There is a lot you could say about editing, but I’m not going to try to say it all here. In general, editing is the process of making a piece of writing better. It’s a bit like if you have a rough diamond you just dug out of the ground. If you want to sell it, you would have to cut it, then polish it.
When to Edit
It is best if you don’t edit when you are writing a rough draft. There are several reasons for this:
- It might make you depressed and make you stop writing
- It is a waste of time to edit until you have a complete story since things might change a lot
- You lose the momentum of writing the rough draft.
The bottom line is that when you’re writing a rough draft, don’t stop. Just write it until it’s done, even if you think it’s terrible. You can edit a terrible story but you can’t edit a blank piece of paper (or blank computer screen).
When you finish a rough draft, leave it for a while. If it’s a short story, this could be for a few minutes or a few hours. If you just wrote a novel, leave it a few days or a few weeks. The point is, let it set. This lets you reset your perspective and when you start editing, you can do it more objectively.
Levels of Editing
There are several levels of editing. I am only going to look at three main levels, but the important thing is that editing should go from big changes to gradually smaller and smaller ones. Let’s think of writing a story like building a house. You don’t paint the walls before you finish the foundation.
Level 1: Story Level Editing
This is the biggest level of editing and involves large story elements like the plot, characters, setting, themes, etc. If we were building a house, this would be making sure all the structural parts were done and had no problems: the walls, the roof, the foundation. This is the core of the story so it needs to be fixed first.
When I am starting my second draft, I read through the story and make notes or at least ask myself questions about it as if I were an outside reader. If it is a long story, I plot out each scene in a spreadsheet with the characters, the place, the conflict, etc. Here are some things to ask yourself.
- Are all the characters necessary? If not, can you cut/combine any of them?
- Does the timeline make sense (for example, is it midnight, then five minutes later, the sun rises)?
- Are all the plot lines resolved?
- Does any part of the plot move too slowly or too fast?
- Are there any plot holes?
There is a lot we could say about each of these questions, of course, but these are the large questions that need to get resolved first before you do anything else. As I like to think of it, fix what is wrong with the story first, then make what is right even better.
Level 2: Sentence-Level Editing
Okay, so now our walls and roof are finished. It looks like a house but it’s not necessarily somewhere you would want to live. We need carpets, plumbing, electricity, paint on the walls, etc. At this stage in editing, we’re polishing the story at a paragraph and sentence level.
It could include a lot of things, but here are some examples:
- Replacing words or phrases with better, stronger ones
- Making the dialogue tighter or more realistic
- Making sure the writing flows well (read it out loud to see how it sounds)
- Strengthening themes or subtext in the story
- Adding description
- Making characters more fleshed out by adding details
I have mostly mentioned adding things, but this is a place where you can also cut the story down to make it tighter. Remember that every word you write is a word you are asking the reader to spend time reading. Cut sentences and paragraphs that aren’t pulling their weight or combine them.
Level 3: Proofreading
In our metaphorical house, everything is ready to move in. Time to go through with a vacuum cleaner and a rag and make it sparkle.
In the story, this stage is the quickest and involves reading the story through again to fix typos, missing words, punctuation mistakes, and to make sure it is formatted correctly for whatever you are going to do with it next.
If possible, It is good to get someone else to proofread your story, especially if it’s a long story. This is because you have been working with it so long that you know the story too well. Your mind can automatically correct mistakes without your noticing them. At the least, I read through my stories slowly, reading each individual word to make sure everything is correct.
Editing is a huge subject and more than I would be qualified to talk about, especially in a single post. But here are some take-aways to help you when editing your stories:
- Whenever possible, do large edits before fixing smaller problems
- Do not edit while you are writing the first draft, but make notes for yourself for when you do edit (this happens a lot when you’re near the end and have a good idea to change the beginning)
- Get someone else to proofread your story if it is a long one and get outside feedback from someone you trust
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.