Levels of Editing

*This is coming in late because of the holiday weekend honoring MLK.

Last week, I went over the importance of editing your writing. This week, I want to focus on the different types and stages of writing.

When I talk to other writers about editing their work, a lot of them don’t know where to start or how best to do it. That’s what this guide is for, I’m going to outline from the big picture stuff down to the nitty gritty. It’s much easier to edit in that fashion instead of starting with the small stuff.

With this guide, you’ll be able to go through the editing stages of developmental, content, line, copy, and proofreading on your own work or someone else’s.

Developmental Editing

The big picture editing that takes into account the overall structure, story, and content of the book including characters, dialogue, subplots, and the like is called developmental editing. This is the first stage of edits that a manuscript goes through because it addresses the elements of craft and story working together to create your tell.

It’s best to start here because you don’t want to spend time copy editing pages that you end up changing entirely when you release some plot hole or other error.

Once you’ve finished your draft and taken sometime away, go back and read through your draft. Don’t focus on making edits now just read through and make notes or comments on the draft about things that stick out to you.

While reading think about how the characters are interacting, how they come across to the reader, and if their motivations are clear. Do all the scenes build off of and develop each other to the conclusion? If it’s a book, are the chapters structured in a way that enhances the reader experience? Is the POV character the right one? Ask questions of your draft to make sure it’s airtight.

When you find places that don’t add up or work out, mark them and move on. With the notes you have, determine whether or not you need to do a rewrite or just clear some things up. A lot of times, this is the stage where writers spend time deepening and developing their characters.

Mainly because the characters are the driving fuel behind a lot of fiction, so if they aren’t well-developed then the story itself won’t make any sense. Address your comments upon your second read, making changes as you go.

This new updated draft will be your second draft. Before moving on to the next stage, read through it again to make sure it flows the way you want it to and in the correct order. If everything is falling in its place, move on to the next stage.

Questions to ask during a developmental edit

  1. What is the plot of my story?
  2. Are all of my characters serving the overall progression of plot?
  3. Does the story begin and end in logical places and ways?
  4. Are there too many or too few characters in the story?
  5. Which characters change throughout the story and how?
  6. Does my main character change? If not, why?
  7. What is the overall emotional journey I want the reader to have while reading? Is each scene or beat serving that function?
  8. Are there any sections that I can take out without hurting or taking away from the story?
  9. Does the story and scenes take place in settings that enrich and develop the story?
  10. Are there moments throughout the story where I fall into info-dumping and stop the momentum of the story?

Content Editing

After the bigger developmental editing stage, move into the closer eye stage where you’re assessing the just the content and not the structure and content.

So your characters and setting and plots are all working right, but what about the smaller stuff within like the themes and symbols? Are your words and sentences all paying service to the atmosphere and tone you want to set with your story? Think in those terms.

In nonfiction, this is where you do your fact checking. You can also do that in fiction when it comes to making sure certain special items or moments happen correctly. A lot of fiction writers skip this step, but it’s an important one when it comes to doing scene work and framing in any genre.

For example, let’s say in one of your scenes there’s an argument happening where someone throws a vase across a bedroom. That’s the framing of the scene that you need to keep in synch so that later in the scene or even story you’re not bringing up the vase that was previously broken.

Trim down more of the prose here. What words or moments really don’t need to be there? What ways can you sharpen or tighten up the prose to make it more immediate? Even though you trimmed in the developmental stage, trim more here. Guaranteed there’s still a bunch left that can be cut.

Questions to ask during a content edit

  1. What reoccurring images, themes, or statements are happening throughout my story? Can I heighten them or do they detract from the plot?
  2. Is the language and tone consistent throughout the story?
  3. Are there lines and sentences that I can trim to make the story flow smoother and more direct?
  4. Any use of passive voice or language?
  5. Do my characters sound unique to themselves or are they all monotone?
  6. Are all the scenes happening in the right settings?
  7. Are my scenes all complete or are there some that are left open or too small?
  8. Have I kept track of all important items and characters?
  9. Is my story all tell or do I describe the world and incidents in a way that moves the story forward?
  10. What moments do I find myself growing bored with the text?

Line Editing

Line edits can be done with content edits, but I prefer to keep them separate because each is so intensive. Unlike the two types of edits preceding this one, line edits are focused less on the overall story. At this point, that should be hammered down. If it is not, don’t move into the line editing or copy editing stage.

Trust me; it’ll save you a lot of time.

Once your story is down and to your liking, it’s time for the nitty gritty editing that takes your story from good to great. Why? Because the final three rounds of edits is less about the gears of your story (characters, setting, plot, literary devices, etc.) and more about the bolts that are holding it all together.

The sentences and words.

The first stop on the close edits is line editing which is exactly what it sounds like. Line editing is when the writer or editor addresses each line separately and judges, edits, and refines it to help the overall story. I know in the previous edits, there was already a lot of trimming, so this stage helps catch the final words or sentences that aren’t serving the stories purpose. It also helps with keeping the tone consistent throughout.

When doing a line edit, don’t focus on the story itself but on how the sentences and lines build the story. Is everything clear and consistent? Do you have repetitive lines that should be rewritten? This is the stage where you address all of those issues.

Questions to AsK each sentence During A Line Edit

  1. Is this clear and concise?
  2. Does it build off of the last sentence and lead to the next?
  3. Is it consistent with the tone and atmosphere that I want to set with this story?
  4. Are there any dull or non-descriptive words?
  5. Am I showing the reader or telling the reader?

Questions to Ask During s Line Edit

  1. Are all my sentences and paragraphs of varying lengths?
  2. Do my sentences and paragraphs flow well or are they choppy and hard to follow?
  3. How accessible is my language?
  4. Is everything formatted according to the preferred style guide or manuscript format?
  5. Are there any sentences or paragraphs that take up too much space?

Copy Editing

Copy editing comes at the very end before the final stage. At this point, your story should be where you want it be with everything working in proper order. If it isn’t or you’re waiting on more feedback, wait on starting this stage.

The main reason I keep saying to wait until the story is in it’s final stage to do a copy edit is because copy editing focuses on the grammar and syntax making sure it’s all correct. This has nothing to do with your story whatsoever. It’s all about adhering to whatever language or system you are writing in so that your readers can understand your work.

If you’re not well versed in grammar and syntax, get some workbooks and begin building your skills. Being able to command the language you are writing in will make you a better writer. It’ll also allow you to break more rules and be more daring with your text. You can also hire a copy editor if you feel like you won’t be able to learn the necessary skills in time.

Unlike line edits, copy edits require you to read and examine the whole text for grammatical and syntax errors. Line edits are more about trimming and pounding your prose into shape.

Questions to Ask During a Copy Edit

  1. Is there a style manual that I can refer to?
  2. What are my known grammatical weaknesses?
  3. Is this a close to finished draft?
  4. Do I know the grammar and syntax rules that I need to edit the document?
  5. Are there commas splices that make incomplete or run-on sentences?
  6. Is my dialogue punctuated so that characters are vocalizing things and not acting things?
    1. “I hate you,” she says. (vocalizing-correct punctuation)
    2. “I hate you,” she stomps her foot. (acting-incorrect punctuation)
      1. “I hate you.” She stops her foot. (correct punctuation)
  7. How many exclamation points am I using throughout the story?
  8. Are my sentences complete ones with all their functioning parts?
  9. Have I read my piece aloud to make sure I catch any wrongfully placed words or other errors?
  10. Are there any words use spellings I’m unsure of?

Proofreading

The end is nigh.

Proofreading is the final stage in your edits. You’ll, of course, have been reading and proofing this whole time while editing, but this final stage is all about the reading. You’re reading to make sure everything is just right. Make sure you’ve caught all your errors and fixed any major plot issues. Make comments or notes on the draft if you find stuff that you want to fix or examine further.

When going through and reading during this stage, make sure you read the draft out loud at least once. This will allow you to hear how the story sounds and if there are any flow issues that need to be addressed.

Every writer that I work with skips this stage. They complete a round of the other edits and think they are done. More often than not, they end up finding errors in their draft they never caught. Even though you’ve read through your draft several times there is still a huge chance that there are still errors in it.

Read your draft over out loud to make sure you’ve caught everything. If you can’t bare doing it, then hire or ask someone else to read it out loud for you.

Questions to ask during a proofread

  1. Are there moments that read clunky or choppy?
  2. Have I missed any repetitive words that make the text sound redundant?
  3. Is the story consistently moving forward?
  4. Do my characters’ dialogue flow naturally?
  5. Is this story longer than it needs to be?
  6. How does the story make me feel reading it out loud?
  7. Does the tone and atmosphere resonate throughout?
  8. How is the pacing of the story?
  9. Where does the story seem to lag or steer away from the main plot?
  10. What things stood out to me that didn’t while doing my other edits?

Final Words

None of these stages are meant to do back to back. Each should be down with time and space taken away from the draft. Depending on how long the project is, I will often take at least a day between edits and sometimes up to a month.

Don’t rush through these edits or your story because it will show on the page. No one will want to continue reading an unedited and unfocused story that the author also doesn’t really understand. In my articles, I always talk about examining yourself as a writer and your stories. Editing is a form of examination. A form that will set you apart from the other writers out there who aren’t editing.

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