A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how there are a lot of different kinds of edits and how you can edit a novel more easily by fixing different parts of your story at different times. If that sounds interesting, go check it out! This post’ll be here when you get back.

I was intending on jumping right in with a post about structural editing. But after a couple of drafts, I realized that I needed to start a little farther back. On day #1 of Mission: Edit this Awful First Draft, you’re not going to start by rewriting chapters 6-9, right?

Of course not. Your first step is to figure out what your problems are. Let’s start there.

Step #1: Read your entire novel and take excessive amounts of notes.

First thing’s first: read your entire novel.

But here’s the key: you’re not reading it like a reader. Your job isn’t to passively sit there, letting the word-thoughts beam happy feelings into your brain. You have to read your novel like an English major charged with dissecting it to death. You’re going to challenge every assumption. Think deeply about everything that happens.

You’re going to look at every single scene and ask: why?

  • What just happened?
  • Why did it it happen?
  • Does that objectively make sense, based on the facts of this world and the characters involved?
  • Have you previously explained the character/plot/worldbuilidng elements that the reader would require to understand this scene?
  • What new information does the reader learn from this scene?

These are simple questions, but they can open a lot of doors: why would this character [do the dramatic thing that makes for a good story] if you haven’t given them a strong enough motivation to do that instead of an equally viable, less-crazy choice? It’s awfully exciting to open your story up with an explosion, but will the reader understand it if why it matters hinges on understanding a lot of details about this world and the characters?

Don’t let yourself get away with lame answers. “Because it’s dramatic!” is not a good answer. “Because I like it!” is even worse. Remember: there’s nothing sacred about the creative process. Just because your first instinct was to write a fight scene or six chapters of chatty banter doesn’t mean that’s the one-and-only way to convey the information you need.

So ask why. Why did this happen? Is this the only way to do this scene? The most interesting way? Why is this scene important?

While you do this, take notes. I keep a separate file, create a new section for every scene, and then write down every thought I have. If I encounter a problem, I bold it. If something feels really important, I highlight the text or flag it in a different color.

Other Techniques to Try: Story Mapping

If you’re new to editing, you might want to take this opportunity to dig very, very deep into the structure of your story. Thankfully, there are a million ways to map a story!

Usually, this process entails identifying all of your main story arcs, including your character arcs, main plot arc, and subplot arcs. This lets you look at specific story arcs, by themselves, and ensure they aren’t abandoned for long stretches of time and that they grow and build over time.

Some of the story mapping techniques I’ve seen include:

There are a million ways to do this. See what works for you!

Step #2: Identify your problems.

Now it’s time to organize your notes.

My notes are always long and wordy. I write sentences and sentences about how such-and-such sounds weird, and maybe I should try this, and maybe I should be doing something more like this other thing…

These are great, but they’re not actionable. You can’t do anything with a paragraph-long rant about how your motivations are garbage.

So first, take each problem and distill it to its core:

  • [Character’s] motivation doesn’t make sense for this scene.
  • This plot twist wasn’t foreshadowed.
  • This doesn’t make sense. This character doesn’t know [fact], so they can’t act on it.

You will probably find that some issues go on for chapters and chapters and chapters. That’s good! Identify what scenes are affected.

Step #3: Turn those problems into a to-do list.

Now turn those problems into assignments for yourself.

  • Fix [character’s] motivations. (Chapters 4-8)
  • [Plot Twist] occurs in chapter 8. Foreshadow it before then. (Chapters 1-7)
  • Have character learn [fact] before chapter 5. (Chapters 1-4).

These are things you can do. Some of them are specific–“this character needs their motivation fixed in every scene where they appear between chapters 4-8” is a specific fix in a specific set of chapters. “Foreshadow this thing sometime before it happens” is not.

But that’s OK. You don’t need to know all of the solutions right now. In fact, during the first major editing phase (what I’m calling the “structural edit”) you may end up deleting entire chapters and rewriting entire sections. So some of these issues may end up resolved by the time you’re done rewriting. And if they don’t? Well, you can figure out which specific chapters to insert your specific fixes into once you know you’re not going to delete or rewrite them.

Step #4: Pull out the to-dos that require you to delete or completely rewrite content.

My to-do list is naturally organized by scene: it lists every scene in the book and what things I want to fix. But before I do those, I want to pull out two very special things:

  • Problems that require me to delete or completely rewrite scenes from scratch
  • Problems that need to be fixed, but I’m not sure where those fixes should happen

These are the two things we have to resolve in the structural editing phase. We can’t go on to step #2 (the scene-by-scene edit) until they’re done.

And now you’re done with this phase!

Hurray! You have now:

  • Read your entire story with a critical eye
  • Mapped out your story to track what happened when
  • Created a note file that lists the problems with each scene
  • Developed a to-do list to fix every problem
  • Pulled out the to-dos that require you to delete or completely rewrite scenes.

Now you’re ready to edit.

What comes next?

The first two editing phases are the biggest ones: the structural edit and the scene-by-scene edit. During them, you’re going to fix every single problem on your to-do list. Here’s what you can look forward to:

  1. First, we’re going to do the structural edit, which will include the big changes: deleting, rewriting, and other things that result in 100% new, never-seen-before text.
  2. Then we’ll see if we have any “floating” problems left–problems that we know we need to resolve, we just don’t know where. If they weren’t fixed in the structural edit, we’ll decide what specific chapter they should happen in.
  3. Then, using our to-do list, we’ll go through every scene in the story and fix all the issues we found.

Next week, we’re finally going to get to the first big lift: the structural editing phase. See you then!