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My Favorite Editing Exercises

Editing is a pretty broad topic to tackle, so I’m going to focus on exercises for three common types of editing we all face: 1) Plot Editing, 2) Character Editing and 3) Line Editing.

Plot Editing
  • Goal, Conflict, Stakes Exercise
    Write these three words at the top of each chapter in your WIP. Then, go through and actually identify them—write your answers down at the top of each chapter. This will help you see where the goal is undefined, where the conflict could be better, and where the stakes could be higher.

  • Plot Matrix
    Many writers use a variation of a plot matrix—including JK Rowling. She uses the matrix to plan her novels, but since I’m more of a panster myself, I’ve utilized this approach as a double-check to identify plot holes during editing.

    Write the chapter numbers along the far left side of a notebook page and the major POVs or subplots across the top. Then, summarize the key events for each character or subplot by chapter. It’s really helpful in fixing timing issues, and since it’s visual you can more easily see how all aspects of the story fit together…or not.
Character Editing
  • Story Bible
    Take a blank piece of notebook paper for each character (or creature, or location). Write down the details of that character, from physical descriptions to fears, loves, allergies, backstory, etc. The list should morph along the way as you add to it. 

    This story bible is extremely valuable in maintaining character consistency, especially over a series. Most of us remember the key components of our character, but sometimes let the small details slip.

  • Assign a Beta to Each Character
    This is a fun way to get friends involved. Assign each friend one of your characters. Then, ask them to pay special attention to that particular character as they read. Since your friends feel strong ownership over “their” character, they’ll become experts at spotting any holes or inconsistencies in the character’s storyline.

  • Screenwriting/Dialogue
    Role-play a scene to make sure the plot makes sense and that the characters act and sound consistent. It’s amazing how many silly errors you’ll find simply by speaking your dialogue out loud and by acting out a scene.

Line Editing
  • The Basic
    Be ruthless in avoiding words like ‘was’ and ‘had’ if possible. To further polish your novel, try reading sections of it backwards. That takes plot out of the equation for this exercise and helps you focus only on fixing grammar and language mistakes.

    Looking for more trouble words to slay from your manuscript? Check out this great list from Janice Hardy.

  • Cutting Down Your Word Count
1)      Find a fast-paced book. I’ve used Rick Riordan, Suzanne Collins and Karen Marie Moning in the past. Read it in one sitting. Now, go edit.

This puts me in a speedy frame of mind, and I’m much more willing to cut or rewrite my own sluggish scenes because I’m fresh from an example of seeing it done well.

2)      Pick any (approximately) 100-word paragraph in your book. Rewrite it using only 75. Now 50. Now 25.

Complete the exercise, even if you know the 25 word sentence is never something you would use. It will help you identify the key points you’re trying to communicate and highlight areas where you can afford to cut. After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll start to apply that same attitude to your novel as a whole.