Learning How to Edit: Re-Outlining - Travis Senzaki

Learning How to Edit: Re-Outlining

frustrated writer editing re-outlining

Re-outlining has been the one bright spot in the otherwise tortuous process of learning to edit.

Earlier this week, I quoted Stephen King with a twist: “To write is human, to edit is divine – because it’s as much fun as getting martyred.”

I have been bogged down in the edits of my first short story, mostly because I’m learning how to edit as I go. So far, one of the best techniques I’ve found is re-outlining.

Re-Outlining – Whether You Plot or Pants

I’m definitely a plotter not a pantser. I love writing my outline. In fact, that’s been my favorite part so far, and it goes steadily downhill from there. Writing is OK, editing, well, remember what I said about being martyred?

But whether you like outlining in advance or not, re-outlining is a powerful editing tool.

I got the idea from a passing comment in one of Joanna Penn’s podcast episodes and so far, it has helped me reign in a few wandering scenes and restore focus. Joanna suggested re-outlining a whole novel to capture where it actually went in the first draft and to base your story edits of that. I’ve been using a similar process for scenes, to make sure they stay focused and hit the beats I need.

Re-Outlining is not like outlining, for you pantsers out there. You’re not forcing yourself into a straightjacket. By outlining after the fact, you’re getting a condensed version of where your story really went, so that you can tighten the focus during the editing process.

The Consequences of Writing in Short Bursts

Fight Club, the novel, supposedly reads like it’s constantly being interrupted because Chuck Palahniuk was working in a gas station when he wrote it and he was constantly being interrupted by customers.

I have no idea if that’s true or not, but my writing habits are unfortunately similar. I write in the mornings, before the kids get up. Then I go to work and try to survive my day. By the time I get back to my keyboard, I have only the faintest memory of where I was the day before. I cannot finish a scene in a single sitting, so at the end of the first draft, they sounded very disjointed.

Add to that a handful of surprises that came up in the draft. No matter how much I outline, characters and situations still surprise me. Sometimes it’s a good surprise. Other times the surprises need to move or go. That’s why I’m editing.

I need to wrangle this train-wreck of a story back onto a single track.

Re-Outlining Scenes

I had beats that I wanted each scene to hit before I started my draft, but I didn’t really know how they would do it. I just started writing.

When I went back and re-outlined, I found that I had hit most of them, but done it clumsily. Re-outlining helped me list the important parts of the scene – what my characters were experiencing in their journeys – so that I can focus on that in the the edit. That helped me decide what to keep, what to cut, and where to add focus.

The Purpose of Editing

One of the most important lessons from writing my non-fiction book was the purpose of editing. The purpose is to create the intended experience for your reader. In the first draft, I laid out a (clumsy, wandering) story. My editing goal is to tighten that story and make sure it creates the desired outcome in the reader.

In a non-fiction, how-to book, that’s easy: I need to make sure the reader knows how and why to follow my directions. In fiction, it’s a little more complex.

I want my reader to share my characters’ experiences, to empathize with them. Re-outlining helped me to identify the most important experiences for the characters in that chapter, so I can draw more attention to them and make the experience richer.

Now, I’m not saying I’ve succeeded yet. I’m not that brilliant. But at least, in this tortuous process of editing, I have found one golden nugget I can use.

Your Favorite Editing Techniques

What has worked best for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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