use it. Like soup.


Junkfoodmonkey's Editing Recipe

"Take one raw first draft..."

You've written the first draft of a long story or novel, maybe as part of NaNoWriMo, or maybe as a year long slog. It doesn't matter, it's done. And it's a first draft, which means it's probably a bit crap and needs a lot of work. Don't worry! That's what it's meant to be. No-one turns out brilliant and perfect first drafts. No. One.

You gave it time to let it settle; long enough to get emotional distance from it and forget some of the details. At least a month for a long story is recommended.

But now at last it's time to start the editing.
 

Ingredients

  • 1 first draft
  • Writing materials
  • Time
  • Patience
  • Caffeine (optional.)

Method

Step 1: Read as a reader

Print it out. It's better to read it on paper at this stage, precisely because you can't edit it! Okay, we can't all print it out. So if you have to read it on screen do so in a format where you can't edit it. Maybe save a copy of the novel file as an HTML file, or a PDF, then read that. Anything so you can't fiddle as you read.

Read the whole thing, as if you were a reader coming to it fresh. if possible, try to read the whole thing in a day, to get a view of the whole story. Don't make notes or corrections at this point. Ignore the typos. Just read. I guarantee you will read things you forgot you actually wrote. Afterwards make notes about general points, overall impressions, things that you think are right, things you think are wrong.
 

Step 2: The Real Outline

Make a big list of all the scenes in the story. Just write one line per scene, a note so that you'll understand what scene it refers to. But: you need to be able to move these around. So it can be in your word processor, a spreadsheet or a note-taking program or on index cards or pieces of paper. If they are on paper you'll need a nice big space to lay them out. If they're on screen then that's easier, but do try to be able to see as many at once as you can.

This is like a skeleton of your story. And you're going to be rearranging it, so if doing it on the PC save a backup copy of the original order, so you can revert to that if you get in a mess. If doing it with cards or paper, number them in the actual order currently in the novel draft.
 

Step 3: The New Outline

Look at your Real Outline and think about the scenes.

  • Some you might decide you want to cut.
  • Some you might want to move.
  • Some you might want to split up.
  • You might realise that you've got a couple of new scenes you need to add in. Make a note of them marked clearly as "to be written".

Why might you move a scene? Pacing is the usual reason here. For example to delay the resolution of a cliff-hanger. Or just to make the timeline work more smoothly. If something about the timing doesn't seem to work try making a time line of what everyone is doing and where at that point. Think about journeys. Did someone go from A to B in two hours, but B to A in twenty minutes for no explainable reason? Make a note of these issues for later reference.

Why might you split a scene up? To create a cliff-hanger could be one reason. For example: Someone bursts in the door and a big fight breaks out. Why not have a guy burst in the door, cut to another scene, before going back and seeing what happened after the guy burst in the door. A cliff-hanger doesn't have to be action based, they aren't just for thrillers. A cliff-hanger can be something someone says or finds that's a shock or a revelation. Cut away and come back later for the rest of the details.

Eventually you'll have a new story skeleton. You should mark scenes you know will need more rewriting than most, usually because they have been moved or split up.
 

Step 4: The Rearranged Draft

Finally you're going back to the text! Calm down, you're not rewriting any of it yet.

Save a copy of the first draft safely out of the way as a backup.
(You owe that to literary posterity.)

Open the draft up. You're going to start putting the scenes in the order you've worked out in your New Outline.

Pause to give thanks for the miracle of Cut & Paste.

If you've done a lot of rearranging, then the easiest way to get them into the new order is to open a new blank document file and cut and paste the scenes into it following the order of the new outline. If you have new scenes to add, make a note in the text of where they will go, maybe with a very quick summary of what they'll contain.

Eventually the first draft file will either be empty or have only have cut scenes left in it. If there are cut scenes then rename or save this file as something like Cut Scenes.

DO NOT DELETE IT!

Even if you don’t change your mind and decide to add one of the scenes back in later, you can still strip them for parts. There's no need to lose a nice bit of dialogue, for example, that you could extract from a cut scene and fit in somewhere else, whether it's in this story or the next! I've done this.

If you haven't done a huge amount of rearranging use the original file (you did make that backup I mentioned, right?) and move any cut scenes into a new blank file.
 

Step 5: Read like an editor

Now read the whole thing again, either printed out or on screen. 

I know you've done lots of reading and no editing at this point, but believe me, all this work you put in beforehand makes the actual editing of the prose much easier and faster. Also the more you read it the more familiar you get with the material.

Read critically. If you've printed it, have a pen to hand and write on the manuscript. If you have it on screen, write in a notebook. Don't start making changes to the text though. This is not about line editing yet.

  • Don't worry that since you've rearranged it, but not edited it yet, some scenes will read oddly, referring to things that haven't happened yet for example. You can make notes on/about it at this stage, noting where the rearranged scenes need rewriting to take the new order into account. But what you're mainly looking for here is whether the pacing and the plot are better now. Have you eliminated any points where the story starts to drag?
     
  • Don't worry about things like style or awkward prose at this point. What you're looking at here is The Big Picture. Making sure people are in character. Looking out for plot holes, anywhere someone might say "hang on…" Mark the scenes and make a note where you find that sort of problem.
     
  • Has anyone else read your first draft? A beta reader, a friend, a writers group? Now is the time to review their comments and remind yourself about the problems they spotted. Consider these as well as the problems you've found. Make notes where you and the commenter agree there's a problem. And feel free not to agree with a comment. It's your story after all.
     
  • Be positive as well as negative. Look for places where you can improve things. For example where can you maybe do some establishing and foreshadowing? A passing mention early on of something that will later play a big part in the story makes you look like you've really thought it through. Which you have of course, just afterwards!
     
  • Check facts and figures as you go, keep a note of minor character's names; they have a tendency to change, especially if there's a big gap between their appearances. Check details! Like, make sure a house that's three storeys in one scene isn't a bungalow in another. These things are easily done; I've done them! In one story I managed to move a house from Finchley to Chiswick. (Which must have been very inconvenient for the characters that lived there.)

If the new order pleases you then all is good. If you want to tweak the order of the scenes again go back to Step 3 and do it now.
 

Step 6: Chapters

You may have written the first draft in chapters, but even if you have they've likely been a bit messed around by the rearranging. So this should still apply.

Look at your New Outline and your text and decide where your chapters are. You may have spotted some natural chapter breaks when you were reading through for Step 5.

It's up to you how consistent you want to make them lengthwise. You might keep them all around the same length or some might go much shorter or longer, there's no rule. You may not even use chapters!

The end of a chapter should make the reader want to read on. Gone are the days when a chapter end was the point the reader put down the book and went to sleep. They don't all have to be wild cliff-hangers of course, but the end of the chapter should be at least intriguing enough to make them either continue right now or be sure to come back and find out what happens next.

All of this applies too if the story is in "Parts" rather than chapters, which may be longer than chapters. You may even have Parts, which are then split down into chapters, that's all up to you.

Mark all your chapters/parts in the outline so you have something like:

Chapter 1

X meets Y & Z
Y and Z meet B and do 1
A gets phone call from C

Chapter 2

Scene summary note
Scene summary note

Chapter 3

Scene summary note

Etc….

Now you can really see the structure of your story in the outline and at last it's time for you get back to the text and start changing things!
 

Step 7: Back to the text

Work on the story chapter by chapter.

This is when the real nitty-gritty begins. The line editing and rewriting. And this step will take longer than all the other steps so far. But because you've already found and solved all your plot hole and timeline issues you can edit a chapter at a time and take that chapter to near final draft stage before you start on the next. And you can do so fast and with confidence!

You know you won't have to come back later and rewrite it for a second time, because of a problem you suddenly find in a later chapter. You already found that problem; you're making those changes now.

Make a new file again. Copy (not cut) the scenes for the first chapter into it. You can do a new file for each chapter, or gradually add them all into one big "final draft" file. It depends on what you're doing with it, preparing for publication, or uploading onto the net. In the latter case you'll probably want to keep all the chapters apart to make it easier to turn them into web pages or uploading to archive sites for example.
 


TIP!

Whether you print or read on screen, try the following to help you find problems when line editing:

Use a different font, and a different size, even a different colour from what you used when writing. I find mono-spaced fonts like Courier work well for this. Make the font size quite large. This means there are fewer words per line and your eye won't slide over them and read what it thinks is there, and not what's really there.

Basically, try to introduce an element of unfamiliarity to it. Of course if you're going to be submitting it to a publisher, you'll eventually format it the way they want to receive submissions. But while you're working on it there's nothing to stop you having the text at 18pt Lucida Sans in magenta on black highlighting. Whatever works for you to spot those typos!


Now you edit the text!

Get all your notes together about the scenes in this chapter.

If there's a new scene to add then write that first and polish it with the rest of the chapter.

Do the rewrite bits needed for it to make sense if it has been moved, polish up the language, add in any establishing you thought of. Add description if you tend to be a bit light on that in the first draft (I do!)

Just rewrite the hell out of that chapter!

Of course you'll do a final buff later, but get that chapter as good as you can get and then, very importantly: move on.

Repeat for chapter 2, chapter 3 etc. If you like making lists then make a To Do list of the chapters so you can tick each one off as it's done. Watching that list filling up is very satisfying.

Don't think about anything but this chapter when you're working on it.

Why?

  • So you won't feel overwhelmed at the sheer size of the whole task. You're never editing the whole hulking mass of the story; you're just editing 2000 words, 3000 words.
  • Because doing one chapter at a time and moving on means you avoid the endless tweaking that can suck all of the life and spontaneity out of the prose.
     
  • Because the chapters will be stronger for it, as you consider them in isolation, as a story within the story, just as each scene is also then a story within that story!
     
Step 8: Abandon it!

It's said that no work of art is ever finished, merely abandoned. Once you edit the final chapter, go back and read the whole story one last time. There will still be tweaks here and there. Make them. You will still spot typos. Fix them.

But remember, when you read it in a year you will still spot typos, everyone does, even in published books. And I guarantee that in a year you'll look at it and think of ways it could be better, both in small details and in major plot developments.

If at this last reading you really do spot a serious problem that you must fix, then okay, take another pass at it, repeating as many of the steps as you need to.

But don't go on pecking at it forever. At some stage you must say "this is as finished as it's going to get." And the longer you go on with it the more you will start to get bored with it and even hate it! In fact that may happen right in the middle of editing it. If it does, then take a break from the story for a week or so. If you're tired of it you'll be tempted to rush to finish it. Better to walk away for a while and come back with a fresh mind.

Remember that editing doesn't always improve something. There's no rule that says the line you rewrote today is actually better than it was before.

It's also a case of diminishing returns. You learnt a lot from writing the first draft. You'll learn a lot from the initial editing. Every subsequent pass at the editing you'll learn less as your focus gets tighter and tighter. You eventually have to leave it be and move on to the next story and apply all the things you just learnt to that new one.

So you get the one final pass to spot any lingering issues and then you must set it free. Archive it, submit it, whatever you are doing with it, but get it out there at last!

Good luck and have fun.

 

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© E Charles 2007