Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 20, 2023

Make Your Story Golden with Systematic Editing

Photo of the head of the statue of David by Michel Angelo against a limestone wall with the text overlay "Every rough draft has a story inside. It is the task of the writer to discover it. Lynette M. Burrows with apologies to Michel Angelo.

No matter whether you’ve written your story strictly following your outline or you’ve discovered your story as you wrote, the rough draft usually will benefit from some judicious editing. You probably finish your first draft in a blaze of glory. It’s done! You feel great…for a few hours or maybe days. Then the questions and doubts surface. That euphoria melts into a puddle of “this is the worst!” Despair leads to desperation and you leap into editing. But if you’re editing without a plan, your second draft will differ from the rough draft, but may not improve. Systematic editing helps you see the shape that’s hiding in that mess of words. In every book-block of text there is a story (apologies to Michel Angelo who actually said...

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

Michel Angelo

First, a word of caution. Not everyone’s system should be the same. Why? Because our stories are different, our brains are different, and our writing styles are different. All the layers mentioned in this article are important, but their value to you and your story will depend upon your writing experience and knowledge, your story’s genre, your style, and your readership. With those in mind, take this list of layers and mix and match it. 

Congratulations, you finished your rough draft. That’s huge. Most likely you are euphoric or you’re tired of the whole thing and ready to chuck the mess into the trash can. Either of those mindsets are not ideal for looking at your manuscript with any objectivity. 

You need to be as objective as humanly possible to get the best self-editing job done. So take a break. Take as long of a break as your deadlines and other responsibilities will allow. During your break, get your materials and working area ready for the evaluation and editing phases. 

Put Your Life in Order

Okay, not really, but you need to have long stretches of uninterrupted time. Some people need to go to a hotel, a library, or a cofee shop to get that time. Do what works for you.

You'll also need notebook or computer file for notes, a large stack of self-stick notes or index cards, ink pens or pencils, and a set of colored pencils, pens, markers or highlighters.

You’ll need a few more things. If you wrote a story blurb or paragraph or sentence to guide you as you wrote, print that out so it’s available. Next, you’ll need a copy of your manuscript.

Physical Copy vs Electronic

Multiple studies have shown that most people scan electronic information. All electronic information. And most of the time, that’s good enough. It’s not good enough when you’re self-editing. So unless you are one of the rare breed who can read word for word on the electronic screen, print out your manuscript. Print it with a different or larger font than you’ve worked in until now. (This will help your brain see it as something different.) Put it in a box or a binder or have enough space to put it on a desktop. 

Your Workspace

Set up your workspace with these tools but also set up the mood. If you need silence, find the quiet spot. If you prefer music, select two to four pieces of music that you can stand to listen to on endless repeat and will help you concentrate. Likewise, get your snacks and beverages sorted out. The idea is to prepare your space well enough that you have to minimal interruptions. 

Once your manuscript has cooled, and you’ve prepared your workspace, you’re ready to read. 

Reading your story as a reader means read it taking no notes. You’ll be tempted to edit. At the most, highlight or circle the offending word(s) but do not edit. Just don’t. Even the addition of a comma may be enough to flip your brain from reader to editor. For the first read-through, you want to get the feel of your story. So put on your “I’m a reader” hat and read. 

Having your computer or another person read the story to you is an acceptable alternative. In fact, for some of us, that might be the ideal situation. That way, we only hear what is on the page and not what is in our head or what we thought we put on the page.

After reading the entire thing, ask yourself how what you read aligns with the story you wanted to tell when you started. Write a paragraph or two about how it fits, or doesn’t fit, with the story you envisioned. Just big picture types of thoughts. The nitty-gritty doesn’t matter until the primary parts are what you want. 

No matter what plot structure or genre you use, the structure of a story is its foundation. Take your story apart. Again, start with the biggest piece first. 

You might find it helpful to physically divide the manuscript pages into fourths. For each section, ask yourself questions specific to the structure of that section. For example:

What is the hook? Could it be stronger?

Did you put ground underneath your character’s feet? Hint: Read more about this in the post, "Put Ground Beneath Their Feet."

Does the beginning pose a question? Does it promise tension and problems (tension) to come?

What is the mood and tone of the beginning? Does the setting enhance that? Does it match or foreshadow the ending mood and tone? Hint: Your mood and tone are part of your promise to your reader. Make certain you deliver what you promised.

How many characters does the reader meet? Could you reduce the number of characters? Hint: the fewer the characters introduced in the first pages, the more the reader focuses on the protagonist.

Are there sections with more than one or two paragraphs of backstory per chapter? Hint: Feed your reader only what she must know at this point. 

Does each chapter end with a hook? 

What is the problem that puts the protagonist in a position where she cannot go back to her before life?

Did the protagonist decide or did someone else? Hint: Having someone else decide weakens your reader’s investment in the protagonist.

What does your protagonist do? Are there easier choices she could have made? Why didn’t she? Hint: Don’t be guilty of having the kids split up when they know a serial killer is in the house. (Or it’s equivalent in your story.)

How does the antagonist thwart the protagonist at her every turn? 

Do the actions of the antagonist make your protagonist suffer? Could the antagonist make it harder or hurt your protagonist more? Why doesn’t she?

Does the protagonist and/or her desired outcome appear to be in more and more jeopardy with her every attempt to solve her problem? Is there some change that would increase the tension?

What does the protagonist or reader learn on each page?

How does the protagonist’s understanding of or method of attacking the problem change at the end of this quarter? Hint: This is the mid-point reversal. 

Is the action on the page? What did you leave off the page? 

Does it seem like failure is inevitable right until the very end?

Does the reader’s tension build to an almost unbearable degree?

Do the protagonist and antagonist meet face-to-face for the final confrontation? Hint: In most stories, this face-off is crucial to the success of your ending.

What choice between two concrete actions did your character make? Was there an easier way out? Hint: Your character and reader should feel she’s caught between two equally good choices, or two equally bad choices, or between a good choice that will cost her something dear and a terrible choice that will have a different but equally painful cost. 

What did the ending cost your primary character? 

Did she make the choice, or did someone else?

Has poetic justice been served? In other words, how does the ending pay off for your primary character? Did she earn that payoff?

Have you crafted a “punch line” or concrete image that expresses the emotional fulfillment of the ending in a focused way? Hint: In the beginning of the movie, Lethal Weapon, we see the suicidal cop Riggs with a bullet he plans to use on himself. At the end, he gives the bullet to his partner, a sign that he’s past that. In The Grinch, we see the two-sizes too small heart grow three sizes in the end. 

Is the ending satisfying to the reader?

Does the ending answer the question posed at the beginning of the story?

Are themes, motifs, or phrases from the beginning echoed in the ending?

Do the scenes flow smoothly and logically, building the tension, the reader’s knowledge, and the leaving the ending in jeopardy? Hint: this is pace. A successful story has slower and faster sections but is always building the reader’s desire to turn the page.

Is there more than one character performing the same story function? How can you change that into one character?

There are as many ways to approach your edits as there are writers on the planet. One way is to create moveable cards that summarize each scene you have written. Moveable cards include digital ones on software programs, 3x5 index cards, post-it notes, or an outline in your word processing software.

Place the cards in the order that follows what you’ve written. Then move them around. Take out the ones that don’t work. Add new ones. Keep at this until you’re satisfied you’ve improved your story and you’re ready to begin re-writes.

Wait, we didn't use the colored pens. Crafting the best story plot you can is only the beginning of your revisions. The next phase gets into more of the nitty-gritty of using colored pens and shining up word choice. Word choice affects everything from mood to character to tension and pacing. We’ll cover that more in the next blog post. 

Do you use a systematic way to edit your stories? What’s one story structure tip you can share?

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About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows

Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write a story or three.

Her Fellowship Dystopia series takes place in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. It’s the story a young woman of privilege who discovers the world, her world, is far more dangerous than she knew. A companion book, Fellowship, and books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and  If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. She is madly scribbling away on book three, And When I Wake, scheduled to be published in 2024.

Lynette lives in the land of OZ and is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook, or Twitter @LynetteMBurrows or on her website.

Image Credits

Top photo purchased from DepositPhotos.com and modified by Lynette M. Burrows.

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23 comments on “Make Your Story Golden with Systematic Editing”

  1. The "Physical Copy vs Electronic" section in particular really stood out for me as it affirms why I find printing out a copy to mark up, in the ways you mention, far better for the process. Overall, a great post that I am bookmarking and sharing!

  2. Thank you for this, Lynette! I think "put your life in order" defines what happened to my 2023 editing goals. I'm looking forward to moving forward!!!

  3. One thing I have found useful for the read-it-like-a-reader phase is to send it to my ereader. That is how I read fiction as a reader, it looks very different than on my computer screen, and, most importantly, it will only let me highlight - forced compliance with the no editing or scribbling notes rule. Once I have done that, then I make some sort of book map and dive into the print-it-out-and-scribble-all-over-it phase. And the guy who invented the sticky note (unintentionally, apparently) has become one of my personal heroes. Sticky flags are especially useful when reading through a print proof!

  4. Lynette, I loved your post today. I've heard of the 4 quarters before, but never used it. I thrive on structure and have a few novels that I want to deep edit, but feel overwhelmed. The method you suggest seems higher level (mor story overview than the sentence level I'm at lately) and I'm going to try it on one of my projects!

  5. Thanks for the informative method to help organize the work of editing. This is such an important part of the process.

  6. I never thought about printing the manuscript in a different sized font. What a great idea!

    Currently, I'm doing version number bazillion of The Hobo Code.

    I had to set it aside for a long while before looking it over again. I'm finding all kinds of verbs that need changing, and there are far too many eyebrows doing this, that, and the other thing.

    Plus, I needed to up the ante by making scenes scarier.

    Super suggestions, Lynette, thank you!

  7. Lots of great tips. I HAVE to print out anything I'm going to edit, and then always as either 1.5 or 1.15 spacing.

    I discovered the best way to start editing a book is to take the manuscript out of the house and go to a coffee shop or a restaurant where I can sit for an hour and edit without any interference, doing just as you say: highlighting or marking, but not changing. Once I'm in the story, any noise just fades away. Or, I could listen to a playlist but lower than normal so that it becomes white noise.

    I'm always amazed at how much I get read in that space of time. After that, I can edit in smaller chunks of time.

  8. Thanks. Your timing is opportune. Finishing my first draft on a 'Teen' novel. Just printed it. Didn't think about reading it without the 'correcting pen' Like the idea. Also like the idea of someone reading it to me. Meeting my daughers in a few days-a possibility. Thanks, will look back at your suggestions as I edit. Best wishes in the new year.

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