by Lynda Davies
So what do you do with an existing manuscript? How do we apply the Self-Editing Framework to analyse our
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,
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
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
- Act Climaxes (i.e., where something big changes for the characters)
- Story Climax (i.e., when events have irreversibly changed the characters'
(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
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.
Most 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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