Your Inner Editor, Critic, and Mother
Writers write. Editors edit. Critics critique.
When you write, you turn off your inner editor, especially when you are still on the first draft.
When you edit, you turn off your inner critic, especially when you are still on your second draft.
Also turn off your inner English teacher, high school bully, and your mother while you are at it.
Editing and Proof Reading
When you edit, the easiest things to correct at the typos. (The neighbors are shooting at pheasants, not peasants.) That is followed closely by punctuation errors (A panda, eats, shoots, and leaves.), missspellings and a grammatical errors.
The next easiest edits are word choices. (Should it be “an impenetrable fortress” or “an impregnable fortress”? “A massive boulder” or “a gigantic rock”?)
Those are actually not real edits. They are procrastinations. You are fiddling with the details and avoiding the real work. A second draft edit is about the gross structure, not proof reading, and it is hard to do.
Don’t sandpaper and varnish before you run the wood through the band saw. There is still a lot of structural work to be done. The first edit is not about the words, but the story. Do the structural work first and typos last. Don’t do it backwards.
If you find typos and grammatical errors distracting and feel the need to fix them before going on to structural editing, do them first, but choosing the perfect words and phrases can wait. Be conscious that you are supposed to be doing the structural editing, not the finishing.
The Mechanical Edit
I’ve posted this one before, but extract just one representative sentence each from every paragraph. Delete all other sentences. Leave the quotations but delete all tags.
You could probably still follow the story even though you just deleted something like 70-90% of your non-dialogue words.
Now decide which words deserve to go back in.
It is often difficult to take yourself out of the editing process and edit dispassionately. So this mechanical process can sometimes help.
Always keep a copy of the original before you edit this way.
When you have created this skeleton key outline, print it out on paper before you start putting the words back in. If one chapter does not fit on one page, you either need to delete some more or split a chapter into two pieces. Line up the one-page chapters in order and see if you have them right. Shift them around. Try variations. Get some Post It notes and start writing the things you need to add. It is also helpful to add labels like “small climax” “big climax” “bad turn” “second wind” “main climax”. See if your story is making a good story arc. Once you know you have the story arc right, start putting the sentences back in.
The Sex Trick (Again)
When constructing a smooth story arc out of the convoluted roller coaster trail of your first draft, if you cannot fit your story to any of the Seven Basic Plots, try to remember the best sex you ever had and line the plot points along that night, from the point you finish dinner, the shy flirting, almost not having sex, the stumble to the bed, the process of taking off your clothes, getting into bed, the joke that almost ruined it, the kiss, the initiation, the emotional immersion, the entry, the buildup, the climax, and the sigh. And the sharing of laughter afterwards. It’s a lot more visceral than a plot line you pick out of a book, it is your original, and it works well for some writers.
The Bulldozer Method
Bulldozer editing is when you take your first draft, chop up the chapters and put them back together without following any formula or methodology. Typically you start editing at the beginning of the book and plow your way to the end, trying to construct something that looks right to you.
Many novels are written and edited this way. In fact, almost all Japanese novels are written this way. As a consequence, Japanese fiction tends to be short, minimalist and frequently lyrical or poetic. (Try “Woman in the Dunes” by Abe Kobo.)
When you are writing a full length English language novel (100K-120K words), the bulldozer method works well when you are turning a rough first draft into a rough second draft. Some talented novelists have had success editing their novel only by this method. Most young writers try to do this. But it takes either enormous talent or humongous luck to create a salable novel by this method alone. I suggest that at some point in your editing process you switch from the bulldozer method to a more systematic and comprehensive editing formula.
“What Happens Next?”
Here is a relatively easy trick that you can use in developmental editing.
Insert these words at the beginning of each paragraph: “What happens next?” If the paragraph does not answer that question, there is something wrong with it.
Kurt Vonnegut said that in fiction, every sentence (let alone every paragraph) must either describe a character or drive an action. If a group of two or more sentences do not answer the question “What happens next?”, it does not belong there.
Pepper your manuscript with the words “What happens next?” and make sure the question is answered within a few lines.
Once every paragraph in the whole book answers the question, start considering whether “next” is appropriate. Cut and paste until you have things in the right order.
Tricks like this will not make you complete the final draft. It only helps you hammer out the second draft from the first draft. There are basic general rules for writing a novel that are universal in every first and second draft. “Avoid adverbs”, “show, don’t tell”, “read your passage out loud”. But as you get closer and closer to the final draft, you will find fewer and fewer universal rules to apply, and easy tricks to rely on. In the end, it will be your own character and individuality that will varnish the final finish. But before you get to that, you need to construct the structural stuff.