This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.
Today’s task for the editing challenge might sound simple, but it’s stunning to me how many people have lost touch with editing their writing in this way. We’re going to go old-school today and treat our stories the way legendary writers and editors of the past, from Hemingway to Gordon Lish, would have treated them.
It starts with a simple instruction: print it out.
Yes, it’s so simple! But the ease and convenience of word processing software can actually be a hindrance when it comes to the editing process. It’s so easy to move a paragraph here and shuffle a sentence there — so easy to delete a sentence with a click — that we can lose sight of what the original story looked like, and what shape it ought to take. We can skim easily over lackluster sentences and allow them to continue existing.
So today, print out your story. You might want to use a two-up to a page printing system; this allows to take in even more of the story on a single page. But reading glasses for the nearsighted (like me) will be required for this technique.
Now that you’ve printed it out, it’s time to have fun with highlighters. We’re going to get a thorough understanding of the components of your story. So break out at least three or four colors of highlighter and spread the story’s pages on your desk.
In your first pass, highlight all the passages of exposition or backstory.
In your next pass, highlight all the passages of dialogue.
In your next pass, highlight all the passive description.
In your next pass, highlight all the action.
If all went well, you should now have a story that looks like a rainbow, with parts of backstory bumping up against dialogue and description and so on. This is a great way to get a visual sense of what your story is made up of. And very simply on this level, do you see patterns emerging? Do you see now how the first two pages are all backstory before we ever get the first action sequence, or perhaps in the middle is a three-page section of back-and-forth dialogue? Is one component entirely missing? Is the balance of the story heavily weighted toward one kind of writing and not others?
This isn’t an immediate prescription; some stories might be entirely dialogue or entirely exposition and they can make it work. But you’ll never know how to improve your story until you start noticing what is at work in it. Looking at your story in this zoomed-out way can help us see the forest that contains the trees. And being armed with this knowledge will be tremendously helpful as we embark on the real shaping in future days.