February 8, 2011

revising a manuscript – macro-editing

When you physically can’t stay away from your manuscript any longer, take that bad boy out of the drawer, dig it out from behind all those crazy folder names, and put it front and center. Usually, our immediate reaction to seeing the manuscript again is to dive straight into looking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. We start out small and work toward the bigger stuff. Like I said last week, we need to work the other way around. We need to start big and then work our way toward the teensy little line-edits.

So, what is macro-editing? We have to look at the big picture of the novel. Not sentence by sentence, scene by scene, or even chapter by chapter. We have to look at the book as a whole, feel out the plot, conflict, characters, motivations, and themes. We have to make big decisions about the book. Is it the story we intended to write? Does the conclusion make sense? Do the characters meet their original goal? What themes are present? Can we define each character's arc? What sort of structure does the plot follow?

Once we answer all those questions, we have to address the problems we've found. No first draft is perfect. We may realize that slavery is an important theme in the second half of the novel, and we work out a way to weave it into the first half. We may realize that one of our characters is nothing more than a cardboard cutout, and we either have to flesh them out or get rid of them entirely. It's entirely possible that a good chunk, say four or five chapters, of the novel goes absolutely nowhere and has no real impact on the plot as a whole. It's possible that those four or five chapters are our absolute favorite, but if they don't add to the story as a whole, then why are they there? Then we face two options: rework those chapters or move them out of the novel to use somewhere down the road.

The best way to organize macro-editing is by outlining the novel as a whole. If you're a panster like me, the thought of outlining puts you in a cold sweat and makes you all jittery. It's okay. I completely understand. However, a novel needs structure. It needs consistency. To ensure the novel has both of these, we have to outline.

If you are a plotter, does your finished draft match the original outline? If it does, examine that outline. If it doesn't, write a new outline of what actually happens in the draft and compare.

With your outline, write a sentence or two that summarizes the plot of each chapter. Write an additional sentence that summarizes the character's emotional change within each chapter. Analyze the outline. Ask those questions again.

Hopefully, we've spent enough time away from the manuscript to analyze the story like we need to do. This analysis really needs an objective eye to work properly. Formulate a new outline, one that fixes the problems with the original.

Now, this is where macro-editing becomes difficult. Take that new outline and stow it away in the back of your mind. Take your finished manuscript and stow it away again. Open a new notebook, or a new word document, and start writing. Rewrite your novel from beginning to end, and if you can do it without looking at your old manuscript, all the better.

You've lived and breathed the novel for the past however long. The story is still in your mind, even if you aren't looking directly at it. 

If you are a pantser, then just write the story over as if you hadn't written it yet. You don't have to follow the outline if you don't want to, and the story doesn't have to resemble the original at all. 

If you are a plotter, then keep only the new outline in view. Do the rewrite as if you were writing a brand new novel, using whatever methods you used the first time (I wouldn't know. I'm not much of a plotter).

Do this, and I can guarantee that ninety-percent of the time, the novel will come out better. Finish the draft, and if you must, repeat the step again. 

I understand that this is a ton of work, but writing is work. It takes time and effort to write a decent novel, and it takes even more back-breaking labor to revise it.

The next article will deal with the next stage of revisions. 

Happy rewriting!


  1. I always read your posts and am shamed that I don't do more writing these days! lol. Okay, maybe not shamed, but perhaps...REMINDED...that I need to up my ante. Thanks for keeping your posts so organized and to the point. It helps a lot!

  2. Although essay writing is quite different than fiction writing, some of the same techniques apply to both. These three questions, usually applied to essay writing, should help focus the storyteller on macro-editing issues in prose fiction:

    1) What was I trying to say with this story?

    2) What have I left out that should have been included to support what I was trying to say?

    3) What is so disconnected from what I am trying to say that I can cut it out without hindering the story?

  3. i find myself doing a lot of this in works of poetry.