This isn’t about spellchecks or grammar. Those things go under the heading of proofreading. As in, at the end of the editing process.
Now, back to the point.
What is editing?
Editing is a strange beast, much more than it first appears. Why?
Because there’s more than one purpose behind the main frame of the exercise.
What are they?
The first stage of editing is about the big elements of the story:
What its about, who leads the charge, how do the story events demonstrate the two elements?
That’s called the first edit, the story edit, the developmental edit.
First, find the shape of the story.
Is it a heist story, a revenge story, a metamorph story?
This is the search for the story shape, the plot archetype. The reason to look for that first is that readers have expectations about what experiences they’ll have inside that story. They want a heist story to have a heist and those doing the heist and victims of the heist and the ones who chase those who did the heist. If you miss an important archetypal element (or anything crucial in that shaping), you’ve lost the reader. Lied to them by using something that indicated that the story would have this shape, whereas what they got didn’t fit properly.
That’s not to say a shape/archetype can’t be subverted. They can and they do get revisited and reshaped, but the basic shape remains. A heist in outer space is still needs a heist, a thief/thieves, an object of importance, a victim/owner of said object, etc.
Second, find the main story arc shapes.
The two biggies are the story arc and the main character arc. Does the journey from begin to end show enough of the changes at the right times? A story arc starts with an objective, a need to get to the point of winning. And what is either won or lost must be worth risking all. If it’s a search for a new dress shop in a new town … need I say more?
The best stories have a clear idea of what the story needs to be satisfying. A love story ends with lovers. A heist story ends after the heist is committed (not usually immediately, but that part of the shape depends on the main character journey). Find the shape of the story and make sure it builds and grows and is always moving toward its end.
The main character arc is similar. The main character is in about 80% of scenes (not necessarily as the POV character in all of them, but there). The MC has the most to win or lose in this story, and often the most desire to get, do, or become something by the end. The MC story arc must demonstrate a strong motivation, a few bumps that test the character, and a resolution to the story question that aligns with the character arc.
As an overall strategy:
The plot archetype and arc, and all the subplots (related by theme, please, or they feel like add-ons).
The main character plot and other character/s plots and arcs – all related in some tangible manner to the theme.
Each character must be and sound different. Use language and grammar and profession (and other specific idiosyncrasies) to ensure difference. Map the change of the arc/s through the structure – ensure the build and emotional connection.
And there should be clear conflict on every page. Conflict builds from a lesser state to a more compelling state to the end point where it’s explosive. Conflict has an arc. Make use of it to keep the reader moving toward the end.
A story is always about a character in conflict who struggles toward resolution.
That’s the first stage of the RRR.
Oh, RRR? That’s my shorthand for Review, Revise, Rewrite.
First, I review the big picture elements.
I print it or change the font and size and send it to a device to read. A full read with no notes is first (okay, I might make little comments or one or two marks in the margins), then go through with the story questions in front of mind, always asking: does it work in terms of how it relates to the story arc? Is it shaped to the expectations of the plot archetype? Etc.
Then I make a few notes on how it might work if I changed this or that or turned another part on its head, or should I hide that information in this tense scene? Etc.
The rewrite is next, and yes, I rewrite rather than fix. The reason is that it’s easier to see the minor problems when I do a complete rewrite and some of the middle picture elements can also be fixed while I have the big picture elements in mind.
Keep in mind that editing has nothing to do with spelling or grammar. The reason is simple: why do all that work reading the whole story when so much can potentially change? The issue of creating more problems arises as the rewrite happens. My preference is to leave these items until all the editing is complete. And by that, I mean the big picture editing, the middle picture editing, and the small picture editing.
Big picture relates to overall structure, including plot archetype and shape/arc, character and conflict arc – always related, and the overall emotional connection of story to reader.
Middle picture (I won’t go into detail here and now) relates to each chapter/scene, the relevance of each to the whole, the logic of the build.
POV is the big moment of the middle picture editing. Checking the modes of show/tell (exposition – lose as much as possible; trust the reader; action – not activity; description – through POV senses, not as static, unattached words; dialogue – unique and individual and no fluffs; and internalisation), stylistic elements (just don’t make it hard for a reader to follow the logic), emotional build, etc.
The basics are to ensure the OOO exists in the middle picture, the scenes that are the meat of the story. Objective, Obstacles, Outcome. If the reader can’t find the purpose/objective of the character in each part of the story, they leave.
Don’t let them leave. Keep the hook baited, clearly in mind on every page.
Small picture relates to how the shape of paragraphs, sentences and words play their part. The only way to get the right feel for this is to read it aloud, or have it read to you without inflection. Check the sentence structure, check for repetition, variation, rhythm. Does the style of written words reflect the overall theme and archetype? Pacing of sections and paragraphs – use the structure and emotional moment to determine if it fits. Two big issues are active/passive and cause and effect: aim for mostly active, and ensure cause comes before effect.
There are many more things in the small picture editing: power positions of words in sentences and paragraphs and scenes, the use of nouns and verbs that are in character and don’t need fluffing with adverbs and adjectives, losing words that don’t add purpose (lots of them, look up filter words), and the dialogue tags – probably a whole discussion alone.
Clear, concise, coherent?
That’s the aim. The reader doesn’t have to stop and wonder what was meant or what’s happening.
In the end, editing is an iterative process. Start with the big stuff and work down. And when I feel like I’m at the end, I read it again to make sure it isn’t bland and beautifully written – those two words are an insult and the interpretation is: lovely words, but where’s the story, where’s the passion? Don’t lose the passion of the story for the sake of getting the words correct.
And once again I’ve gone over the expected 300 words. Sorry.
And that’s my opinion of my self-editing processes. And if I had someone else to do that for me, I’d give it to them. I’m not perfect, no one is, and every little bit of feedback is valuable to the storyteller. Also, I’ve yet to find a published book with no errors (Strunk and White was close, but I found one, though not in the main text). It doesn’t excuse the mistakes I’ve made, but I can live with them. For now.
The motto is always: the next story will be better than the previous one. The learning curve is steep, but the summit is visible from here.
As a side-note, the technical editing I did in a former life is nothing like editing for a story. A completely different horse with a completely different purpose and audience.