As always with the creative process, there is no right or wrong way to go about editing. However, I’m sharing my thoughts on editing in hopes that they can help someone else. If you agree with me, great! If you don’t, that’s great too! Just polish your work to the best of your ability.
When I first starting writing as a kid, I thought that you whipped out a good first draft and then edited for spelling and then ta-da! You were finished. Although this might work for some school assignments, this is NOT how you edit a novel.
Of course, spelling and grammar are important. But when you finish the first draft of your novel, you probably won’t edit those at all for a long, long time. It’s more important to flesh out your characters and plot first and make them the best that you can. This is probably the hardest part about editing your own work: finding your story, staying true to it, and ensuring that it reads like a real book. It doesn’t make sense to waste time with the spelling and grammar if you’re going to rearrange and rewrite entire sections, perhaps even the entire novel.
I’m currently working on the fifth draft of my novel. Over the long process of this project, I’ve deleted entire characters, introduced new characters, and shifted the plot around adding more beef and tightening the themes. When I compare my current draft to the first draft, they barely resemble each other. Sure, the kernel of idea that lead to the novel is there in all drafts, but in very different guises. Of course if I’d planned my novel before jumping into the first draft this might not have been case. However, part of my writing style comes from spontaneity. Sometimes in order to write your novel right, you have to write it wrong first.
When I edited these drafts, I had to ask myself hard questions and rip open the guts of my story. I had to figure out what about the story really mattered. What was the essence of the story? When my reader read my story what did I want them to feel, how did I want them to respond? Readers are always free to feel differently, but it is worthwhile to consider your hypothetical audience and how you hope they’ll feel.
Some writers moan about “killing their darlings.” Each time I had to redo hours of work to rewrite a scene, delete a sequence of chapters, or think out a plot point that didn’t quite work, I didn’t feel devastated. Instead, I was happy that I was strengthening my novel. Once I uncovered weaknesses, they didn’t seem very “darling” to me anymore.
In terms of plot, if you feel that something is lagging or boring, it probably is. I’ve heard it said that each scene should have at least three purposes. So in one scene you could have something that advances the main plot, something cool about the setting, and some key characterization or relationship development for example. Any scene where your characters are doing nothing: brushing their teeth, staring at the wall, doing daily routine type things – combine it with something else or delete it!
It’s common to add these types of scenes, because you want to know everything about your character and show that they have a life like everyone else. However, art doesn’t mimic daily life precisely. Arts accentuates certain aspects to make a plot. Art flourishes on a bit of drama. It’s okay for your story not to read a hundred percent like real life. You want your novel to be exciting, to make your reader gasp in surprise, and to seem somewhat heightened all around.
The story structure of beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion is in itself artificial. It’s your job as a writer to seduce your reader along for the ride. It helps to think about what you like in the books you read. How do you like these books to make you feel? What keeps you turning the pages? Now, I’m not advocating copying other writer’s plots. However, I am advocating copying the feeling you have when you read them through your own writing. How do you do this? It’s up to you.