The Writing Process: Editing a Draft, Part 2

The editing saga continues.

If you’re interested in Part 1, here it is. This post will make sense as a stand alone, though, so don’t feel obligated.

My next step in editing is something I learned from Liz Hayes, the organizer of my writing group, The Hourlings. This has been one of the most amazing tools I’ve learned as a writer. It seems obvious now, but when she first told me about it, it blew my mind.

The Reverse Outline

This is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of creating an outline and writing your story, you read your story and write the outline. Why? When I write, I deviate from my outline and I don’t always correct it. I also make changes during the editing process that aren’t reflected in my outline. When I reverse outline, I have an accurate, updated outline of my story that allows me to quickly get an overview of the major plot points.

In order to create a reverse outline, simply read through each chapter and jot down the key points.

You can use the reverse outline at any point in the editing process. Sometimes, it’s the first step for me. This time, I did a triage read through first because I knew there were some big messes to clean up before I got to this step. In Part 1, I describe a color coding system for my chapters (yellow = minor issues, orange = needs work, red = major problems). My goal is to have all (or most) chapters to yellow before I start my reverse outline. This means that I’ve dealt with big issues and written in any missing scenes. There will still be various color highlights throughout (yellow = phrasing, green = consistency question/issue), but the reverse outline will help with those, as I’ll detail below.

Objective #1: Story structure

The biggest thing I get out of the reverse outline is a chance to make sure that my story still has the proper structure. If you’re a pantser and you didn’t outline with structure in mind, this can show you if you’ve succeeded in writing a story with a beginning, middle, and end. If you’re a plotter and you map your story onto a structural skeleton before you outline, it helps you double check that you didn’t lose your structure in the outlining/writing process. I use K.M. Weiland’s version of the three act structure, but others use the hero’s journey or something else as a template. Whatever you use, the reverse outline helps you check your work.

Objective #2: Cut or condense scenes

Sometimes I come across an unnecessary scene in my reverse outline. After I’ve pulled out the main points, I realize that it serves no purpose. Other times, there’s only a small part that’s vital to the story, and that can be transplanted to another scene. As sad as it can be to cut whole chapters, if the scene isn’t progressing the story, it’s time to cull it. I find that reverse outlining makes it extremely apparent when a scene or chapter is unnecessary, because when I go to write down the important details, there aren’t any.

Objective #3: Timeline check

You can do this on any read through, but I like to do it earlier in my editing process, rather than later, because timeline errors can cause cascading issues throughout the book. This is a great opportunity to note the timeline by adding what are basically timestamps, like Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, or morning, noon, evening, etc. However you organize time in your story, adding that to the reverse outline is another way of checking for continuity errors in your timeline.

Objective #4: Consistency errors

Any read through will help you pick up on these, but I find it’s help to have a list of any consistency errors I’m looking for when I begin. This makes it easy to check the parts that I already have questions about.
Because I make the reverse outline during a read through, anything else I normally do during that process I can add in. If I notice weird phrasing or other problems, I still highlight them. My focus, however, is still on the big picture. I don’t like to get into the small stuff until later in the editing process.

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