Editing seems endless, doesn't it? A common frustration of writers is when they are done editing. They may be excellent writers, but maybe never spent as much time learning editing. Or maybe they are good editors but never learned an efficient process for editing, so they feel like they are never done and there is always work to do.
At worst, they don't know how to edit. At best, they don't know when to stop editing. Their editing process is haphazard and it never truly feels begun or done.
I encountered this same problem for many years. To solve it, I developed a 4-stage editing process. It seems like a lot of work, but actually the process is designed to REDUCE your workload. Instead of doing 20 drafts, you do maybe 5 — and yet, you actually rewrite MORE extensively in those 5 drafts, in LESS time.
This process gives you a clear, structured way to approach editing. No more “endless editing” where you don’t even know if you’re making things better or worse. No more tinkering around with a bunch of words that you later delete. No more muddling about not knowing if you’re really addressing your problems or just doing “busywork” writing/editing.
It took me many years to develop this process, but since I did, my productivity and the quality of my work have both taken huge strides.
The core philosophy behind my 4-stage editing process is this: one should edit with the goal of being as efficient as possible while trying to manufacture objectivity.
Much of the standard advice you hear about editing is also about attempting to manufacture objectivity. For example, the well-worn advice to put your manuscript in a drawer and come back to it six months later is good advice in the sense that you gain a certain level of objectivity by basically becoming a different person and being able to look at the manuscript from the perspective of “another person.” After having gotten some distance from the situation of writing the draft, it is possible to view it with fresh eyes.
The problem, of course, is that this requires you to put the manuscript away for six months! I would rather start working on it tomorrow.
If you are in a deadline situation where you must finish by a certain date, then obviously the “drawer” method has inherent flaws. But the goal is admirable: trying to figure out how to see what you've written without getting lost in the language itself or in your own emotions concerning the thing that you’ve written.
How do I manufacture objectivity in a short span of time? Well, that’s part of the process, as you’ll see.
In my 4-stage process, first you focus on structural issues (in two parts) and then focus on stylistic issues (in two parts).
STAGE ONE: MACROSTRUCTURE
The first thing I encourage you to focus on when editing is what I call the macrostructure, or the overall structure of the work. This is incredibly difficult to do, but there is a process that I have devised, which works well.
First, divide the manuscript up into sections. Maybe you've already done this, for example, with chapter divisions. On a shorter manuscript, you may not have already divided things into sections, but can do so on a read-through.
Just draw a line across the page every time some scene ends in a short story; in a poem, you might have a new section every stanza break; in an essay, a paragraph might constitute a section, and so on.
Once you have your overall structure sorted out (let's take the chapters in a novel as an example), you then need to open a new file or get a piece of paper out. Number each section if you haven’t already done so (maybe you have 20 chapters numbered 1 to 20, or a 9-scene short story). Write these numbers out on your paper or type them out in your new file, and then summarize each section as briefly as possible, with a sentence or two or even just in point-form notes.
What you’re doing is creating a summary document that provides you with an overview of the manuscript’s structure. There are two major things to note in this summary document (again, a novel with chapters is my example):
(1) What is the actual plot action that occurs in this chapter? Maybe your hero gets shot in the leg and has to seek medical attention, and this journey occupies the chapter. A few notes to that effect, maybe just the previous sentence, would probably be sufficient.
You are more-or-less creating an after-the-fact outline, so if you’ve got experience in writing outlines then you might just write this document as you would an outline. Later, when the novel is completed, you might use this as the basis for a synopsis.
(2) What major elements appear in the chapter? I might note what characters appear in the chapter or what objects feature significantly. I might note thematic elements as well, especially anything related to the core conflicts or characters. Maybe this chapter is fundamentally about the hero’s internal conflict between her desire to do things on her own and her need to ask for help if she is going to succeed.
Eventually, what you end up with is a document separate from your manuscript, one that summarizes your manuscript. The next part of this first stage is the most important and most difficult part of the entire editing process, and (in my view) one of the most neglected aspects of the editing process…
… even though it is where you will identify and solve ALMOST ALL of of your manuscript’s major problems!
The reason to focus on this part of the editing process so heavily and at first is so you can make major structural decisions and major structural changes BEFORE you get down to the nuts and bolts of trying to rewrite and rework the language. If you neglect this part of the process, you will just keep rewriting and revising and NOT improving the manuscript. In fact, you may even make it worse! You will not even know if you’re making progress or cutting your own hamstrings.
You'll be (as his cliché goes) rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, when what you need to do is set a new course.
So now we come to the most important, most difficult thing for the writer/editor to do:
PUT YOUR MANUSCRIPT AWAY and look at the summary document, and make ALL of your major editing decisions on the basis of the summary document WITHOUT looking at your manuscript!
If you look closely at the summary document, really closely, you'll start to notice a few things.
The first thing to consider is whether anything is out of place. What I mean by that is whether or not some of the chapters (in this “novel” example) need to be in a new location. Invest some time here in testing things out.
It might help you to write your chapter summaries on index cards, or just print out your summary document and cut it up and start rearranging the paper slips on the table. In a software program like Scrivener you have an index card view, where you you can view and rearrange the sections very simply.
(In fact, in Scrivener I will routinely rearrange chapters and sections and even output a new manuscript file that has all of the sections in a different order. This lets me read the manuscript with different chapter arrangements and see if something works better; something as extreme as reversing the entire chronology is a very simple thing to do inside of a program like Scrivener.)
Another thing to consider here, of course, is whether you should delete a chapter. If you can delete a chapter, and things still read fine, you probably have a severe structural problem. Luckily, many of these problems can be solved just by pressing “delete.”
Maybe you don’t want to delete a whole chapter. Would you rather rewrite it 100 times, trying to solve an impossible problem? The delete key is your friend.
Try to see if, in the summary document, any of your chapters are repeating the same sort of action and could be combined or if you could just kill one. Think about whether or not it would be possible to just kill a chapter without ruining the plot. Another thing to consider is if you should add a chapter. Are there any places where the plot leaps forward too abruptly?
One thing I might do at this point is consider things like the reoccurrence of objects and characters. Once, when I was editing a screenplay, I noticed that there was a section about 30 pages long (30/110, a little over a quarter of the screenplay) where one of the main characters did not appear.
That was a major structural issue, and it required me to add some scenes where the character was doing things and move around other scenes so that I didn't have as much of a gap. If a main character can disappear for a 30-minute stretch in two-hour movie, then that person is not a main character. You might think they are, but the story knows better.
The fundamental goal here, remember, is to manufacture objectivity. Move away from your thoughts and feelings about the manuscript. This process is about looking at the manuscript as an EDITOR, not as a writer.
Accordingly, I noticed when I was doing the structural work for that screenplay that female characters did not have enough to do in the script. From my point of view, as the writer, knowing these characters and even knowing how I was using the characters, it seemed to me that I had very strong female presences in the script who had a lot of important scenes. However, statistically and objectively, I was wrong.
Women were barely present in the script and their presence more or less coincided with particular moments in the male main character's life. That was fine to a degree, given the storyline, but in other ways they weren't functioning as fully fleshed-out characters even though I spent a lot of time trying to flesh them out and trying to make them function that way. The point is that your subjective perception on your manuscript is not reliable.
“What did I write?” This is the core question to ask in editing. It is a difficult question to answer. The reason it's so difficult is because, deceptively, it seems so simple. I should know what I wrote because I wrote it, right?
Wrong. I’m the worst person to ask what I wrote, because unlike everybody else on earth, I know what I was TRYING to write. The ideal image of the thing I attempted to write is in my head, preventing me from seeing clearly the thing that I ACTUALLY DID write.
If you were writing from an outline most of your broad structural problems should already have been solved in the outlining process, but there may still be opportunities to strengthen the story since you now have it fleshed out in front of you. In writing, of course, we often veer into areas we didn't plan to go even if we had a plan to begin with. I outline somewhat extensively, but I don't feel confident that the story’s progressing properly and organically unless I see myself deviating from the outline and coming up with new ideas (and better ideas) in the process of writing.
So, even in a situation where you've been following an outline, producing this after-the-fact outline still helps to really get a handle on the story that you've produced.
If you haven't written according to an outline, then you have certainly created massive story problems for yourself. You need an objective perspective and to see what it is that you've written. There's simply no way that you can produce a clean, well-structured story without a plan. Writers who claim to actually just compensate for story problems with other strengths (e.g., their command of style, or doing way more drafts in editing than they would otherwise need to do).
Either way, don't be afraid to fundamentally restructure and alter your story at this point. The whole goal of this stage of structural editing is to make MAJOR changes in the manuscript. You are testing your story at this stage before you commit to it. You're also confirming the strengths of your story at this stage before you go on to enhance them. Finally, you are identifying its weaknesses at this stage before you go on to enshrine them.
The fundamental, most important thing that you need to do at this stage is make decisions about the structure and commit to those decisions. This means that you really need to think through the decisions that you've already made, probably unconsciously. Don't be afraid to make massive changes! Making those changes now may seem like a lot of work, but actually you're saving yourself work.
Think about it this way: that long chapter you wrote about how the hero, when he was a child, went through a traumatic experience? Wouldn't it be better to cut it right now rather than rewrite it twenty times trying to get it right, and then keep it in rather than cutting it because you rewrote it for so long, and the language sparkles? Never mind that it’s boring and doesn't matter. It’s beautifully written!
The reason you need to make your decisions on the basis of the summary document and NOT look at the manuscript is because the language will distract you. A well-written chapter will seem like it is working when really it doesn't work. A poorly written chapter will seem like it doesn't work when really everything is great except the language. The language can be fixed by rewriting the language. What cannot be fixed by rewriting the language is a structural problem that underpins this language, like the inclusion of a chapter that should be excised.
At this stage, you may also want to make major decisions about characters. Should characters be combined? Should there be a new character? Do you want a new subplot, or a whole other storyline paralleling the main plot in some way? Think big with your changes. This is the stage where you are no longer bound to the manuscript that you wrote. You've got a rough draft in front of you but you're putting it to the side.
You're not beholden to your draft! When you look at it while you're trying to edit, what you see is stuff that's already there. You need instead to put it away, look at the summary document, and think about what isn’t there.
What if everything was fundamentally different? The sky's the limit in terms of the changes you could make at this point. Don't feel married to your draft.
Once you really are satisfied with the changes that you've planned, then you redraft with a focus on those changes. You go back to the manuscript and rework everything you identified as needing to be reworked, and you resist the temptation to go beyond these planned changes.
Do not start rewriting things. You’re still focusing on structure. If I’ve decided to throw away my ending and go with a new ending, I will draft ONLY this new ending. If I’ve decided to add a chapter, I will draft ONLY the new chapter. When the second draft is completed, it will still be a lousy draft in terms of the actual language on the page, but it should work on the overall, macrostructural level. Then, it’s time to look at the microstructure.
STAGE TWO: MICRO-STRUCTURE
Yes, you can do the exact same thing on a smaller scale.
People hate doing this. But when I have them do it, literally in front of me, they solve major problems that have been plaguing them for weeks IN MINUTES.
I had a student once show me her short story with the complaint that she didn’t know what was wrong with it. Right in front of her eyes I broke into 10 sections, where she had inserted section breaks already, and quickly summarized in a sentence what happened in each section.
She realized immediately that there was a dream sequence that introduced a bunch of information that wasn't relevant the plot and also introduced the core conflict between the two characters.
That’s right: the conflict was arising in a dream rather than in the reality of the story’s plot — in other words, it didn’t make any sense, because the second character was acting like he had access to the first character’s dream life.
As well, 40% of the story came BEFORE conflict was introduced in this way. In this example, a simple fix would be to cut everything prior to the dream and open on the dream, with the conflict arising in backstory rather than over the course of the story. The student came up with a better solution, but this is just a quick example of a problem and solution that could be identified easily when the structure was isolated, but wasn’t otherwise obvious because the writing had a number of strengths.
If you're good writer on the level of the sentence/style, you can really screw yourself over by making your terrible story read well. This process of using a summary document divorces you from the language to focus on the structure, so your story problems cannot hide behind “good writing.”
If you have stylistic problems in the first draft, which of course everybody does, you might do the opposite: mask all of your excellent work with insecurity about your language, how it reads poorly, even though how it reads doesn't matter at this early stage. No one is reading your first draft!
When I say look the microstructure of the manuscript next, basically what you are doing is just looking section by section at the units of the macrostructure you already identified and breaking those down in a similar pattern.
So, if we continue the novel example, in your macrostructure document you summarized Chapter One in a quick sentence or two. Now, let’s say we decided to keep Chapter One, made a few major decisions like how we will combine it with Chapter Two, and decided to delete a character that features inside of the chapter from the novel as a whole.
Well, now we have to look at Chapter One and Two and break down the existing structure, and plan how to rework it. Probably we will want to use the “scene” as our unit now (rather than the “chapter”), and make a quick summary of each scene, produce a similar Chapter One/Two summary document, and then walk through all the same sorts of decisions. Rearrange the scenes? Delete them? Add some? And so on and so on …
Should we add characters to certain scenes in the chapter? Does an object need to be featured in an early scene or something set up in a certain scene? Do any scenes perform the same function as other scenes? Does the conflict escalate from scene to scene? Is a subplot being served enough in this chapter?
One thing I encourage when you’re down to thinking about the organization of scenes is to rethink their setting and action. What's the function, the point of each scene in the chapter? If if the point of Chapter One is to introduce us to the main character and the chaotic life that she leads, then does every scene contribute to this and develop this point rather than simply belabouring this point?
In other words, is there development across the chapter, or just a bunch of stuff thrown together and called a chapter?
Let’s say the point of Chapter One is to introduce us to the main character and the chaotic life that she leads. In our draft, she wakes up on her typical day and it all appears like a normal day: she’s making coffee, showering, and so on — then her mug explodes, her cereal bowl breaks apart, bullets are flying through her kitchen.
My immediate change here would be to start the scene with the mug exploding. Maybe we want a totally different scene that has the same function instead — don’t be afraid to throw the whole scene away.
Or, consider changing something fundamental like the setting. Even if all you do is make things more interesting by using a more interesting setting … well, you just made everything more interesting, so you win.
She wakes up in a houseboat in a Louisiana swamp. She grabs a teabag and plops it in a mug and then scours around for clean water. She can't find any, so scoops some out of the swamp, and then she grabs a magnifying glass and is going to try boiling the water with that. She’s sadly and patiently trying to use the magnifying glass to boil the water when a bullet hits the mug and it explodes.
Maybe I want that slower pace to start, and to go through the minutia of a morning, and this simple setting change is going to help me accomplish this by adding some interest to what could otherwise be a bland scene by giving it all some flavour.
People get bound to their ideas. Once they have it in the draft they think, “Well, that’s the draft.” It's not THE draft! It's A draft.
THE draft is the final draft. A draft is what you have in front of you, what you need to divorce yourself from, what you might remarry, but what you might just throw into the dustbin of history.
Maybe we would get a better idea of the chaos of this person's life if the story begins in an upturned car. Maybe we get a better sense of how this person is lost in her life if she wakes up after having gotten drunk and passed out in a hedge maze. Once you are clear on the purpose of the chapter and its scenes, you need to think through not just what you've done but all the different things you could have done to serve that same purpose.
Especially in these structural editing stages, you need to make serious efforts to identify and re-examine decisions you made by default. The real trap of the first draft is all the things you did in your draft just because they occurred to you.
You may have heard the old expression, “First thought, best thought.” I like to revise it poetically as, “First thought, worst thought.”
So often, your first thought is that idea that just sprung into your head, the scene that seemed to write itself … so often these things were easy for a reason. You saw them already somewhere else. Often your worst ideas come fully formed in this way, which makes them seem like good ideas, whereas your best ideas arise as a result of a laborious process like structural editing.
CONTINUING MICROSTRUCTURAL EDITING
Let's say you want to go down the rabbit hole with this. Structurally speaking, you could look at every paragraph and how they are internally structured. What is each sentence doing? I would encourage you to go as far down the rabbit hole as you need to, and no further.
What I mean by “need” here is subjective. You don’t want this sort of editing to become a procrastination method, so stop when you catch yourself becoming obsessive.
Some people are terrible at paragraph coherence, and in an essay especially they really would benefit from numbering each sentence in the paragraph, thinking through what each sentence does, etc. This is a great tactic to use in editing essays to make sure you've done enough analysis and are not just relying on plot summary. In novels, maybe it's a bit of overkill to start picking apart the structure. On the other hand, Don DeLillo reportedly drafts with one paragraph per page, really looking at each paragraph as its own unit and polishing it in isolation.
It depends where you want to spend your time, and how much time you will allow yourself for editing. Usually, the most efficient way to work is to start big, on the grand scale of the global manuscript. You'll get the most benefit from fixing problems on that scale. As a simple example, you get more benefit from determining that you should delete a chapter or replace your last 10 chapters than solving any problems inside of those chapters.
Work at the macrostructural level first and go down to smaller and smaller structural levels until you stop reaping benefits. Maybe it's worth your time to really interrogate your paragraphs or even interrogate sentences. More than likely you can stop before that point, and only dive down to that level with problem paragraphs.
STAGE THREE: STYLE
After all of this, when all of your structure issues are dealt with, and you are on your third or fourth draft, when you finally have a solid draft in terms of its structure — then and only then should you try to improve the language.
“Writing well,” in the traditional sense of making the language work elegantly or however you want it to work, is where writers often begin to focus in editing. It’s a terrible idea and a huge time-waster.
As hard as it is, and I have a hard time with it too, it is really worth trying to leave playing with the language to this late stage in the editing process. Playing with language is probably why you like writing in the first place, so it's hard to just push it back to a later date and slog through the work of editing and drafting with an eye primarily to structure, but playing with the language is your biggest time waster. It's the least efficient use of your time in editing.
The massive, simple question to give you perspective on the whole editing process is this: why would you bother to rewrite a sentence that you should delete? Inside of a chapter that should be deleted? It doesn't matter how great the chapter reads or how beautiful that line of dialogue sounds if neither should be there. If you make them great, if you make that speech the most beautiful speech you've ever written, if you make that chapter the most elegant piece of writing you've ever produced, then you won't delete it when you should.
When you look at major writers who suffered declines, almost always this is the problem that they faced: their style does not match their story.
They developed a style over time, and mastered that style. They were rewarded for doing this — with money and fans and fame. Then, they applied their style to a story that it didn’t suit. Their style concealed ther story’s weaknesses to the point where it managed to convince the writer of its strength, and even an editor and a publisher, but their readers saw through everything because all the readers cared about was the final draft, not their career and not the marketing reports.
If you’ve ever read a horrible but well-written book by an author you’ve admired, then you know exactly what I mean.
If those writers had focused on the structure, on making the story work independent of their style, then they could have applied their style to a story it would not have otherwise suited. In fact, this is what often counts as artistic development!
You find a story that your style doesn’t suit and apply that style to it anyway, after being certain the story is solid. You make it work despite all odds, despite how it shouldn’t work. You’re growing as an author, maybe even growing the genre!
Focus on the structure, then the style.
STAGE FOUR: MECHANICS
At the very, very, very end of the editing process is when you should correct your spelling mistakes, and grammar, and put things into the proper format.
A lot of writers do this sort of thing at the early stages of a project. They play around with making cover pages and start each session fixing glaring errors like how they spelt “Thomas” as “Tomas” on one page but not the next. They play around with putting “Chapter One” in a different font than the rest of text. Or maybe it should be really big? No, a little smaller.
Maybe I should start chapters without indentation in the paragraph, like have the first paragraph flush left. Hmmmmm … maybe I should put an indent there actually. Or maybe a big capital letter or something?
When you catch yourself getting wrapped up in this stuff, remember this: You could literally pay somebody else to do this.
You could pay somebody else to do it.
Therefore, it’s a waste of your time. In fact, you SHOULD pay somebody else to do it! You probably just can’t afford that. Can you? Then pay somebody else to format everything. Back in the day, writers would write in longhand and pay secretaries to type it up. Now we are used to doing shadow work like bagging our own groceries. Correcting your spelling mistakes is of a piece with bagging your own groceries. It’s non-specialist work that you would be better off paying somebody else to do.
How you create “value,” in capitalism and in relationships alike, is by focusing as much as possible on ONLY those things that ONLY YOU can do.
I was running my daughter through time management exercises a little while back. I had her write out a list of all the things she had to do this week — all the things she felt she had to do, or really wanted to do, from “go to choir class” to “go on a date with her boyfriend” to “write more poems.”
She was overcommitted in life and in the week. I asked her about choir class, which she’d complained about a lot. “Why are you taking choir?” She didn’t enjoy it like she had hoped, but she felt like people would be disappointed in her if she dropped the class.
So I laid it out for her. Whether or not she disappoints people is their problem, not hers. Somebody else can sing those notes in the choir. It’s a literal choir. There are actually other people already singing the same notes, in exactly the same way.
Somebody else could write a poem — but only she can write HER poems. Somebody else could go out on a date with her boyfriend too, I guess. But only SHE could be HER on a date. If she had to start making choices about how she was going to spend her time, she needed to prioritize things that only SHE could do, like write a poem for her boyfriend maybe, over things that other people could do, like sing a high C while wearing black.
Don’t waste your time correcting the spelling of a word that you should change to a better word inside of a paragraph you should delete in a novel that should really be a short story.
Decide it’s a short story at heart, slash out everything that doesn’t belong, restructure what’s left, polish the language to a shine, and then worry about what font to use on the title. Then spend all your newfound free time on a date celebrating your newly completed story!