Written by JJ Barnes
Editing is a really important part of your writing, and it’s something that all writers have to learn to do well if they want to be successful. However, it also has a bit of a bad rep. Editing hell. Hopefully I’ll be able to both teach you how to edit your book or script well, and also how to enjoy the process.
Turning Your First Draft into Something Beautiful
When I talk about editing, I’m not talking about using your spell check. I’m talking about how to take a first draft and turn it into something that reads like it was carefully designed and composed from the beginning, with all the loose ends tied up, and the climax built to like a strategic plan.
The editing process is how to make your book or script feel completely satisfying and enjoyable for your audience, rather than just a story they’re experiencing and then moving on from without a second thought. It’s how to take a perfectly fine story and make it excellent.
Don’t Be Scared of Making Mistakes
The first thing to remember is you cannot edit a blank page. If you’re so worried about making your story brilliant that you never even start it, you will never accomplish even an adequate story. Instead of being too scared to start, embrace the fact that first drafts can be messy and make no sense, and that getting to the end of it is all you need to do.
The editing process is where you can take that messy first draft and make it something to be proud of, and nobody has to see that first draft except you. The purpose of the first draft is to just get the story out.
How To Edit First Drafts
The first draft is a lot of discovery because unless you plot every moment in advance, which I don’t, you’ll learn a lot about your story as you go. And that can leave loose ends that need tidying up.
When you first start writing, you might not be certain of where your story is going so it can be meandering. You might know the beginning and end but not be sure of how your characters are getting there. During the writing of your story, you might add or remove characters depending on what it turns out you need. Editing is how you smooth it all out, and make it seem like you always knew what you were doing.
When you edit, you take that first draft and weave in the clever details that make your story work so well. Editing is where you can add your narrative triplets, set up and pay off, clever foreshadowing. All these details that are nearly impossible to write them from the start, but nobody needs to know they weren’t. That’s the magic.
My Editing Process
I’ll use an example from the book I’m working on. I’m writing a book about a character named Ivy Rhodes. She’s a woman who has gone through a marital breakdown and has to go on a path of self-discovery to learn who she is and what she wants in life independently.
I felt like the story was fine but when I got to the end I felt like I needed something after the climax to show her settled in her new life. I wanted something symbolic as an end note to finally tie a bow on the story so it didn’t just fade out without any meaning.
To do this I utilised a narrative triplet. I created a matchstick house for her, something she had made in her childhood and that her ex-husband never liked, but that she was very proud of. I went back into the earlier parts of the story to weave it in and build to the end of the book more neatly.
In her marriage, she’d kept it the matchstick house in a cupboard out of sight, in the middle of the book she was able to have it out but didn’t feel it had a place to live. At the end of the book, as a final acknowledgement of the journey she has been on, the matchstick house has a place to live, on display.
It works as a demonstration of how she has come to accept who she is, and be proud of who she is, and is in a situation where who she is celebrated not ignored. It’s a simple detail, but representative of Ivy’s journey in a way that feels composed from the beginning, even though it wasn’t. Being able to go back and edit that detail in improved the story, and the connection to Ivy as a person.
How To Edit Your Protagonist’s Story Arc
When you get to the end of your story, you will be able to look at your story with a richer understanding of your protagonist and their journey.
Think of something to layer into the earlier stages of the story to show their journey, much like Ivy’s matchstick house, then you go back into your story. Mention it in one context in the first act, again in the second act in a slight development from the first, and then in the third act, at the end of your story, you subvert that so it’s now demonstrating their state at the end, in a narrative triplet.
Learning who your character is, and getting to know them well, is the key to doing this. The matchstick house is showing an open wound in the first mention, it’s poking it in the second, and it’s healing it in the third.
How To Edit in Foreshadowing
To make the climax of your story more satisfying, again you need to go back into the earlier part of your story and edit in the foreshadowing for it. Expert level foreshadowing, that really elevates the quality of your story, requires that anything at the end of the story appears earlier in the story.
When your character uses a weapon or tool in a fight, mention that weapon or tool in a different context in the beginning of the story. If they use a piece of information, show them learning it for a different reason. If they have to go to a certain place, have them visit that place earlier. Anything that is plot relevant at the end of the story needs to be plot relevant for a different reason at the beginning.
Any appearances in the earlier part of your story need to work in and of themselves as part of the plot, rather than standing out as having been crowbarred in, and therefore a light is shone on it.
Subtlety is better, and more satisfying for those who have noticed it and remembered it.
If you get to the end of your story, you can create the illusion of foreshadowing by plucking details from the beginning and using them at the end. A magic spell, a weapon, a hobby or skill. Anything can be utilised at the end that you mentioned simply as world building or character development in the beginning. It creates the same effect as weaving a later detail in earlier, you’re just doing it in reverse.
How To Edit Your Continuity
After you’ve taken the time to stitch in the clever writing techniques, it’s time to focus on continuity. Read your story, read it again. Note any significant events and make sure they’re always relevant, track your characters emotional states, check how things are described and make sure it’s consistent.
If the last time you wrote a character they were in the clutches of despair or heartache, you need to carry that into their next scene. Even if they’ve moved on and are not still in the same pain, acknowledge that they were previously, or it’ll look like a forgotten detail. If you’ve described one place as a certain distance from another, make sure that’s represented in travel time descriptions.
It’s very easy to forget tiny details when you’re carrying and constructing an entire world in your head, but your audience will not forget. If you don’t bother to check your continuity and keep it neat, you’ll boot them out of the story and lose their attention. You need to make sure your audience feels like they’re in the stable hands of a storyteller who knows their work inside out. Learning how to edit in continuity will solve the problem of a messy first draft.
When you’ve got your book to the best version of it you can, it’s time to send it for proofreading. Find a proof-reader you trust, someone who notices the tiny details, someone who appreciates the effort that goes into the foreshadowing and narrative triplets so that when it hasn’t quite worked, they can explain why.
Find someone who is honest, not your mum or your partner who might feel they need to flatter you. Find a professional. I use Steph Warren of “Bookshine and Readbows” and can highly recommend her services.
Ultimately, you need to remember that taking the time to edit your book is as important as taking the time to write it in the first place. When you start to appreciate the joy of breathing life and craft into the bones of a story, you will start to enjoy the process of editing.
It’s exciting to find ways to weave the beginning into the end, plucking insignificant moments from the beginning of the story and making them important at the end, and crafting narrative triplets that make every important moment feel special.
Your story will be elevated because you’ve put in the time, and you, as a writer, will be giving your craft the time and love it deserves.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose