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The Basics of Plot Editing

When most people find out that I'm a professional editor, they immediately assume that I'm an expert on comma usage and really good at scrabble. Turns out, I'm only so-so at scrabble, but luckily I've yet to work on a book where I had to make a word out of a specific set of letters. (I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t one of the famous translators of Harry Potter who were trying to make "I am Tom Riddle" an anagram for Lord Voldemort in other languages.)

Book editing isn't just about fixing the grammar and punctuation. That's all easy to fix later on. No, what an editor is looking for right off the bat is the story. A good book needs to have a clear plot, interesting characters, powerful emotions, and plenty of other things that have nothing to do with the Chicago Manual of Style.

So I'm officially, as an editor, giving you permission to have typos. Spell like crap, have run on sentences, and don't worry about dangling modifiers. That all can be dealt with later.

Further than giving you permission to have mistakes, I'm actually going to beg you to ignore them in your early edits. There's no reason to look up the rules for semi-colons when you might end up deleting that whole sentence or even the whole chapter. In fact, the more time you spend trying to polish up the little details, the harder it will be to make those deletions when the time comes. So don't do that to yourself.

When you read through your first draft, worry only about the plot.

This is probably going to be tricky. It’s much easier to tackle a single page of text and worry about the words you can see than it is to consider your entire manuscript at the same time. But if you are going to turn your first draft into a submission-ready manuscript, you need to start with the big picture.

The big picture can be a lot more nebulous than grammatical editing. Where spelling has Merriam Webster and commas have The Chicago Manual of Style, there is no official book of rules for a strong plot. There are certainly theories. The Hero’s Journey, the Three Act Structure, Save the Cat, and many other plot structures exist to define and organize the elements of a good story. But it can be hard to use those strict formulas. Adhering to them too consciously can end up feeling cookie-cutter, and applying them to your existing story can end up feeling like slapping name tags on random paragraphs.

When you read books that you didn’t write, you probably can tell pretty easily which ones have satisfying plotlines and which ones don’t. It’s something that you feel without having to think about it consciously. But that doesn’t always work when reading your own writing. Some authors are their own worst critics and others have a really hard time spotting their mistakes.

So what can you look for to make sure your book has the basics of plot to build a compelling story on?

Rather than trying to perfect your whole manuscript all at once, the best way to start editing the big picture is to focus on just three elements: the main character, the climax, and the goal. Those three things are the foundation for everything else that happens in the book. If you need to decide which chapter should start off your book, you need to know why people will relate to the main character. If you need to make your antagonist more interesting, you need to know what they want to accomplish during the climax and why. Anything you do in your book springs from the combination of these three elements.

So first you have to identify them. You probably know who your main character is. That one is a pretty conscious decision for most writers. If you have multiple major characters and you don't know which one to focus on, you can go check out my post about main characters for more pointers about what a single focal character can bring to your story or my post about picking a main character to go over the role they play in the plot.

Second, I would identify your climax, even though that's not the one that comes chronologically first in your draft. But it's usually pretty easy to spot, even if your book didn't end up where you planned. Just start at the end and scroll to the first (technically last) bit of conflict. What "conflict" means for your book will depend on your genre, but it should be the last big and important thing that happens in your book.

Lastly, you will want to identify the goal that your main character accomplishes during the climax. You’re going to need to have that goal and how the character accomplishes it firmly decided as you edit the rest of your manuscript.

Once you have identified these three elements of your book, you have the cornerstones of your plot. From there plot editing is mostly making sure that they all connect together. Losing focus on those three plot points accounts for most meandering beginnings, sagging middles, and unsatisfactory endings. Keeping them in mind each time you read through your manuscript will help you tighten up your book, choose which scenes to keep, and create a strong, well-paced plotline.

Happy editing!

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