As I'm editing my novel, I'm going through different passes, each one focused on one or two aspects of the novel. And I'm fleshing out the heart of the story before I worry about the details. Why focus on the word choice of a scene before I have the plot figured out? For all I know, I might have to cut the scene that I just spent a half hour nitpicking word usage over. So, when editing, consider focusing on the most important elements of the story before worrying about things like stylistic punctuation. Edit from the inside out because--
1- It saves on time. You're less likely to invest a large chunk of time into a scene that will eventually be cut or changed.
2- It makes it easier to cut what doesn't belong in your story. When you've invested loads of time into a plot turn or character, you won't rush to chop them out of your manuscript. It's like a long-term relationship. It's harder to say goodbye. If you edit from the inside out, on the other hand, you can do plenty of painless yanking.
Creating An Editing Plan
First, look at your manuscript, and decide what is most important to your story (or, what needs the most work): plot, theme, character, or setting. Those are the big four.
In fact, each one can be a different type of story. Orson Scott Card calls it the MICE Quotient:
MICE Mini Lesson
"MILIEU: A milieu story concerns the world surrounding the characters you create." --this is a story focused on the setting. It draws readers by transporting them to another world or time period. Lord of the Rings and some of Kate Chopin's short stories are Milieu stories. So are a lot of epic fantasy and historical fiction.
"IDEA: An idea story concerns the information you intend the reader to uncover or learn as they read your story."--this is the story that centers on theme. To Kill a Mockingbird and Shirley Jackon's "The Lottery" are Idea stories. Also, a lot of literary stories are.
"CHARACTER: A character story concerns the nature of at least one of the characters in your story. Specifically, what this character does and why they do it." --this story can focus on character development or simply follow a character's life. Twilight and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid are character stories. I think a lot of romances and comedies fit here.
"EVENT: An event story concerns what happens and why it happens."--this is the plot-driven story. Harry Potter and James Dashner's The Maze Runner are Event stories. Most thrillers, suspense stories, and mysteries are.
(To learn more about MICE, listen to episode 6.10 of Writing Excuses here, or buy Orson Scott Card's book Characters and Viewpoint)
You might find that all of these elements are important to your story--great! But try to figure out what its base is and start there. It might help to ask yourself, out of these four elements, what is most likely the biggest draw for my readers?
If starting there doesn't work for you, then look and decide which element needs the most work. Are your characters cardboard cutouts? Start there. Is you plot suffering from serious inconsistency? Start there.
For me, I decided my story is a plot-driven one; although I feel like the characters are the most important element, the plot has more influence on the story. Second, I'm going to look at theme, because that will actually help me figure out my characters--it will tell me what roles they need to fulfill and help me discover some interesting traits I can add to their personalities.
At the starting of the editing process, you may want to sit down and make a game plan, writing out what you are going to focus on for each draft, and then perhaps, breaking it down further for each one. Here is what my plan currently looks like. Each number is a draft.
1- Plot (continuity, fill plot holes, look for opportunities to ramp up emotion, tension, conflict, originality--opportunities to basically push the story further, take it to the next level, rearrange sequence of events and scenes as needed)
2- Theme (so characters can fit those roles)
3- Characterization (consistency, realistic, complexity, character arcs)
4- Setting basics (not details. Time of the year, weather etc. effect the plot and everything, and can be symbolic. Flesh out the place.)
After the big four, you can look and decide the medium sized to small sized elements that need attention. I've been trying to learn how to get better at dialogue, voice, and action scenes, so those will get their own passes.
5- Dialogue and Voice
6- Nail action scenes
7- Details and style (Hooks, humor beats, beautify the prose, create stunning similes and metaphors and astounding images. Take advantage of setting and appeal to all the senses throughout. Eliminating "favorite" or overused words.)
You might want to tailor these elements to fit your weaknesses. For example, on seven, I said "humor beats." I want to make sure I have some short, funny moments or lines, but with this story, they aren't exactly rushing out onto the page, so I want to look at ways to add a touch more here and there.
It's only a Plan
If you decide to go this route, it's okay to fix more than one element in any given draft. For example, I shift between viewpoint characters in my story, but I haven't figured out every shift yet, so I'm going to experiment with viewpoint through each draft. I also might dabble with character in almost every draft as well, but I have a pass set aside that focuses on character. This game plan is just to help your focus.
Remember, it's just a plan, a guideline. It should be working for you. You shouldn't be working for it. So if you deviate, don't stress out.
As a writer, you have to discover what methods work best for you.
However, that doesn't always mean doing what feels good. I feel good working on beautiful descriptions and details, but those are time consuming and can be a waste of energy if I don't know where the story is going. I feel like I'm nailing my story, when in fact the most important parts--the parts you can't actually see--are a mess. So, I'm learning this process of focusing on the plot first and letting my prose sound ugly for now.
What are your thoughts? What works best for you when you're editing?