Fiction Editing: A Logical Approach to Tackling Revisions
Updated: Jun 17
So, you're finished the first draft of your fiction manuscript, and you know you need to edit, but the thought of editing your fiction manuscript leaves you feeling a little lost, overwhelmed even. After all, knowing that you have to edit is different than knowing where to begin and having a logical approach to get through the revisions.
So let's work through all the editing things and help you create an editing approach that works well for you.
Take a Break to Clear Your Head.
I know, I know. I just said I'd help you create an editing approach, and here I am telling you to take a break. But seriously, take a break.
Writing and editing are two separate processes, each of which requires its own set of skills and expertise. Approaching edits logically requires that you take some necessary time away from your writing.
You will miss things if you don't.
We know from neuroscience that our brains are highly adept at solving language problems, going so far as to fill in missing words and letters, even rearranging jumbled words, so that we can read them. This means that your brain, knowing all of the context of your story, will automatically fill in things that are missing or could otherwise be revised for greater reader engagement.
Instead of rushing into edits the moment you write "The End," take a walk. Bake that cake. Play with the kiddo. Read a book. Do something other than edit, so that when you finally sit down to edit, you have a fresh perspective and can approach the task with as much objectivity as possible.
Pobody's Nerfect, and Your Manuscript Isn't Either.
Understand that your first draft is all about getting words down on the page so that you have something to edit later. After all, you can't edit a blank page.
Because of that, first drafts are clunky, messy, and full of exposition that tells the reader what is happening rather than showing the reader and inviting them to participate in the experience.
In my own life, I call these "madman" drafts, and I wouldn't even show them to my very supportive grandma (because even she may wrinkle an eyebrow).
So wrinkle up your own eyebrow when you sit down and know that you will have plenty to edit.
Read First, Edit Later.
While it may seem like a great idea to open up that document with your refreshed eyes and start editing, don't. Read first.
That's right. Before you can tackle your fiction editing in a logical way, you need to read the story using your readerly lenses. So, read your draft manuscript from cover to cover without making a single change. (Personal Challenge: Don't even correct the typos. Let them hang out for a while.)
Take notes. You'll need them later.
What would you, the prudent reader/reviewer, say about your novel? Mood, pace, character development, engagement, boring bits? What about the use of dialogue and internal thought? How's that exposition and narrative summary? What about transitions?
If it helps, write yourself a book review to collect your general reader feedback.
Plan Ahead to Save Yourself a Headache.
If you're like me, it probably took quite some time to get that first draft finished. I mean, writing a story isn't easy. There's loads to think about! Many writers take twice as long to edit as they do to write. Twice as long!
But if your novel was seven years in the making, dragging out the edit for 14 years seems ghastly. Don't do that. Plan instead.
How much time can you dedicate to editing each day? Twenty minutes? An hour? Two hours? Whatever the amount, write it down. Whatever you have to do to hold yourself accountable, do it. Put your editing time on your calendar; set reminders or alarms. The method doesn't matter as much as the plan.
Tackle the Basics First.
You've spent a long time getting the words down, now it's time to start transforming them. Remember: fiction editing requires revision, and revisions are only as powerful as your ability to re-envision each part of your story.
What's the structure of your story?
Does the manuscript move comfortably from:
opening scene to setup?
setup to inciting incident?
inciting incident to character struggle?
character struggle to first major choice?
first major choice to new world/thing?
new world/thing to midpoint?
midpoint to character struggle?
character struggle to second major choice?
second major choice to finale?
finale to the resolution?
resolution to the closing scene?
Do your protagonist and antagonist have:
clear wants that lead to goals?
clear goals that lend to plot progress?
clear needs (trauma, inner wounds, etc.) to overcome?
If you don't know the structure, or if you've answered 'no' to movement or character, it may benefit you to take a moment to define your story, so you know better how to assess your manuscript.
Note: If you need more, ask for a copy of Stepping Stones for Successful Self-Edits if you don't have one already, which is designed to help you work through manuscript development.
See Every Scene.
Fiction novels are collections of scenes arranged in a particular order to get your reader from beginning to end. And each scene should be able to stand on its own.
When editing your fiction novel, move through the manuscript scene by scene. And ask yourself the following questions:
From whose point of view is the scene written?
What is the theme of the scene, and is that theme clear?
Where is detail missing? Where is there too much detail?
Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end to this scene?
Does this scene advance the plot or contribute to character development?
Are the characters well-rounded and complex? Are any characters missing?
And, perhaps most importantly, can this scene stand on its own as a short story?
Clean Your Manuscript.
I just know you've been beside yourself letting those typos linger, but it's now time to clean your manuscript of all those red squiggles.
Use your word processor's spell-check tool, and don't forget to import the commonly confused words list to weed out any pesky homonyms or homophones that may be lurking.
Note: When you have names or places that are not erroneous but are flagged as misspelled anyway, go ahead and add them to your word processor's dictionary, so they don't get flagged again. (And you'll make your future editor happy by keeping a list of those not-erroneous words you've added to your dictionary, along with their definitions or functions, to share. Seriously, it'll make your editor's job easier.)
Share Your Story with Early Readers.
Good, trustworthy early readers, also known as beta readers, will provide invaluable insights into your future readers' experiences with your fiction novel. A good rule of thumb is to send your manuscript to a minimum of three beta readers, as every single reader will identify something different.
While your manuscript is with your early readers, go ahead and do something nice for yourself. After all, you just completed an edit of your fiction novel. You rock!
And when you get that early reader feedback? Go back to "Read First, Edit Later" and get back to it.