Before editing, develop a plan

Many writers get to the end of a rough draft and then start revising without a clear plan. We’re taught how to write, but often we’re not taught how to edit. Professional editors know that editing requires a clear plan. Working without one can lead to months, if not years, of frustration. Don’t ask how I know that. Suffice it to say that how to develop an editing plan or checklist is one of the first things one learns when training as an editor. It’s something I wish I’d been taught as a writer.

This is why I advise stopping awhile before you begin editing to consider your story. Once you’ve read it through, you can analyze it to determine what the editing needs are. There are ten elements of fiction, which I divide into two subsets: primary elements and secondary elements. Which isn’t to say that the primary are more important, only that they need to be dealt with first.

story plot
Illustration by Steven Goodwin

Primary elements

  • Character
  • Viewpoint
  • Plot
  • Structure
  • Pacing
  • Setting

Secondary elements

  • Dialog
  • Description
  • Voice
  • Mechanics

Deal with primary elements first, because changes to these elements usually result in major rewrites. For example, if you change the setting of your novel from Victorian London to Roaring ’20s New York, the dialog and descriptions will change. If you are writing in deep POV, the voice will change to reflect an American rather than a British dialect.

Mechanics, which we so often focus on, especially in critique groups, should actually be the last thing dealt with. There’s no point ensuring that you’ve styled “King’s Cross Station” correctly if you wind up changing it to “Grand Central Terminal.”

Use the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist to judge your manuscript. In the weeks ahead, I’ll break this list down and look at each item in turn. For now, consider whether your characters are sympathetic and your plot profluent. If your manuscript is falling short in any of the primary elements, make a note on the checklist about how it might be fixed.

Once you’ve gone through the primary elements and made your notes, the list becomes your editing plan. Now you can start editing, addressing those issues scene by scene. Most professional editors, being on short deadlines (and having had more practice) will usually address the primary elements in one pass and the secondary elements in another. In fact, often, especially if we’re working with experienced writers who produce pretty clean manuscripts, we can address everything in one pass, with the second pass mainly a backstop to proofread our own work and double-check the mechanics. Manuscripts from less experienced writers usually require more passes.

When editing your own manuscript, if you are not under a deadline and find multiple primary element items to fix, you may wish to make one pass for each element. Do note, however, that there is a close relationship between Character and Viewpoint and also between Plot, Structure, and Pacing. So even if you are doing more than two editing passes, you can combine Character and Viewpoint into one pass and Plot, Structure, and Pacing into another.

Editing is like triage: A doctor must treat the most life-threatening wound first, and then deal with others. So if you find that your Characters are in pretty good shape but the Plot needs a major overhaul, do the Plot pass first, and then the Character pass. But if your characters need a lot of development, do that first, because when you change the characters, you are likely to change how they react to the plot events.

Next time, we’ll look at the importance of sympathetic characters and how Character intersects with Plot.

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  1. That editing checklist will come in handy! I have a story in revisions and something is off about it, but I can’t decide what. Hopefully this list will help me pin it down. 🙂

    1. I hope so, Kessie — that’s why I’m here. 😉

  2. Excellent article! Wish I knew this when I began my edits almost 3 years ago!W

    1. LOL — that’s how I felt when I first learned this. That’s why I want to share!

  3. Good, solid advice. It helps to have this sort of clear, simple list. Tackling the editing of a novel can be overwhelming, but this helps break things into concrete chunks that make it easier to deal with them.

    Thanks for sharing this, Kristen. Your expertise is shining through, and it bodes well for those who hire you as a writing coach!

    1. Thanks, Teddi! Yep, editing on all points at once is too hard! Chunks are the way to go.

  4. […] some grand checklist that would’ve made my editing process a breeze. Today, she finally posted that checklist, and I eagerly downloaded […]

  5. […] editing checklist I presented last time is written in order of importance according to me. Other editors will disagree about what is the […]

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