by Lynda Davies
Wow! You've finished the manuscript.
You're excited and exhausted. You've let the manuscript rest and not looked at it for a while, but now you know
you have to take the next step. How do you that on your own?
That is exactly the position I found myself in recently. I was so excited that I had managed to finish the first
draft of the novel that will form part of my PhD; but it was excitement tempered by sheer exhaustion. I had to hand
over the manuscript to my supervisor for feedback - so I couldn't look at it for some time. (I did write another
novel in the interim, but that's a story for another time.) I was surprised when the feedback came because he
didn't give me the detailed, chapter-by-chapter commentary I was expecting. Instead he told me to go look at a
particular book on structure to see how I could apply its lessons to my first draft. There was more to the
conversation, of course, but that really was the 'take-home message'.
In the next few articles, I'm going to talk about the editing framework I've subsequently developed through
sheer self-defence, and what I've learned about applying knowledge from various sources in order to self-edit a
75,000 word young-adult fiction manuscript. Then we'll back-track a bit and explore what to do when starting the
next novel - i.e., how to work smarter by setting up the story's infrastructure using the techniques we've learned
from our editing experience. And we'll also look at creating meaning in both fiction and non-fiction by using
language simply and elegantly.
The self-editing framework: a three-phase process
(Note: This article describes the editing framework itself. Looking at how to apply it will occur in
After that meeting with my supervisor I dutifully borrowed the book on story structure by Robert McKee (the
reference details are at the end of the article), and other sources of professional advice on editing.
There are a plethora of ways to edit a manuscript, and a huge variety of things to concentrate on. What struck
me, amongst all the helpful hints, was the sage advice to edit one thing at a time. A colleague had demonstrated at
a recent seminar the intensely different perspectives one could find nested within interview transcript data by
applying one question at a time to the data from each interview and recording the results. She then read the
interviews again with a different question framing the analysis, and so on and so on. She reviewed her data-set 25
times and extracted a huge range of responses in this way - responses that were not apparent by just looking at the
data-set as a whole once or twice.
So what was the lesson in that for me? I went through and made a list of the 'things' writers are supposed to
pay attention to when editing our manuscripts. Patterns emerged from those lists and I found three main functions
could be identified and they subsequently formed the basis of my editing framework: structure; style and technique;
and grammar, spelling and proofing. Within each of those functions I categorised a number of sub-sets and
remembered the seminar - if I could code the functions visually, and analyse the manuscript through only one
'frame' or function at a time, I would be able to more clearly 'see' what was happening on the page.
This part of the framework heavily draws upon the work of Robert McKee (see reference below). He builds his
story arcs through a three act structure, and breaks those acts into their component scenes. He claims one of the
most important things is that the story should always progress. It should never stand still. Hence, he requires
writers to identify the positive or negative 'values' at the beginning and end of each scene (in my case chapters),
and recommends that they turn from one to the other. Otherwise there is the danger that a scene will just 'mark
time' rather than move the story forward.
Focussing on the issue of story progression, I have selected the key elements of a scene that McKee suggests
writers need to address and developed prompts for which a response is needed.
Analysing the structure of each scene illuminates its purpose. From the
answers to the prompts above, it will become clear to you what job that scene is supposed to perform; why it
is there; what it is showing the reader; and why it is located where it is in the Act or story overall. These
questions are hard ones to answer and they sometimes require the application of tough-love to the draft. If
the scene is not progressing the story in some way, can you justify keeping it in its current form? Remember,
the purpose for doing this is to tighten up the manuscript. You won't believe the insight that emerges from
the answers to these questions, nor the power you find to 'fix' wallowing scenes.
(Note: We'll talk a lot more in detail about this part of the framework in my second column when we explore
the difference between structure and outline, and the functions of Acts, inciting incidents, turning points; text;
sub-text; and values.)
Style and technique
This part of the framework draws directly upon many Tipsheets from Marg McAlister and the Writing for Success
Club. (The actual Tipsheet numbers are listed below in the references if you wish to find the originals in the
Club's archives.) I found this part of the Framework the most fun to use. The key to succeeding here is
colour-coding. Remember the visual clues: when you start colouring the different elements of your text, you'll
immediately see what kind of balance/imbalance you have created, and what you need to do to fix it. By the way,
feel free to choose your own colour scheme.
Applying this part of the framework takes a while, but it is definitely
worth doing. (Remember, one colour, one function at a time). You'll be amazed at what the colour-coding
Grammar, spelling and proofing
This section is fairly self-explanatory. Remember do not rely too heavily
on automated systems and functions such as spell-checkers and in-built grammar checkers.
Here's a lovely, thought provoking quote relevant to our discussion that I'd like to share with you.
Story is about principles, not rules;
Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas;
Story is about archetypes, not stereotypes;
Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts;
Story is about realities, not mysteries of writing;
Story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace;
Story is about respect for the audience, not disdain; and
Story is about originality, not duplication.
Robert McKee (Introduction)
Until next time,
Kilian, Crawford Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vancouver: Canada, 2000.
McAlister, Marg Tipsheet # 76; 77; 78; 80; 81; and 94
Writing for Success Tipsheets
Last accessed at www.writing4success.com
McKee, Robert Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of
screenwriting. New York: Regan Books, 1997
© Lynda Davies