I’ve recently begun the process of editing the hideous mess that is my work in progress. I soon became ensnared by problems like Frodo in Shelob’s Lair. As Frodo probably asked himself during that hairy predicament, “There must be an easier way of doing this.”
Using everything I’ve learned to date about editing, I decided to put together a process, or rather an approach, to editing a story.
An approach to editing
A good story is grown. It takes weeks, months, of careful nurturing, uncovering the meanings hidden within, fixing characters so they leap from the page, refining plot and prose to make it gripping and immersive. Just like growing a plant, a story requires patience and dedication.
There is no exact science when it comes to editing. Everyone has their own approach. Some edit as they go along, ensuring each page is in tip-top shape before moving on. Others bash out the first draft and then pick it apart. Some don’t bother at all. The method below is one I’ve found particularly useful. It’s tailored more toward short story writing but could apply to chapters in novels too. You may find it helpful!
1. After a day or so, undertake a re-read of the first draft, correcting any glaring errors which leap off the page to ensure readability. Refrain from getting drawn into editing challenges, but by all means, highlight them for later attention.
2. Set the story aside for a few weeks. The longer the better.
3. Go through it once more, this time attending to major matters—plot, character, theme and dialogue. Master editor, Sol Stein, recommended this approach, and it makes sense. Think of it like fixing a car. You wouldn’t start with the window wipers if the engine’s fucked. Set about correcting any issues which fall under these umbrellas. They’re usually the hardest and trickiest to fix.
4. Major matters considered and re-worked, now read over it once more, pruning the new sections you may have added. Remember, new additions will be in first draft form so will need attention. Consider and fix problems with prose too. Under the umbrella of prose, I’d include everything from grammar, syntax, structure, adjectives and adverbs, passive voice, sensory language, showing instead of telling and revealing the wider world.
5. Send it to people to read. Ask friends and family, though people you do not know is always the best. They’re more likely to be honest with their views. If you’re struggling to find people to read your work, try the following groups:
If you have a mailing list, ask the kind folks who’ve subscribed. Some of the best advice I’ve received has come in response to my requests for fresh eyes.
When you send out your story, ask for their views on the major components above all else: character, plot, theme, dialogue and prose.
6. After a few weeks, re-read the story with the comments of readers in mind. As always, set about correcting major errors before any other. If a number of people raise the same issues, then you know you ought to fix them. If readers raise a number of different issues, take time to consider them before going ahead and changing.
7. After leaving the story another week or so, revisit. The more times you read through it, the better.
8. This stage is optional, but if you can factor it in your story will be better for it. Send it to readers again. Ask for comments on the piece as a whole—whether the original problems were corrected well enough, prose… everything. This is near enough your final draft.
9. Make any suggested corrections (that you agree with), read over it a couple times more and then look to get it published.
I hope this helps you in some way. Like I said before, this approach is one that works for me. The more time you spend editing the more you’ll come to learn your own preferences and methods.
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