Just Edit

by Lynda Davies


So what do you do with an existing manuscript? How do we apply the Self-Editing Framework to analyse our manuscript?

This column article is going to be a little different to its lead-up articles that outlined and discussed the Self-Editing Framework. I'll be sharing with you the things I learned as I applied the Framework to my manuscript and as such this article should be seen as a companion-piece to those earlier ones.

(Note: For the sake of simplicity throughout the article, please assume that I recognise different forms of writing might not use a chapter as its functioning scene, or that a chapter might encompass more than one scene. Short stories and young readers - that are not broken into chapters yet - are forms, for example, that operationalise the dramatic functions of scenes in smaller, more concise forms than the ones I will talk about. But rather than saying this over and over, with your indulgence, I'll use the term chapter.)


In my last column, I briefly defined the function of structure as follows:  to apply more and more pressure on the characters, forcing them into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures (McKee, pp105-6).

Through structure we can therefore show what our characters really want from the situation facing them. Things get really interesting if our characters think they know what they want when the story starts, but as the events unfold they learn more about themselves and what they truly want. It is in the characters' moments of self-discovery, I believe, that the story's dynamic resides. (Note: July's Tipsheet # 160 touches on this)

Work on two levels: whole-of-story and chapter-by-chapter

I use both my accurate, up-to-date chapter outline and the draft manuscript. If the chapter outline is up-to-date, accurate and contains enough detail for you to make judgements about the content of the chapter, use it in the first phase of your structural review. If not, read the chapters and update the outline as you read because it is very easy to have made on-the-run deviations from your original outline/plan and end up with an outline that does not reflect your draft.

In this phase I look at the whole-of-story to identify and refine the story arc. I want, therefore, to identify the following elements of the narrative across its entire length:

  • Inciting Incident (i.e., the event that starts the story)
  • Turning Points (i.e., chapter-by-chapter, sequence-by-sequence, building towards the Acts)
  • Act Climaxes (i.e., where something big changes for the characters)
  • Story Climax (i.e., when events have irreversibly changed the characters' lives)

(Note: see "A Word or Two: Structure vs. Outline", my previous column for working definitions of these elements)

Then I look to see how all of these elements fit together. What can this analysis show us? In the case of my PhD novel, it showed me that my first Act took fifteen chapters. Good grief! Why did it take fifteen chapters to set up the first really big change facing my lead character? Setting up was the problem. I had the inciting incident in chapter one; most chapters had their own turning points; but the first really big challenge and change didn't happen for a very long time. I had put all (and I mean all) my little ducks in line before launching my character into the time-travel sequence of events that would eventually lead to the resolution of the story.

What I had inadvertently created was a two-act structure to my novel instead of the more intuitive three-Act structure. When this became clear I remembered a comment from a colleague about another piece of writing we were reviewing - "I kept waiting for the 'big thing' to happen and just when I thought we were about to get there, the author found more preparation for the character and so I had to wait yet again." The solution for my manuscript was to move that "big change" forward and send the character off before he was ready, and before his companion was ready to trust him. This created a beautiful conflict-driven scenario that continues across a number of subsequent chapters. Previously happy-chappie characters now have to learn about each other and reveal secrets. This element of tension was not there before and it has, I believe, strengthened the story immeasurably.

Doing this, though, meant that I had to cut three chapters, move another and re-formulate a couple more. Deciding what could be kept from them and re-worked into the remaining chapters was somewhat disorienting, but worth it. Finding solutions for weak spots is not always easy, and my method for keeping track of possible and probable approaches was to re-format my chapter outline so that it became a re-structure and outline document with the headings indicated below.

just editMost importantly the footer contains a date reference so I know I am working from the most up-to-date version.

Chapter by Chapter

Undertaking this phase can be quite confronting if it's done honestly. The purpose of this analysis is to justify what is important about the chapter and why it can be kept in its current form. We're searching for similar narrative elements to those identified at the whole-of-story level, but on a more fine-grained scale. In practical terms, we're looking for what is driving the characters; what problems the characters have to solve; how we have built suspense and tension into the chapter; its pacing and function. Read your chapter and answer the prompts in the "Editing Framework Chapter Structure" template. Looking through my "Structure" notes I see such comments as "build this"; "fix this" "turn such-and-such".  When it comes time to work through the chapter during the style and technique phase of the Framework, this analysis will direct your decisions on what needs changing and strengthening.

I remember a feeling of intense relief when I finally worked out what was lacking in one of my chapters. I liked the chapter, my supervisors liked the chapter, but something about it kept nagging at me. It wasn't until I had to answer the final prompts on the template that I worked out what my subconscious was trying to tell me: Why was it there? What was its function? When that fell in to place I knew what needed to be done to fix the chapter!

Style and technique

This brings me to the next phase of the Self-Editing Framework. I work on individual chapters at this point with both the outline document and the structure template in front of me. This helps me to keep the "function" of the chapter as my top priority while I have fun digging into the stylistic arrangements of my text. Remember to use the Style and Technique template and go over the text (with the appropriate highlighter) one task at a time. Colour-coding really does work, and it is amazing how many repetitions and awkward phrasings you will reveal.

This is not a quick process, but it is satisfying and useful. The final result is most impressive, too. By the end you will have a multi-coloured, much written-over chapter that shows an edit conducted methodically with close attention to detail. (You won't miss much, either.) After I've typed up the amendments, I keep the hard-copy coloured version with its structural template in an "original manuscript" file for reference should I question any of my decisions down the track.

Don't lose sight of those structural notes and instructions to self, though. They are most important.

Spelling, Grammar and Proof-reading.

Using this part of the Framework is not hard, but it will tidy things up. As you're working through chapter after chapter you'll know you're getting very close to the end of this round of editing.

It is very easy to skim the pages and just concentrate on spelling mistakes and punctuation, but remember how you feel when you read, for the first time, a beautifully expressed sentence. I savour those moments and read the sentence over and over, tasting it like a fine wine, or cheese, or bright red, luscious strawberry.

Take a final look at each sentence and ask yourself: are you getting to the point as directly and cleanly as possible? If not, don't be tempted by the "that'll do" syndrome. Pare away the words that veil your meaning.

Type up all your changes, print out the manuscript again, and put it away one more time. When it comes out of the folder (or drawer, or box) surprise yourself: "Did I write that? That's good!"

To finish up for this week, Margret Geraghty has this to say about editing:

Is it all worth it? Of course it is. Remember, the next person to read your work is an agent or publisher. When that manuscript arrives, it's got to impress. At the very least, it must look as if you know what you're doing.
(p 227)

Until next time,


Geraghty, Margret. The Novelists' Guide: Powerful techniques for creating character, dialogue and plot. London: Piatkus, 1995.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. New York: Regan Books, 1997.

© Lynda Davies


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