Stages of Editing

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April 24, 2022

Draft one of a manuscript is for you. In this draft, you get to tell your story to yourself. You can write as much as you want, go off on tangents or side quests, or infodump and worldbuild to your heart’s content.

Draft two is for your readers. Draft two is where you rework the story you told yourself to ensure that you transmit it to the readers in a way that is entertaining, enjoyable, and understandable. That’s not to say it has to be basic or simplistic—but it must be comprehensible.

As Neil Gaiman is fond of saying: In draft one, write down everything that happens. In draft two, go back and make it look like you know what you were doing all along.

So where do you start? Here’s how I usually break up my phases of editing:

Structure

Take a step back and look at it as a whole book. Take a break from working on the manuscript for a few days, a few weeks, or even a month or two. If you can, read all the way through as if you’ve never heard this story before. 

Think of your novel as house. If your narrative structure is all over the place, or contradictory, or full of plot holes, it’s like a house with a slapdash frame, or missing support beams, or a cracked foundation. It doesn’t matter how much you paint the kitchen cabinets if the fridge is sinking through the floor.

Address issues of structure first, and refer back to your plot outline or synopsis to see where you went off the rails. I suggest waiting before you bring in a beta reader or editor until you’ve had the chance to let the novel rest and reread it yourself. You’ll catch the glaringly obvious structural flaws on your own and can present your network with a more solid version.

Character

Once the foundation is solid, you need to put up walls, designate what each room is for, and bring in furniture. Someone needs to live in this house, which brings us to character.

When looking at your characters, make sure they fit the house you’ve built, and they are consistent in the way they use it. To stretch the metaphor a bit, you don’t want them showering in the living room, if you know what I mean.

In this case, refer back to all of your notes on your character before you re-read the book. If you intended your main character to be a brash, fearless, thoughtless himbo, but he comes across on the page as an unsure, intellectual over-thinker, then you need to decide either to change the novel to suit your character's evolution, or realign your character with your original intent.

Make sure that your character arcs are consistent (and, more fundamentally, that they actually exist) and ensure that your secondary characters have their own quirks, rich inner lives, desires, and motivations that can be identified as separate from the main character.

Word Crafting

If the structure of the manuscript is the foundation, and character is the decor, then wordcraft is the style. You don’t want to accidentally build a Ranch-Style Craftsman when you were aiming for a Steel-And-Glass Ultramodern.

Once you’ve had a chance to really dig into (and rip apart, and rewrite, and restructure) the novel, and you’re satisfied with how it’s assembled as a story, it's time to review it on the line-level. Make sure that each word you chose is the right one, the best one you can find to convey the tone and meaning you want your story to have.

Polish

This is where we paint the outside of the house and make sure there’s curb appeal.

Call me old fashioned, but I generally do this part on actual paper with an actual red pen. I like this method for two reasons:

1)     Reading on a screen and reading on paper are different, and I generally catch things my eyes would otherwise skip over.

2)     I can read it anywhere and thus get distracted. In this case, getting distracted is a good thing—it keeps me from falling too deep into the story, and thus missing the punctuation and typo errors I’m supposed to be rooting out.

I like to take a paper copy on my daily commute, to a coffee shop or a pub in the afternoon, or to a park. The downside to this method is that once you’ve made all the changes on paper, you then have to enter them into the digital version, which can be tedious.

However you prefer to do the final polish, try to keep your creative brain shut off for this part. You’re correcting the actual words and punctuation marks themselves, not the story as a whole. 

Activity

Pick a familiar short story or fairy tale and do a test run on it. First, read the story to identify the basic structure. How is it put together? What are the key plot points that give it shape? Do you think you could change anything to make it better? Next, look at the characters and think about how they fit within the plot. Do they do things that aren't necessary? What details would you add or subtract to make their story arcs more effective?

Third, reread the story with a focus on language. How does the word choice support or undermine the story? What words would you change? Finally, if you want the practice, rewrite the story in your own words and don't forget to polish your final version when it's done. 

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