Although many writers make some revisions as they go along, the real job of editing a story begins after the first draft is completed. While there are many opinions on how to edit a manuscript, and also on how many times it needs to be gone over, the consensus is that waiting a few days, weeks, or months to start making revisions is a good thing. This gives the author a chance to distance herself from the story and gain a fresh perspective.
Before beginning the editing process, consider these steps for revising your story.
1. Determine what your purpose was in writing the story. Was it to inform, entertain, frighten, or soothe your readers? Does the tone fit that purpose? Have you clarified what genre and type of audience you are writing for? Does the story fulfill the requirements for that genre?
2. Look over the organization of the story. Does it have an appropriate story arc? Is the pacing appropriate? Do the characters each have a purpose, and do they develop as the story progresses? Have the conflicts been resolved? Have the subplots been brought to resolution? Does each scene serve a purpose?
3. After resolving any problems with tone, pacing, or organization, examine the manuscript paragraph by paragraph. Do you have a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and appropriate transitional words? Does each chapter begin with a hook, or end with one?
4. Finally, examine each sentence for clarity and proper punctuation. Are there run-on sentences? Does each word seem necessary? Does each sentence add to the story in some way—by building or relieving the tension, setting the scene, developing the character, or explaining what is going on? Is the choice of words consistent with the character’s personality, the setting, and the time period? Have you varied the length of sentences to hold the reader’s interest, insert tension, and affect the pace?
Once you’ve completed these 4 steps, you may want to have a trusted writer friend or editor look over your story for a second opinion. However, the main responsibility for the revision lies in your hands.
Do you edit your stories as you write, or after you complete the first draft? How many times do you usually go through it doing revisions? Do you have someone else review your story or novel before submitting it? Do you let others read your work before it is completed?
Edit October 5, 2009: I’ve added a related post on adding layers to a story during the revision process.