The 3 Levels of Editing

EditingWriting is not just about stringing words together to express a coherent thought; at that level one might say it’s primary school basics.  The deeper I delve into the written world of words, the more I recognize the shades of colour, light and moods, and the fact that when I am telling a story, I am really painting a picture.  But to get to that depth, besides the fundamental skills of telling a good story, every writer needs to be familiar with what I consider to be three basic levels of editing; there’s a wide palette for discussion, and the order below is not chronological but often simultaneous phases of editing.  Here are a few points to keep in mind:

1:  The Matrix Level

I call this the “Matrix Level” because it really is the foundation – without it, don’t even think about giving up your day job.  This level includes things like spelling, vocabulary (choosing the best word or phrase in a given situation) and punctuation.  At this level you might also include things like formatting (being consistent in usage of fonts; spacing; size and heading styles; margins; indentations; double-or single-spacing after a full stop; capitalizations; abbreviations [e.g. Mr. or Mr {that choice depends on whether or not you’re using American Standard English, or British Standard English}]; and consistent use of italics, bolds and underlines).

2:  The 3-C Level

This is what I call the 3-C level because it’s just that:  Coherency, Consistency, Conciseness.  This is the level you work on things like clear expression; showing, not telling (re-writing those scenes that tell into a scene that shows the action or the purpose of that scene); assessing what your demographic target is (teenagers, women, men, children, intellectual readers, pulp-fiction readers, genre-specific groups, etc.) and writing with them in mind as you make choices of expression and complexity.

This level includes things like pacing/timing/rhythm of the overall script; logical connections, organic changes, filling in the “holes” in the plot, the building of action or tension (again, in an organic way to the story—don’t just slap in a sex scene or a car chase because you need to pick up the pace in a dragging scene!), and keeping an eye out for things like vocabulary repetition (if it’s there, it needs to be organic, e.g. perhaps a character likes to use a phrase as a “trademark”) or filler words (actually, really, etc.).

3:  The “Cutting Room Floor” Level

This is the level where tough decisions come in; here you need to ask yourself some basic questions:  Does scene XYZ support the plot in more than one way?  [Plot, by the way, applies whether you’re writing a novel, a business case plan, or a newspaper article.]  If not, can I glean the core sentiment or information that needs to be conveyed and splice it in somewhere else?  Does the purpose / goal come through or remain clear in this scene?  If not, how can I change it, trim it, or chop it?  Are paragraphs unified (i.e. one main goal / thought each)?  This process is very similar to film editing, and you can learn a lot from that process by listening to good film commentaries (the best I’ve come across are films with commentaries by Steven Spielberg – he’s a natural teacher in that respect!).

In the current novel I’m writing, a fantasy-history spanning from first century AD Scotland and Norway to modern-day Scotland, an earlier draft had too many characters; there are still enough to warrant a Cast of Characters section at the end (due to the complex structure that will be woven together in the next draft), but the general rule is to not tax the reader with more than four characters in any given scene.  So even though each character was well-developed and interesting, I had to let some heads roll.

The way I write works for me:  If I’ve written a scene that somehow doesn’t sit right with the tone/mood but I know it conveys something necessary to the construct as a whole, I will paste that scene to the end of the document and title it “Scene to Salvage: —” with a brief description.  Later I can go back to the core of that scene and salvage it, or decide that it no longer fits and delete it—it’s nonetheless served the purpose of helping me solidify the plot by hashing out certain elements.  I may really like one key sentence or idea, so I’ll cut it out and drop it in where it works well organically to the story.  I might also add that each of these levels is vital in this story as each section (Pictish; an otherworldly kingdom; Norse settlements; and modern archaeology) has its own colour palette:  Stone, rain and sea; mist, sky and whispers; leather, smoke and wood; and technology, pubs and peat mire.  Each sections’ dialogue and prose need to reflect those palettes, and that’s the secret of showing, not telling!

The more structured you work, and the more confident you become with each level, the better and faster the writing process will become.  I hope this inspires you, and spurs you on to greater writing!

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