Rarely does a writer create the perfect first draft. Usually several drafts are needed to get close to what the writer envisioned upon committing the story’s first word to paper or computer memory. Many writers find revising and self-editing difficult, however, largely because they’re unclear of what exactly needs to be changed to improve their story.
Following a basic pattern or checklist when revising can help guide a writer to craft the best work possible. This allows the writer to stay focused and resolve the most important problems with their manuscript before they address the lesser issues, if only for efficiency’s sake. When editing other people’s works as well as my own, I follow a simple rule: Focus on the story first…then add style…next proofread…and finally, format.
Let’s explore each of the components in that rule.
Focus on the story first
If you don’t have an interesting, well-constructed story to tell, typo-free, grammatically correct writing won’t make a difference. So begin by looking at:
• Character – Does the main character have a problem to solve, and more importantly, must that character make a difficult choice to resolve that problem?
• Plot – As the main character attempts to solve the problem, are there obstacles and setbacks, thrusts and counterthrusts, on the way to the story’s climax? Does the story become increasingly suspenseful?
• Point of view – Is the story told from the perspective that allows for the most suspense, and does the story stick to that one point of view?
…Then add style
Once the story is straightened out, think about improving the wording itself to maximize suspense, character development, and reader interest. Specifically consider:
• Diction – Are the right words selected, is the writing crisp, and do the sentences flow in a way that keeps the reader engrossed?
• Narrative drive – Does the writing show rather than tell and is information held back so that dramatic tension is maintained?
• Color – Are descriptive details concrete by appealing five senses and do you make use of imagery?
There’s no need to proofread early draft to perfection as whole paragraphs and scenes will be rewritten. Doing so is like patching a tire, putting it back on, then taking it off to rotate it; it’s extra work and inefficient. Once you do proofread, look at the following:
• Spelling – Check all words you have the slightest doubt about and ensure that spellings are consistent, especially the characters’ names.
• Punctuation – Know the punctuation rules and apply them consistently.
• Capitalization – Learn the difference between proper and common nouns.
• Grammar – Dialogue doesn’t need to be grammatically correct, but the bulk of the narration should be with fragments used for effect rather than as a style.
Formatting the manuscript before squaring away the story and cleaning up the text is like building a barn around the horse rather than building the barn and then putting the horse in it. Follow this order of operations when formatting, and as self-editing, recheck each point for consistency:
• Main text – Select the typeface, font size, spacing and alignment for the bulk of the text first.
• Headings – Next adjust the chapter headings and subheadings.
• Front and back matter – Then add the half-title page, title page, dedication, acknowledgements, table of contents (but not the page numbers), appendixes, index (again, not the page numbers), and author’s bio.
• Page numbers – Now that every iota of text is in the book, add the folios (page numbers and book title that typically appear at the top of each page)
• Table of contents/index – Lastly, add the page numbers to the table of contents and index if there is one.
Of course, most writers look at all of the elements listed here during each reading and revision. I’ll be the first admit that following these steps too strictly can be detrimental. After all, sometimes a powerful descriptive image pops into the head as reading a scene for plotting; you don’t want lose that image by not adding it to the manuscript simply because you’re not on that “step.” In addition, if you have a passage that definitely is going to remain, there’s probably no harm in proofreading it as thinking about how the next section might be rewritten. Still, as revising, ensure the focus of each draft follows the general pattern outlined above.