Actually this post is a little misleading. You’ll be repeating this step in between every edit and every reading done by a friend/family member/editor because you’ll have new changes to make. Let’s take a look at the types of edits and how to apply them to the original document.
Now, one good method of backing up your work is to save a copy of the finished, unedited manuscript on an external drive or your preferred back up location. Having a print copy that never sees a red pen is a good thing too, if you can spare the paper and ink. This is so you have a copy without edits to go back to in case you don’t like a major change, or you want to compare an edited passage to the original. Save a second copy on the computer, with a new name (like TITLEDRAFT2) and do your edits on there.
TECHNICAL – this can be tough when you’re editing, but actually applying the changes is easy. Many times you’ll be reading on screen and you can make these edits as you read. Or you’ll be running the computer spell checker. If you have comments on a word document, or scribbles on a page, it’s as easy as retyping a misspelled word or adding a comma. There are a few places where you’ll need to completely rewrite a sentence but often I’ll have done that by hand on the editing copy so I just need to copy in the changes. Sometimes, however, I’ll simply make a note (like “choppy” or “smooth this out”) and then I’m stuck sitting there tinkering away with it.
CONSISTENCY – name changes are easy, use the Find/Replace tool. If there are timeline consistency issues you may have to make multiple changes across multiple scenes, especially if you have a work with extensive travel or season changes. For example, if it actually takes four weeks, not three, to travel from point A to point B you need to change every reference to that trip so it matches. You may have to change setting details, like the weather, because a week’s difference in early spring is huge in some places. You may also have to change references to fixed events, such as birthdays and holy days. Having a timeline or calendar can help keep that mess straight and tidy. While it’s tedious, it’s mostly checking facts, not creating new scenes.
CONTINUITY – you may to rearrange scenes to correct timeline issues. This requires the same tedious fact checking I just mentioned. It also includes editing the transitions between scenes – the entrance and exit of characters, the introduction of setting, removing a setting or character intro because of redundancy, etc. After a major continuity edit have someone read it for redundancy and confusion issues. This is time consuming because you will have to recreate parts of scenes, move pieces about, and fact check.
AUTHOR SPECIFIC – if you had a specific issue, like the new casts that were worrying me in my short story, hopefully you’ll have feedback directed to that issue. The note I got was “this sounds to personal. try listening to some news on CNN or CBC to get a feel for how the people talk” then I sat down with my dad and discussed his feedback, he gave me specific lines in the story that needed changing. With his suggestions in mind I went back and rewrote those segments.
DIALOGUE – if your dialogue is cliched find a way to spice it up. If a conversation is confusing start by adding more dialogue tags. If a conversation is bland add more emotions and reactions to the dialogue tags. Break up dialogue with little notes on character description and settings and character emotions. Or use dialogue, even thought dialogue, to break up long pieces of description.
CHARACTER COMMENTS – what if you get that dreaded comment “the characters feel flat”? Well, step one is to get more details. Where in the story did the character fall flat? Is it their dialogue, their personality, their actions, their appearance? Do you have too many background characters with no real purpose? Your readers may even have suggestions for spicy things up.
Step two is to do some character brainstorming. Because my fantasy novel has a large cast and I didn’t want the characters becoming so similar to one another that you mistake one for another I made a list of their goals and motives. Why do they act the way they do? Why does my fantasy princess want to fight with a sword? Why does she hate dresses? How do I stop her from becoming a cliche? I did this for the two leading ladies and the main cast. With the background characters I looked at each and asked “Why are they in the story? What plot lines are they involved in? What purpose do they serve?” Each named character had to have a purpose, they had to propel a main character into or through a situation. They had to provide a problem, or the closure to a problem. They had to do more than walking in, say a line, and walk out.
Doing the background work may be the easiest part of that edit. Applying that to the story is difficult. Go into scenes where main characters interact and, armed with your new knowledge of goals and motives, see if you can spice up their reactions, or their expressions. Add a few snippets of back story or memories or flashbacks. Keep your eyes peeled for cliched phrases, facial expressions, settings, and situations. You don’t have to delete them, just give them a new spin. Hopefully your readers have picked a few of these out for you. After a major character edit get another read through. If it’s just a few scenes that needed work send just those scenes back to the reader. If it was a whole piece edit send the whole piece for another review.
SETTING COMMENTS – sometimes people will note that your setting is cliched, too vague, boring, non-existent … setting is crucial to plot and can be set up in a few words, “a hole in the wall cafe” for example, or over a few pages with short descriptive paragraphs and little notes and dialogue. Setting tells the reader where they are, the time of day/month/year/season, the weather and so much more. Setting can set the mood or the pace of a scene. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader with details all in one large clump but if your landscape is too sparse you’ll lose the reader (geographically, not as in “I put the book down”). This is a little easier to edit because you can go through and add details to transition scenes and dialogue tags (He shivered as the cold autumn rain trickled down the back of his coat. “Why are we still out here?”).
GENERAL OPINIONS – Character and setting will generally come mixed in with the rest of the general opinions. You may also get notes on overall readability, the acceptability of the level of graphic/explicit content, and if the plot was believable. Readability is addressed mostly in technical (smooth sentences, well ordered paragraphs, enough dialogue tags) and partly in continuity and consistency. Believable is partly setting, partly plot, partly character. This can be a bugger to edit and may result in MAJOR reworkings. The acceptable level of graphic and explicit content changes depending on intended audience, genre, and who’s reading it. Take these comments seriously and examine the questionable scenes. If you can achieve the same emotional reactions with less gore/sex etc. then go with less. Subtlety is an art form of its own. If you’re writing slasher horror, maybe your reader is just squeamish. If everyone says it’s too much, tone it down. If all but one person says it was fine don’t worry about it, or just tone down a little.
After all the readers are done with it, and they’re all saying “it’s looking really good” you have to let it sit. This isn’t always possible with short stories since we’re often writing them for specific open calls with deadlines. But if possible ignore the piece for a few days or a few months. Stephen King’s rule (and I’m paraphrasing again): the longer you work on it the longer it will take you to gain that unbiased professionalism needed to really see the work for what it is.
After that wait time give it an honest read through. The edit process this time should be fairly short, just some little tinkers. Then stick a fork in it baby ’cause it’s done. All that’s left is the logline, synopsis, summary, cover letter, and back of book blurb. But those are issues for another post.