By: Desiree Villena
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” ―
When you’ve been grinding through a project for ages, intent on getting every last detail down, it’s easy to lose sight of “the big picture.” Ensuring your story arc is complete and compelling is obviously more important than selecting precisely the right syntax for a single sentence — but you’d be surprised how many writers focus only on that kind of minutiae when they go back to edit their work!
Of course, there’s a very understandable explanation for this disparity: small changes are much easier to make, and small mistakes easier to fix than big ones. That’s why embarking on a full developmental edit of one’s book is perhaps the bravest choice an author can make, even if it’s also incredibly challenging.
To help you navigate the process, here are five ways to sharpen your big-picture revision skills, including what to do immediately post-draft and which specific story elements to prioritize. Click To Tweet
Also note that, while these tips assume you’ll be revising a novel, they apply to most other forms of writing as well. Now, let’s get started on your path to true editing greatness.
1. Step away from your work
Ever heard the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees”? This is another term for neglecting the big picture because you’re so focused on minor details, and it stems from being way too close to your work. Luckily, there’s a simple way to regain your forest-vision: step back from your book for a few weeks — or longer, if you need it.
I say “simple” instead of “easy” because most writers have trouble going cold-turkey after months of hard work. But if you’re determined to perform a big-picture edit, this step is crucial to your objectivity.
What should you do during your time off? I’d suggest reading through other writers’ work — not the literary greats, but relatively amateur writing, which you can find in impressive quantities online! For example, we’ve published hundreds of short stories on Reedsy as part of our weekly short story contest. You can also check out writing forums where people share their work, or read self-published books on Amazon or your preferred ebook platform.
This “reading period” serves two primary purposes. First, it cleanses your literary palate, so you won’t still be in “trees mode” as you begin to edit. And second, it lets you see firsthand the most common story problems in other people’s writing so that you can address these in your work with a fresh perspective.
2. Study plot structures similar to yours
Here’s another reason to read other writers before proceeding with your edit: you need strong role models for your work, especially when it comes to structuring. However, for this part, you should revert to accomplished authors — ideally, authors who’ve written books in your genre, of a similar word count, and from the same point(s) of view.
You can use these books to evaluate and refine your structure, which should be the first thing you tackle in a big-picture edit. Pay close attention to what this exemplary structure looks like, and ask yourself questions so you can apply the answers in your edit. For instance:
- How many acts should there be?
- How long are the chapters?
- Do these authors use flashbacks, multiple perspectives, or other distinctive structural techniques?
- Is the pacing swift and thrilling, or slow and tantalizing?
Be warned that this is where you’re most likely to discover painful truths about your book, like a missing act or a serious pacing problem. However, it’s still vastly preferable to find structural issues during your edit rather than after hiring a professional editor, who will charge you extra for the overhaul. Or worse, after the book has come out and it’s too late to fix — every author’s nightmare.
Whatever conclusions you come to regarding your structure, don’t rush through the changes you need to make. This is another thing to remember about big-picture editing: finding the problem spots is pointless if you don’t put in the time and effort to fix them properly.
But once you’ve done everything you possibly can in the structure department, you’re ready to move onto the next tip.
3. Consider your characters’ motivations
That structural edit should take care of most plot-related considerations, but what about your characters? An underdeveloped cast is almost as damning as a shaky story structure, so take this opportunity to “round out” any flat characters. If you’re unsure how to do this, one of the best ways is to think about their motivations and how they manifest throughout the story.
Every single character, but especially your protagonist and antagonist, should have complex motivations driving them forward — i.e., they shouldn’t just “want to beat each other.”
- The protagonist needs to be acting for the greater good, to avenge a friend, to prove themselves after a past failure, etc.
- The antagonist may hate the protagonist and wish to defeat them, but there should be other dimensions to it as well; what reasons lie behind the hatred?
Indeed, the best characters never have just one motivation, but a combined and overlapping set.
When in doubt about what makes a good set of motivations, try to momentarily “become your character” and see things through their eyes. If you were this person, what reasons would you have for acting the way you do? Of course, you may have a very different personality than your character, but you should be able to at least imagine acting on their motivations.
Fortunately, most of the changes you come up with here should be much easier to implement than your structural changes. You’ll probably only need to add a couple of scenes, or tweak existing ones, to clarify your characters’ motivations. That said, just because it’s a quick fix, doesn’t mean you can disregard it! An unmotivated character is an unrealistic one, and realistic characters are a huge part of your “big picture.”
4. Keep themes at the forefront of your mind
This is more of an overall editing tip than one related to a specific stage, but it’s still good to remember as you progress: always keep your intended themes in mind. It’s surprisingly easy for themes to become obscured or twisted in the course of a first draft.
So during the revision process, make sure that the content touches on your themes clearly, yet subtly. Your central conflict should consistently reflect these themes, even if it’s not always obvious. For example, from the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, the titular elements clash in all of Elizabeth and Darcy’s interactions, but the reader may not realize this until later.
Then again, you may not even realize what your themes are until you reread your work (another symptom of “forest for the trees” syndrome). This is perfectly fine, as long as you can identify them in retrospect and emphasize them wherever they need a boost! If you can’t find ANY themes, you may be in trouble — but that probably means you’ve skipped tips 1, 2, and 3 on this list, because a nuanced plot driven by complex characters will always be “about” something.
5. Forget about trying to sound “literary”
Remember how I deterred you from obsessing over syntax at the very beginning of this post? Well, this tip is that again, with even more justification: not only does it draw your attention away from more important issues while editing, but 99% of the time, it straight-up worsens your prose.
Seriously, unless your natural style is super highbrow and you feel entirely comfortable writing that way, your attempts to sound literary are just going to come across as contrived, pompous, and awkward. In the immortal words of Edna Mode, it distracts from the now — if you’re trying to enact a big-picture revision, you can’t concern yourself with fancy prose. You need to maintain your focus on what genuinely matters.
And in all likelihood, you knew that even before reading this post, you just needed to have your instincts confirmed. So my final (bonus!) tip to you is: by all means, lean into those instincts.
If you know in your heart that you need to make some big changes, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. Yes, it may take some blood, sweat, and tears, but your book will be so much better for it.
Bio: Desiree Villena
Desiree is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She’s very passionate about helping independent authors reach their dreams, and enjoys reading and writing short stories in her spare time.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
What advice do you have for writers and bloggers? Have you found solutions for getting your ideas from head to post? Do you write captivating poetry or prose? Then consider a guest post to Two Drops of Ink and expand your audience – good for link building, too.