A pretty picture is worth quite a few words, but the idea of editing is to winnow down to the best few words.
By Shelley Widhalm
To be fast and efficient in editing a short story or novel, it’s helpful to have a checklist and a plan.
The checklist helps avoid overlapping tasks, while also moving through them with speed and careful thought. The seemingly contradictory notions fit together when taking the short and long views.
Editing involves hours of work, but the work can expand if the edits aren’t broken up into parts and instead are carried out start to finish over and over again (the long view). Editing is better off in layers, focused on one step at a time (the short view).
First Editing Round
As a first step, read the entire manuscript through, looking for inconsistencies, areas where the story doesn’t flow or diverges unnecessarily and areas where boredom is the result.
When I edit my own work, if I question needing something, I cut and dump—and put the goners into my Cuts File (because I have trouble letting go). I read for overall plot to make sure things make sense and check for any inconsistencies in character, setting or action development.
Here are things to look for in each editing pass, or grouped together if it makes sense:
- Ask if the opening scene grabs the reader.
- Cut any unnecessary scenes and strengthen weak ones. Make sure the scenes have a clear objective for the character and further the conflict, or opposition, to the objective to keep the action moving.
- Look for any elements that are incomplete or not carried through, such as a dropped idea, a scene that ends too soon or a character that disappears without explanation.
- Make sure the plot threads come together. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Are conflict and tension sustained throughout the telling? Does the story build with tension at the end of each chapter?
- Make sure the characters are realistic with good and bad features and that they are distinguishable from one another. Are they fully fleshed out with personalities, backgrounds and unique physical characteristics? Does the reader care about these characters?
- Ask if the dialogue is realistic and if the characters speak in ways that are distinguishable from one another. Look for consistency, accuracy and any repetitions in their identities, backgrounds and behaviors.
- Remove any unnecessary back story, especially in the first 50 pages where action is needed to hook the reader, and make sure character histories are not provided too early in the story.
- Make sure the pacing is compelling and right for the telling of the story.
A Final Thought
Remember, each time you edit, you get closer to the core of the story and the essential components, like a taut rubber band. The story becomes tighter, keeping the reader tense, on edge and ready to keep moving through the story.