How to edit your story

How do you edit a short story or novel? Here are instructions that will save you a lot of time and keep you on track.

For very short pieces, less than a thousand words, reading the whole story over and over again for editing usually works fine—it’s short enough that this isn’t a waste of time.  For longer works, however, re-reading the entire piece over and over is inefficient, so you may find the following approach helpful for editing your first draft.

As you do each of these steps, keep notes!  You will need them later.  One great way to keep notes is to use spreadsheets that keep track of your scenes,  characters, and character relationships.  You may also have your outline as bullet points in a regular text document, or even as a character map, plot structure diagram, or other illustration.  Using an outline can help you keep your notes organized as you go through this process, which is called “re-outlining”.

Examine the characters

Character problems should be examined first.   Stories hinge on good characters, and the plot may need to change significantly if you make changes to characters.

  • Are your main characters rich and complex, like real people, or are the superficial stereotypes?  Do they have layers?
  • What makes them complex?  Do your characters change through the story?  If not, why?  What makes them change?  Is the change believable?  (People do not often make huge changes to themselves).
  • Are you characters likable in some way?  Can the reader identify with at least one of them, even if they’re not likeable?
  • Who is your protagonist and/or main character?  Are they believable?  Do they seem to exist once the story is over?  Do they follow you around in your head?  Are their actions and words consistent with their personalities and backgrounds?
  • Who is your antagonist and/or foil to the protagonist?  Are they believable?  Do they have real motivations and reasons for opposing the protagonist, or are they just superficially “evil” for no reason?  Is the villain complex, or redeemable in some way, or otherwise well-rounded?  If not, why?
  • What about your minor characters?  Are they believable and memorable?  Are they interesting in their own right, without overshadowing the main characters?  Do they make sense given their place in the story?  If they aren’t developed, and are simple, flat characters or archetypes, are they cliches?  Can they be improved?
  • Do you have a character sheet?  Have you filled out all of your major and minor characters as thoroughly as you need to for the story?

Once you have figured out the characters, set your notes aside (and save the editing for Step 6), or if you want, drop into the story and make the changes you need to make now.  Resist the urge to do a full edit front to back!  Only edit what needs to be edited.

Examine the conflict

Once you have your characters fleshed out, you need to look at the conflict between them and any other forces in the story.

  • Does the overall story have a strong conflict that is resolved by the end?  Does the protagonist have to struggle and suffer to overcome the conflict?  Or does the protagonist succumb to the conflict and fail?  Why?
  • Do the character’s goals and motivations make sense in light of the conflict?
  • Do the main characters have internal conflicts, where they must face their own demons?  (Perfect ‘superman’ characters tend to be less believable and relatable.)
  • Do characters have multi-faceted conflicts, such as conflicts between characters, or with the environment?  If not, are there ways to build rich, multi-layered conflicts into your story? Do these conflicts all get resolved at the end? If not, why?

Here again, set your conflict notes aside, or step into the conflicts and make the fixes now.

Examine the scenes

The scenes are the meat of your story, where things happen.  You should have a list of scenes, ideally in a spreadsheet for easy organization.

  • Does each scene have:
    • goal (with meaningful stakes for the character(s))
    • A conflict (where the characters attempt the goal but meet resistance)
    • result of the conflict (where usually the character fails, or has a hollow victory, resulting in more challenges and conflict)?
    • A reaction (to the result of the conflict)
    • dilemma (what to do now?)
    • decision (which leads to the new goal for the next scene with these characters)?
  • If your scenes don’t have most of these basic elements (they may not necessarily be written, but implied instead), why don’t they?  Could the scenes be improved by including these elements?
  • Do the scenes make sense in the order that they are presented?  Is there a better order?  If the story is being told out of chronological order, why, and how is it improving the reader’s experience by doing so?
  • If you have multiple point-of-view characters, and are not using an omniscient point-of-view, is the right person narrating each scene? (Usually, it should be the character with the most to gain or lose in that scene.)
  • What is your most memorable scene?  What is the least memorable?  Why?  How can the weakest scenes be improved?
  • Are there weak scenes that aren’t important to the story and should be cut?  If so, cut them and keep them in a separate document, or figure out how to improve them (usually by making sure they have all the components listed above).

Here again, set your scene notes aside, or step into the scenes and make the fixes now.

Examine the motivations

Characters need to have strong, believable motivations.  If they don’t, readers will struggle to identify with them.

  • Now that you’ve gone through the scenes and characters, were there any actions the characters took in the scenes that didn’t make sense?
  • What are the biggest, most important actions in the story?  Do they make sense?  Do the characters have the right motivation that those actions are believable?
  • What are the least predictable actions?  What are the most predictable actions?  Are these actions in-character?
  • Look at your list of scenes.  For the conflicts and the decisions, do these make sense given your characters?
  • Would you believe this story and these characters if someone told it to you over lunch?  Or would you find yourself scoffing?  Are there actions that happen just because it’s convenient to the story, or because the author needs them to happen for the story to move forward (or for the story to make sense)?  If so, why?

Here again, set your motivations notes aside, or step into the motivations and make the fixes now.

Examine the first and last page

The first page is important because it should hook the reader and draw them in, making them want to know more and read on.

  • Do the first few sentences raise a question that the reader wants to know the answer to (even if it’s a small one)?  Does the first page build out that question?
  • By the end of the first page, do you know roughly who the main character is, what the setting is, and what the character’s current goal probably is?  If not, why?
  • If you had picked up a book at a bookstore, and this was the first page, would you buy the book (or sit down and keep reading)?
  • Does the first page start at the beginning of the story?  Or does it start too early, such as in a prologue, or an info-dump exposition (common)?  Does it start too late, skipping important scenes and leaving the reader confused (rare)?

The last page is important because the ending should leave the reader feeling satisfied—if it doesn’t, they’re not going to recommend your story.  “Satisfied” is not necessarily a happy ending, or a perfect wrap-up ending—it depends on what kind of story you are writing.

  • For the last page, have all the plot threads been tied off?  Or are there unanswered questions?  If there are unanswered questions, how important is it if they are left unanswered (you don’t have to answer everything)?
    • If you’re unsure, try deleting sentences, starting with the last and working backwards, until you find the earliest possible place the story could end and still make sense.  This will give you an idea of your options for endings.
  • Is the last paragraph, and last sentence meaningful and moving like the first sentence?
  • Is there strong framing between the first and last page (or first and last chapter) where there are some similarities that help bookend the story?  If not, why?
  • If you wrote an epilogue, why?  If you didn’t, why not?  (Epilogues are helpful for setting up sequels, or jumping forward in time to show what happens to characters, but it needs to be something worth reading about.)

In addition to your first and last pages, you may want to read the first and last paragraphs of each chapter or each scene. The first paragraph of each scene should hook your reader for that scene, the same way as the first paragraph of your book hooks them. The last paragraph of each scene should set up a reason for them to keep reading. It doesn’t have to be a cheesy cliffhanger (“he opened the door and—”) but it should be something that raises a question the reader will want answered. Make some notes on which chapters or scenes have beginnings and endings that work, and which ones still need work.

Now that you’ve looked at everything, you should be ready to make your tweaks to the first and last pages.  Don’t do too much, and resist the urge to continue editing past these pages.  You will re-edit the full story later.

Make the changes

You likely made a lot of notes while you were writing your first draft.  You likely have a basic outline of the scenes and a character sheet as well.  You also may have notes from steps 1–5 above that you haven’t put into the story yet.

Read over your notes, and make an necessary tweaks to either the story, or the notes, given what you’ve discovered and edited so far in the above steps.  This will help you solidify your characters, plot, and story structure before you embark on a full reading of your story.

Step 6 is the shortest to describe, but depending on how much editing you have to do, it may be a lot of work, weeks or months of it even.  Hang in there!  The world needs your novel!

Line editing

Here’s where you finally read your manuscript instead of dropping in and changing things. Your goal here, assuming you are confident that you have addressed and resolved any issues in the previous steps, is to read your story like an editor, with a cold, logical, critical eye. This step is often called “line editing” because you are editing it at the sentence level, as opposed to the structural level like in steps 1–6 above.

  • Be prepared to keep notes.  If you have a list of scenes, make notes on each scene, or use a comment tool in your word processor to comment on pieces of text.
  • Be on the lookout for plot holes, or things that don’t pass a critical thinking test.  Watch out for actions with no motivation behind them, and things that happen conveniently for the story but aren’t otherwise believable.  Watch out for oddities or errors introduced by the editing process, such as characters discussing events that haven’t happened yet.
  • Look for any place you can tighten up the writing:
    • Fix grammar and punctuation problems as you find them
    • Remove filler words and rewrite awkward phrasing.  Be on the lookout for all the common writing mistakes that pop into first drafts.
    • Be aware of telling versus showing.  Are you telling when you should be showing?  Are you using adverbs and adjectives to tell, when you could show?  Are you using specifically descriptive words or more general and vague ones?  Be specific!  It’s not just a tree, it’s an aspen.  It’s not a beautiful day, it’s sunny and cloudless.  It’s not an uncomfortable situation, it’s a grotesque mockery of justice — and so forth!
    • Clean up repetition.  Your reader is smart, and only needs to be told something once.
    • Cut down flowery description and “purple prose” to the essentials.  Don’t use a long, complex word unless it is exactly what you need (and what you mean) and no simpler word will do.
    • Remove exposition (info-dumps) and sprinkle the information into the story instead.  Resist the urge to explain!
    • Watch out for POV shifts and filter words that keep you from being deep in the POV of the character (assuming you are writing deep POV) or keep you from remaining distant (if you are writing omniscient).
  • Evaluate the pacing.  Are you getting bored reading your own story?  Then your reader will be bored too.  Look for any way to tighten the screws on your characters and keep the plot moving forward.  Move events forward in time, make things harder, ask “what’s a list of terrible things that could happen here?”
  • Watch out for lengthy conversations that don’t go anywhere.  Could these conversations happen at a different time, during action?  Or do they need to happen at all?  Are these conversations just exposition (info-dumps) in disguise?
  • Watch out for when you, the author, are talking through your characters.  Make the dialogue believable and relevant to the story.  Resist the urge to stand on a soap box.
  • Resist the urge to explain!  Readers like mystery (even if you’re not writing a mystery) and you can keep them in suspense by doling out information bit by bit.  At the beginning, the reader should know nothing, and at the end, they should know (nearly) everything.

Once you’re done…

Go back to step one and do it again.  With each pass, you’ll improve the story, and have less work to do (the first pass is usually the hardest) and eventually you’ll get to a point when you don’t know what else to do.  At this point, you’re ready to get feedback on your story from others.