Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Editing in Layers

I've got another reader request writing topic this week: editing. This is a pretty complex topic, and I'm sure that each writer approaches it differently. In general, this is how I think about it.

I see the editing process in layers and generally approach these one at a time, though you may work differently and do it all at once or as you go. However you work, it helps to break it down and think about what you should be considering as you review your work.

1) The story level
This layer is all about whether or not the book as a whole works. Is there a compelling plot? Does the plot take any surprising turns? Does the plot have a consistent thread that pulls through the whole story? Is the plot resolved in a satisfying way? Is something different at the end -- characters or the world? Do the major characters grow or change because of the events of the book? Are there any plot holes or logical leaps? How is the pace -- does the story move along, with some ups and downs for variety?

This part can be hard to fix because it's at such a high level and you may not be able to point to any one scene to rewrite. What you may do is keep these questions and your answers to them in mind as you edit on a lower level because it may take making changes to multiple scenes in order to fix any story-level problems. You can also address these problems at an outline level. Make a list of all your scenes, or make notecards with one scene per card, then think of all the scenes that will have to be changed, subtracted or added to fix the story-level problems. Refer to these notes when you get to those particular scenes in scene-level editing.

2) The "section" level
This is really a subset of the story-level editing, but it's a good way to hone in on any particular problems.
Is the beginning compelling enough to pull readers into the story? Does the beginning introduce the major characters in a way that makes readers care about them? Does the beginning introduce the main story question and establish the conflicts?
Does the middle sag or does it contain enough action? Are there any plot twists in the middle?
Is the ending satisfying? Does the ending tie up the necessary loose ends? Does the ending answer the story question posed at the beginning?

3) The scene level
Each scene needs to be a mini story, with the elements you'd look for in a story -- a character goal, a conflict and some kind of change so that things aren't the same at the end of it (if nothing changes, why is the scene there?). Some things to think about when evaluating each scene:
What role does this scene play in the main plot? Why is this scene in the book? What is the viewpoint character's scene goal? What is the conflict? What changes as a result of this scene? Is there a pivot, some change in mood, tone, positive/negative aspect? If the only reason for a scene is to illustrate something about the character or to convey a certain piece of information, is there some other scene that's more essential to the story, with a goal and conflict, where this information can be conveyed?

Also look at the construction of the scene -- what is the balance of dialogue, action, introspection, description and narrative? How is the scene paced, and does the writing fit the pace -- short sentences and paragraphs for fast pace, longer sentences and paragraphs for a slower pace. Compare the scene to other scenes in the book -- is it unique, or does it repeat goals and main actions that you see repeatedly in the story? In a pursuit story, you may have a lot of scenes where the scene goal is to get away from the bad guys, but that can get repetitive. Is there some other scene goal that might come up while still fitting in with the main plot?

This analysis, particularly the role in the main plot, is where you may address some of the issues from evaluating your book at the story level.

4) The sentence level
Does the dialogue sound like something people would actually say (try reading it out loud)? Does the dialogue for each character fit that character's voice -- and are those voices unique? (You don't want all your characters sounding like you.)

Is there variety in sentence structure? Do the sentences all make sense -- do any of them make you go back and re-read them to figure out what they mean? Do you end paragraphs or sections with some kind of powerful punch? Are you using proper grammar -- as appropriate (dialogue may not always be proper, depending on the characters)?

5) The word level
Is that word really necessary? Do you use any "junk" words that can be cut, like "just," "kind of," "sort of," "started to," "began to," etc.? (You don't have to eliminate them all, but think about each use and how essential the words are there.) Do you use verb forms that require helper verbs (the "was -ing" form) that could be made stronger by using a more active verb? Are you using the most specific words possible? A really specific noun or verb can eliminate the need for an adjective or adverb. Being specific also makes the writing more vivid -- is that car a Corvette, a family sedan, a vintage Volkswagen? Do you notice that you have certain "pet" words that show up a lot? Do a global search for these once you notice them and then rephrase as many instances as you can. Is everything spelled properly, and are you really using the right word for that instance? Be aware of things like "their" vs. "there" vs. "they're" or "it's" vs "its." Even if you know the rules, things tend to slip when your brain moves faster than your fingers, and spell check doesn't catch it. Are you missing any words?

I find that for these last two levels, it really helps to read the whole manuscript out loud. Then you're forced to read what's really there and not what you think should be there. Another trick is to change the typeface while you're editing because then it will look different and words will be in different places on the screen.

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