Editing for the Big Picture

I’m sitting here waiting out the difficult stage of editing – which is that of waiting. I’ve worked through a round of revisions and need to not look at the manuscript for a couple of days so that I can give it some (relatively) fresh eyes later. And since I’m not editing, I figure I could drag you all into the distraction of talking about editing.

If there were a hierarchy in the editing process (I’m sure somebody thinks one for sure exists and has called that post “72,000 Editing Musts”), I would rank the items like this:

  1. Anything that means deleting large swaths of words. Shaving scenes away right and left feels much like getting my hair cut and thinned. Very freeing.
  2. Re-working of scenes and sentences that make everything taut, therefore carrying more punch.
  3. Tossing and turning scenes to create a more cohesive plot.
  4. What people actually think of when they hear the word “edit” – fixing grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.

The third one is a bit of what I’ve focused on most recently.

Appropriately, three other posts about editing crossed my path in the past few days. Jennifer Crusie brings up the ever popular “kill your darlings”, but puts it up against another, equally important way to view a manuscript in “What Must Be Kept”. She argues that often when we send our words to our beta readers and critique group that an oft forgotten question to include is what our readers loved. We commence our slashing and burning and find out later that it’s quite possible that we’ve lost something that was not just a darling, but a member of the family.

I bring up Crusie’s post because the question becomes, how do you know which are simply the darlings and which are the family members that Must Be Kept?

Darcy Pattison from Write to Done gives an interesting way to visually do this. She talks of printing your entire manuscript in a small enough font size and other experimentation until it is down to 30 printed pages. (Or so – because honestly, I don’t think that’s even possible for my lengthy novels.) Then you spread everything out and start crossing out all of your strongest chapters. By doing this, you can now see what’s left and start determining how necessary those remaining chapters are. If you are someone who really likes to SEE the big picture, I think this is an interesting method to explore. Take a look at Pattison’s post to get the full process she describes.

When I read Pattison’s post, it reminded me of the usefulness of this Big Picture Editing. A method I have used in the past is one that I can’t quite remember from where I learned it. I want to say it was from a Writers in the Storm blog author, but I’m not entirely sure. It involves mapping out each chapter of the book and identifying the who, what, where, and why of it. For example:

Chapter 1

Who: Julie, Zach, funeral home director

Where: funeral home

What: inciting incident

Why (PURPOSE): introduces protagonist, introduces primary conflict

By mapping each chapter this way, I can easily identify a chapter’s true necessity. Basically, the who/where/what could be summarized into a sentence, but the true key is the purpose. For most fiction, a primary purpose to each chapter should move the plot forward. I think it’s valid to have a major purpose include characterization/development, but this, too, should be used to further plot. When I struggle to show this purpose in my chapter analysis, that’s a big red flag for me to cut, re-work, or move parts to other sections of the story.

Recently, Jami Gold wrote about “Beat Sheets” for Writers in the Storm. She suggests that most major works will have eight “beats” – or turning points. These turning points don’t all have to be as dramatic as the climax, but are indications of how a story will take shape and bring your reader along for the ride. She goes on to say that they should be timed appropriately for effective pacing, that formulaically, they should occur at pretty specific page ranges. By checking your beats against where they occur in your manuscript, you can get a feel for pacing and the darlings that might need to go. I rather like this plan and believe it will come especially in handy for my current WIP.

What I like about all of these Big Picture editing techniques is that they all serve a similar purpose, looking at a story as a forest. It is easy to get mired in micro-editing and worrying over pretty language. Beautiful prose is beautiful, but story trumps all, right?


What kinds of techniques do you use in your Big Picture editing process? Do you use any of the ones mentioned here in your planning/outlining, too?

The track below comes from the album, “Hush”, with Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma. I love this track because the beginning makes me laugh every single time I hear it and gives a fun slant on how “Big Picture” editing is necessary.

5 thoughts on “Editing for the Big Picture

  1. Great post, Janet, for all of us who – ahem- suffer during the editing process. I love the first, creative spurt of writing the first draft, but the endless rounds of editing never fail to exhaust me, Best of luck!!


    1. Thanks! Fortunately, I really love editing. It’s a pretty close second to the actual creation of the original words. 🙂


  2. I’m in the final throes of editing my first novel, Ellie’s Window. The markings from my editor were brutal – it seems I have an obsessive love for commas, semi-colons, and ellipsis. But my favorite thing to do in editing is to read the chapters out loud and ask myself – ‘is this dialogue real, or is it just me playing with words?’ As a reader I know the difference. As an author, I press into the difference. Love and joy, Sandy Snavely. http://www.sandysnavely.net


    1. Dialogue is my favorite – and reading it aloud is definitely a great way to feel that difference. I always tell my students to read their work out loud as part of their editing and proofing process because they can obviously catch so much that way. I like it when I can remind them that even the pros do this!


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