Be mindful of your work’s impact, implications, strengths, and weaknesses — at the micro and macro levels — to be a more powerful and versatile writer.
Completing a solid draft of your writing project is a big accomplishment — but it’s not the end of the road. To get your work where it needs to be for publication, posting, or sharing, I’ve found that much more than a perfunctory proofread is needed. Instead, a multi-layered book edit can help take your work from simply okay to potentially magnificent.
Start with words and sentences
Whether I’m working on a short article or my current novel-in-progress, I first review my drafts on a sentence-by-sentence basis. In and of itself, does each sentence communicate what I want it to, and is each sentence clear? Are there extraneous words that can be snipped or smoother sentence structures that can be put in place? Overall, is the sentence engaging or confusing, artful, or cumbersome?
This granular approach also means looking carefully at word choice in the context of each sentence. Are individual words thoughtfully chosen or are better words available? Am I using a word because I can’t think of anything better or because it’s actually the word my writing needs?
In your own review, check that each sentence works on its own and that the feelings and associations tied to every word support the sentence’s overall power and purpose. As you edit, remember that not every sentence has to be a poetic masterpiece — far from it — but do make sure that each is functional, clear, and communicative.
Think in terms of paragraphs
After things are solid on a word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence basis, I zoom out and look at paragraphs or other larger sections. Does each medium-sized chunk of text have the right impact and convey the meaning I need it to? Does the flow between sentences work or does something need to be smoothed out? At the end of each paragraph, do readers end up where I need them to be?
When looking at paragraphs in your writing, revise to the point where each section presents a thought or intention in a cohesive and effective way. If you feel any cognitive dissonance while going through your paragraph, if sentence-to-sentence momentum just isn’t there, or if parts of your paragraph are more opaque or convoluted than you like, rework things until the text flows smoothly.
Revise with chapters in mind
Once I’m confident that my words, sentences, and paragraphs all function well, it’s time to look in terms of chapters. A chapter or other larger section works in a very different way than individual sentences or paragraphs. A chapter has to tell a story unto itself, from beginning to end, and your sentences and paragraphs have to contribute to that process. When looking at my writing through a chapter-specific lens, sometimes I discover that two paragraphs communicate the same information or sentiment and the chapter would be better served if I combined them. Other times, I’ll discover two sentences that use similar words or constructions, making it essential to reshape one of them.
As you review your own chapters, don’t just focus on the mechanics of your writing — consider the rhythm and emotional impact as well. If you’re penning a thriller and want your reader to start the chapter with a sense of fragile comfort and end feeling expansive horror, rework things until you feel that progression when you read it yourself. Similarly, if you want your chapter to communicate the rollicking energy of a youthful and fast-moving road trip, reimagine your words, sentences, and paragraphs until you feel the propulsion you want readers to experience.
Read as an entire work
Once your words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters all feel like they’re pointing in the same direction, it’s time to review your writing from top to bottom and see if things work in that context, too.
At this stage, look for matters of internal consistency. Was your character born in 1979 in one chapter, but 1983 in another? Do your character’s reactions to adversity feel real and believable across your entire narrative? Do the characters, events, and overall story evolve as you want them to from beginning to end? Does every chapter truly feel like it’s part of the same book?
If you hit points in your text that give you pause, it may be unclear where the appropriate fix lies. I’ve encountered rough spots where changing a single word smooths everything out; other times, rearranging or rewriting multiple chapters is needed. Make sure to experiment, save multiple drafts, and keep your mind open to whatever direction makes your entire work feel the most complete and true to your vision.
A final note
Following the above strategy, layer by layer, may seem like a lot of work. It can be. And to be honest, I don’t strictly follow this strategy for every piece I write. I do go through these steps with meticulous care, though, on writing projects that give me the most trouble and ones that particularly inspire me. But however it manifests, I can absolutely say that the idea of multi-layer editing has made my writing — all of my writing — stronger.
As you figure out how to evaluate and edit the different levels of your own work, keep in mind that the specifics of your strategy are not the key point here. Rather, being mindful of your work’s impact, implications, strengths, and weaknesses — at the microscopic, medium-range, and macroscopic levels — will make you a more powerful and versatile writer, no matter what the context or subject.