More Editing and Revision Tips for Your Work
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If you’re bored with the first draft of your work, or impossibly stuck, take a hard look at the premise, the characters, the inciting incident, the motives behind the story. Before you invest weeks, months, or years into your manuscript, you may need to significantly shift many of the work. You may abandon it or shelve it for a later time. If your story continues to follow you around or fascinate you, your novel deserves your attention and effort on the page.
It’s your job as the author to make your story compelling to the reader. Once the all-important first draft is on the first page, you can be more manageable by editing and revising your work aspect by aspect, instead of tearing into the text like a whole graph. Go through the entire draft with one aspect in mind (like pacing for example). Then go through the whole thing looking at another aspect, such as voice. Repeat until you’ve examined the text for each aspect.
Make detailed notes on the manuscript and revise after completing all passes or make changes to the text after you go through each aspect. Here’s a list of the eight aspects in an intentional order, but you can mix it up. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the very idea of editing, start with an aspect that seems easier than the other. You may just come to love the process, believe it or not.
Handy Checklist for Every Scene
The 8 Aspects to Self-Edit
- VOICE—Agents and editors look for a compelling VOICE over just about every other element when evaluating a manuscript. In memoir and personal essay, do you have a consistent tone? Does it feel like YOU speaking, or some other person? Does it feel authentic and honest? In fiction, do you have a compelling narrator? Do your characters speak in a way that feels true to their personas? Don’t forget that SETTING is often a “character” of the story and must be portrayed in an evocative way.
- NARRATIVE ARC/PLOT—Every story, essay, and memoir has a narrative arc that the reader wants to follow. It can be a quiet one in some cases, but in all cases, something or someone needs to change from the beginning to the end of the work. Is there an arc? Are there dead spots in the text that move slowly? Why?
- TENSION/CONFLICT—If the author isn’t actively engaged in the subject or wrestling with some issue on the page, the reader will lose interest. Again, this doesn’t have to involve fireworks or epic events. In essays, it can be a quiet insight gained, or a new question created in the narrator’s mind. It can be a small discovery. The longer the reader’s investment of time, i.e., a novel or book-length memoir, the more will be at stake on the page.
- STRUCTURE—Structure can involve many decisions. Point of View (POV) is a big one (first person, second person, third person intimate, omniscient, or alternating back and forth between two characters’ POV, for example.) Most memoirs, but not all, are told in first person. The iconic television drama "24” provides an instructional example. It was structured around each episode moving minute by minute through 24 hours of unfolding action, when structure can mean a kind of framework for the story. In the classic novel Flowers for Algernon from Daniel Keyes, the diary entries have brilliantly presented the main character as he evolved into a genius through scientific intervention, then back into severe intellectual decline. Many memoirs start the reader at a critical point in their lives and then go back in time to describe what led up to it. Some books are physical journeys, braided with the deeper story, such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Have you chosen the best structure for your story?
- LANGUAGE—Are you using cliches? A string of adjectives, when one well-chosen descriptor will do the job? Are you employing adverbs in dialogue, when it’s the dialogue itself than should be delivering the tone and emotion felt by a character? Do the words fit the action and the character’s voice? Are you using passive voice too often? You can provide a better choice for your example to explain why active verbs are very often much better than passive verbs. (Think “she walked” instead of “she was walking.”) To make your writing concise, consider where can you tighten and delete words, so that you aren’t saying the same thing several different ways. Does the writing have a certain “music” to it? When you read it out loud, does it flow easily off the tongue?
- PACING—Are there dragging parts? Beware of the “sagging middle” of a novel that loses its momentum. On the other hand, is there no relief to breathless action, suspense, and/or trauma? Sometimes the reader needs a few quiet pages to absorb, process, or savor big events. Again, think of the way music flows, with various movements.
- BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS—Are the beginnings compelling enough to invite the reader into the story immediately? Or the opening paragraphs too preface-like, the author “clearing his or her throat”? Are the endings satisfying without trying too hard to wrap up every loose end or hammer home a point, leaving some discovery for the reader?
- SPELLING/GRAMMAR/ACCURACY—Don’t rely on spellcheck. And if grammar isn’t your forte, hire a proofreader, or be willing to offer some in-kind service to another writer in exchange for their skill in this area. FACT CHECK for accuracy. Anything that can be verified should be. If you want a character drinking in the scent of some fragrance bloom in a California garden. For example, make sure you choose something that actually grows there. And that it actually has a fragrance. And that it blooms during the month the scene takes place. If the main character is literally driving into a spectacular sunset, make sure they’re not heading east—that kind of thing matters. You can't be sure that some reader will catch your error and gleefully bring it to your attention. Even if you’re writing fantasy, your created world must be consistent with itself.
I hope these eight aspects of self-editing help you prune and fine-tune your manuscripts into polished hard copies. With these self-editing and revision tips, your help your novels shine like diamonds in the sunlight. And later, it might be on top of the slush pile for agents and later in editor's hands. If all goes well, it would be published and perhaps even critically acclaimed.
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© 2015 Kristen Howe