A Newbie’s Guide to Big Picture Edits

In January, I released a guide for self-editing your novel. When it comes to editing, it’s not just one mountain to climb, but several––and some smaller foothills, maybe even some off-course deep-sea exploration, just for good measure. What I’m getting at is… self-editing is a journey.

To ease you on this journey, I highly recommend splitting your editing strategy into two major pieces: the big picture (aka developmental edits) and the little picture (aka style/line edits)

This article examines the process that feels a lot like climbing a particularly high mountain, or perhaps even performing surgery… sorry, my metaphors are all over the place today.  

Big picture edits examine the very fiber of the story. It explores what’s working and what isn’t at a structural level. This stage can be the most deterring and intimidating part of the editing process. But do this part first! Your story and your sanity will thank you, even if your pride gets a bit bristled by hacking your story to pieces.

Evaluate your theme

The theme is what the story is about, what it’s really about. Whether it is a heart wrenching tale of redemption, a squabble with greed and its ramifications, or the healing from a broken heart and learning to love again… the theme is the little soul of your story that speaks to the reader.

You might not know exactly what your theme is when writing the first draft of the story, but when editing, it’s a good idea to understand what you are trying to say by telling this story. When the theme is clearly identified, it is easier to bolster the premise, plot, and characters to support the mechanics of this theme.

Nail down your plot

Novels are often described as either character driven or plot driven. While plot or character might drive the action of the narrative, a successful novel will have both a good plot and good characters, so take the time to pay attention to both.

Write a story outline of what happens scene by scene:

  • You may already have an outline of your story, but writing out a new one after you have completed the first draft helps to keep track of the plot’s progression––which might have shifted during the drafting stage.
  • Identify which scenes might not contribute to the overall plot or might create inconsistencies. (Spoiler alert: you will most likely be cutting or rewriting these scenes).

With a wide-angled view of your manuscript, you get to not only look at the specific scenes but at the characters and the setting.

If there’s a scene that’s not feeling particularly strong ask yourself:

  • Are the characters involved necessary?
  • Are the characters involved fleshed out and engaging to the reader?
  • Is the setting rich and inviting?
  • Could it be set somewhere else?
  • Could the information be conveyed in a different scenario?

Trust your gut, and make notes to either fix or cut out what isn’t working, and keep in mind that everything in the novel should serve a purpose, or ideally more than one.

Create characters with dimension

Dimension and development are obviously most important for the protagonist, as they are who you want your reader to care about most. But don’t scrimp when it comes to the villain, the love interest, the secondary characters:

Track your characters’ development:

There should be a trajectory from your characters’ starting point and their end point. These points should be different with a traceable path on how they got from one to the other.

Try this: Take either an existing plot outline or create a new one to track the characters’ arcs throughout the story. And do this with any character that has a major arc. By plotting out those developmental beats, you will:

  • Gain a better understanding of the goals and emotions your characters in each scene.
  • Have a good record of their progress to ensure that character motivations and actions are consistent.

The story you are writing belongs to the protagonist and so not all characters will have an elaborate arc and character journey. That doesn’t mean that characters should feel like they were only placed into the story to carry along the plot and either help/hurt the protagonist.

“Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story”

John Barth

Ensure that every character feels fleshed out an authentic. The greater their role in the story the more developed they should feel.

Ask yourself:

  • Does this character have a clear voice?
  • Are there unique attributes provided to this character to allow them to stand out in the reader’s mind?
  • Does the character have depth to their personality?
  • Do they have a personal history and background?
  • Do they have goals and motivations?
  • Are these motivations consistent?

Examine the pacing of your story

Pacing is much easier to examine after you reached the end of your first draft. Examine the areas where lots of action happens and when those area are punctuated by moments of pause and reflection, the goal is generally to try and strike a balance.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the narrative feel too rushed or too slow?
  • Are there moments of pause where the readers get to take a breath?
  • Does it follow Scene-Sequel structure?
  • Are there any large chunks of narrative summary that aren’t broken up with action?

Kill your darlings

Even when the writing is good (even beloved), if a scene, chapter, concept, or even character isn’t working for your story kill your darling: cut it and move on.

If you are unsure if you have a darling on your hands, eliminate it and see how the story changes. If you hardly notice or there isn’t a gaping plot hole…then you most likely have a darling, darlin’.

Editing is a time to show no mercy. Don’t let a piece of pointless pretty prose set you back.

Consult beta reader feedback

If you spent the time and energy to send your manuscript to beta readers, don’t do yourself or your readers a disservice by not utilizing their feedback. Collect all of the criticism and take note of the actionable changes you wish to make and be conscience of the high-level criticism.

For example, if three beta readers found your ending lacking, then that’s a pretty good indicator to brain storm new endings or new ways to pad the earlier scenes to make your planned ending more satisfying. 

In case you’re thinking: what if I want to edit before I send to beta readers? And to that I say… please do. Editing can be time consuming, but it rarely ever hurts your story. I know that my first drafts are a mess, and can use a polishing pass. What I will recommend is that you send your manuscript out to beta readers before you get caught up in line edits (i.e. the little picture).

If you found this post useful, let me know in the comments below. Message me with any content you would like to see in the future! Don’t forget to subscribe to the Newbie to Novelist Newsletter.

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