Start with the Macro Edits

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Recently I took a webinar on self-editing picture book manuscripts. The presenter, editor Natascha Biebow, explained that when we edit our work we need to start with macro-edits and then move on to micro-edits 

I quickly realized that her macro-edits were what I call “big picture” edits. These are the structural things that make or break your story. Micro-edits were the minute details like word choice, spelling, and punctuation that make for smooth reading, but without the macro-edits no amount of polish will save a manuscript. 

Discussing this with my accountability group, we realized that we are all much better at micro-editing our work. Angela pointed out that many writers really need an outside reader to help them see the big picture. Without another pair of eyes, it is hard to see what works and what doesn’t on a structural level. 

One thing that can help you conduct your own macro-edits is to analyze your work based on a checklist of possible problems. For fiction, macro-edits include: 

  1. Whether or not the reader knows who the main character is by the end of chapter one for a novel or the first paragraph for a piece of flash. 
  2. Does the reader know what the character’s problem is or what is at risk if the character fails to solve this problem? 
  3. Does the story have a beginning, a middle, and an end? The beginning is where you set up the story problem. The middle is where the character attempts to solve this problem. The ending of the story wraps it all up. 
  4. Is the character sympathetic and three-dimensional? This doesn’t mean that the character needs to be likable, but they need to have one or more traits that readers can sympathize with. She may be an anti-hero, but she does her mother’s laundry every week, or she feeds the stray cats in her neighborhood. 
  5. Does your reader know what the setting is? This means that they need to know when and where it takes place. Too often stories take place in some un-named blank space. 
  6. Is each of your characters essential to the story? Maybe some of them can be combined or eliminated. You need to similarly scrutinize each chapter and scene. 

Nonfiction is going to have a slightly different set of possible macro-edits but these include: 

  1. Is there a clear introduction? This is where you let the reader know what you are writing about and why it matters. 
  2. Do you build your piece step by step? This means that material needs to be presented in the most effective order. But it also means that you include enough clear, meaningful examples to lead your reader through the argument or the steps in completing your how-to. 
  3. Is the voice consistent throughout the piece? Or does it start out stiff and then get more conversational as you warm to your topic? You also need to verify that this voice is appropriate for the audience and market. 
  4. Make sure that all necessary terms are defined. 
  5. Is each paragraph unique? It can be easy to give the same information in more than one place. Delete all repetitive sections. 
  6. Does the ending include a clear summary of all conclusions? Or is it rushed? 

Analyzing your work to make macro-edits is tough. It is too easy to see the manuscript you intended to write vs the manuscript you actually created. Going through a check list and examining one element at a time can make this task easier. What items would you include in your own macro-edit checklist?


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 30 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on June 5, 2022).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins June 5, 2022) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins June 5, 2022). 


Angela Mackintosh said...

This is a great list, Sue! I have all of your fiction macro-edits on my memoir/CNF list. I also have a few more to add:

Metaphors: Are all metaphors needed and do you return to them in the end?

Narration: Is there too much explaining, summarizing, exposition, backstory? How’s the narrative voice? Is it consistent throughout the piece? Is the narrative telling the reader things they don’t need to know yet?

Arc or Pattern: Is there a clear arc and does the turning point/climax come near the very end? If using a pattern instead, is there an emotional arc or river?

My "Grounding" section is similar to your "Setting" question, making sure the readers are grounded in space and time. But I also make room for lyric pieces where timelessness is important, similar to poetry. So it depends on what you're going for.

I have the same thing for "Characters" - making sure they have both an ability and a weakness, a passion and a foible, are well-rounded, balanced characters--especially antagonists. And under that umbrella I have "Dialogue" - making sure it sounds realistic, checking for sentence lengths and patterns, if the voice sounds stilted, too formal, vocabulary, subtext, etc.

There's so many big picture items to look for! But definitely the most helpful is having critique partners and beta readers because you may think your dialogue sounds great or your characters' motivations are apparent but only readers will be able to tell you that. Still, we have to do most of the heavy lifting before we get to that point. Very helpful post, Sue. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Love these additions! I will be expanding my list.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Excellent list, Sue, and excellent additions, Ang! Was pacing in there somewhere? I like to check (in fiction) if the tension is building. Does each scene build and does the story as a whole build to the climax?

(I probably should have checked that better while I was writing my latest...I've just spent a few weeks macro-editing when I thought I was done!)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Pacing should be on the list! I can't believe I left that off. Do you know the dot test? That's one of my favorite ways to test the pacing of a piece.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Cath ~ Pacing is a great one!

Sue ~ What's the dot test? I haven't heard of it. Do tell. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Hi Angela,

The dot test is a super simple way to test the tension in a story. Draw a line across a piece of scratch paper. This is your baseline. Then put a dot at the left end. Depending on what you are writing, this is scene or chapter 1. Read it then read the next scene/chapter. Does the tension go up or down? If it goes up, make a dot above the line to the right of the first dot. Label it 2. If it goes down, it is below the line. Repeat for scene/chapter 3 etc.

When you are done, you have a visual representation of the tension in your piece. You can see where it goes up, where it goes down and where it is flat. This is a great one for us visual learners!

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