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Macroediting the first draft

23 July, 2010

Because a first draft is often a sloppy, sprawling thing, it can be hard to edit. Macroediting techniques help writers unearth its structure and test each component in terms of function and location.

Macroediting can be applied generally to fiction, but it is particularly valuable when editing short stories. Short stories must be unified but contemporary short stories are often loosely structured. It can be difficult working out what material helps establish and develop a story and what only confuses or takes the story off the rails.

When writing a first draft, I tend to follow the ‘let everything  flower’ approach, recording whatever pops into my head. After that, I try to clarify the main storyline and weed out  elements that do not fit. But sometimes it is hard identifying what is useful and, just as importantly, what is not.

It can help to first examine a draft’s macrolevel, a term referring to a story’s main components. The aim is to get a story’s overall structure right before editing its details (its microlevel). Evaluating a story’s macrolevel helps writers establish both how to revise and how to re-vision their first draft.

To macroedit, try two techniques from business writing:  chunking  and adding headings.

Chunking the story

In business writing, chunking refers to writing a document by creating a series of coherent chunks. For example, a brochure about travel insurance has informational  chunks describing kinds of coverage plans, special conditions, and exclusions.

Editing  involves evaluating the sequence of the chunks and the relevance of  information within each chunk. If a chunk contains irrelevant information, readers can become confused.

Applied to a short story draft, chunking can help identify if  each component is coherent. It can  also help writers identify where to place components in order to unify the story.

Headings

When reading business documents, readers locate and comprehend material more easily when informational chunks are signposted with a heading. Headings are sometimes called advance organisers because they provide a preview. For example,  readers who see the heading Who is Eligible in a brochure about travel insurance  expect eligibility details to follow. Taken together, the brochure’s headings also help readers identify its macro structure. Readers get a sense of the whole document and how the different chunks of information relate.

In fiction, macrolevel elements are often referred to as the ‘bones’ of a story. By first identifying a draft’s bones, short story writers can then evaluate their story’s content and sequencing.

Macroediting a first draft

  • Chunk your draft
    Identify the story chunks that make up your draft. These are major segments or scenes.
    Where does the introduction finish? Where does the conclusion begin?
    Between these bookend chunks of your story, look for the following:
    major episodes, major flashbacks,  a change in setting, the appearance  of a new and important character, and points where the story twists or where things get messier and the tension rises.
  • Establish each chunk’s function
    Record your rationale for including each story chunk. Explain to yourself why is it in your story.
    Does a chunk function to introduce a character? Create a problem between two characters? Reveal an important clue? Increase the tension? Help the character grow or change in some way? Create a necessary lull before the storm?

  • Give each chunk a heading
    For each story chunk, create a heading that describes what is happening. Your headings work as shorthand to help you examine your story at the macrolevel. Examples of chunks and headings:

    • A major action: Daphne quarrels with her ex-husband.
    • A major character changes significantly: Daphne puzzles over last night’s events and decides to visit a fortune-teller.
    • An important location is described: Daphne’s childhood home.
    • And important explanation is provided: Reasons why Daphne’s feelings have changed in terms of her ex-husband.

If you find yourself writing a LONG heading to incorporate everything in a chunk, you have identified a problem chunk. E.g.: Daphne visits her ex-husband and while talking to him, she worries about the strange phone calls she has been getting and wonders if the fortune-teller, whom she is seeing next Tuesday, can shed any light on this mystery, so she tells her husband about the problem then wonders why he tells her to leave when she has already said she wants to go through the old stuff in the attic.

A scene or chunk often includes many details, but use the heading to establish for yourself  its main point in the framework of your story.

  • Evaluate and edit

Now you have your first draft marked up. The material is sorted into chunks of text. Each one has a heading, and you’ve jotted a note beside each explaining its purpose.

To edit, identify how well each chunk works to support your story idea:

How does the situation and/or the main character change, chunk by chunk?

Are any chunk superfluous? Why? If so, is it retrievable? How can you rewrite it?

Does any chunk slow or stall the story?

Is there material within a chunk that does not help build a character, mood, plot or theme?

Do the important elements have a dominant place within a chunk? What about in terms of all the chunks?

What could be pushed to the background in the story?

What changes and when? Is the chunk where this  happens positioned in the best time and place within the story?

Does each dialogue chunk help propel the story to its conclusion? If not, in what way does it contribute to the story?

When you read the headings in sequence, does the story’s trajectory make sense? Does it seem satisfying?


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