When you’re editing a paper for school, you check for spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and citation accuracy. When you’re editing a 400-page book, you do that too (minus citations, probably), but not until you’ve done a TON of other edits. First you consider plot arcs, character arcs, world building, emotional impact, tension, pacing, believability, etc.
To analyze all these things, I used a spreadsheet technique I learned from the Story Grid, plus some of my own additions. You can learn more about the Story Grid (and this spreadsheet technique in particular) here.
To start, I made a row for each chapter (so 65 rows) and a column for each of the following attributes:
- Chapter Number
- Summary (in ten words or less)
- Word Count
- Plot: how the plot advances
- Character: how characters develop
- World: what world building happens
- Emotion: what strong emotions or emotional shifts occur
- Value Shift: change of a character’s state (ie – angry to pacified, alive to dead)
- Polarity Shift: based on value shift (ie – good to bad (+ to -), bad to worse (- to –))
- Turning Point: major shift in story (where complications become crisis)
- Onstage Characters (including names and how many)
- Offstage Characters: mentioned characters who don’t come onstage
- Analysis: based on the above things, what about this chapter is weak and needs to change?
Then I reread my entire book and filled out each column for each chapter. It’s that last Analysis column that took the most work. Here are some of the things I considered as I filled out that column:
- Each chapter should ideally advance at least two of the following things: plot, character, world, and emotion. If it does only one or none, it’s not carrying its weight.
- Why is this chapter here? What’s happening? What’s changing?
- Was it hard to fill out any of the columns? If so, why? For example, if there’s no value shift, then what’s the point of the scene? If there’s no turning point, nothing is changing. If nothing’s happening, the reader will be bored. Bored readers stop reading.
- Aim for variety in things like location, duration, and number of onstage characters. Three scenes in a row that each last twenty minutes as your two main characters sit in the parlor and talk? Boring!
- Aim for variety in polarity shifts. If things are always getting better, there’s no tension. If things are always getting worse, there’s no hope.
When I finished my reread and had the entire spreadsheet filled out, I copied that last Analysis column into a new document organized by chapter. To this document I added all the comments from my alpha reader – just copied and pasted into the correct chapter section. It was good to see where my analysis and my alpha reader’s thoughts lined up.
Then I brainstormed solutions for each chapter’s problems and jotted down all my ideas. Some problems are complex and might require big changes. Some might be fixed by adding a single word.
I finished my analysis earlier this week, and now I’ve started the harder part: actually fixing things. But it feels a lot more manageable because I can take it one chapter at a time. Also, it feels good to know that I’m not just putzing around and changing things willy-nilly. Using this method means I can analyze the rise and fall of my story’s action and visualize character arcs. I know that when this process is complete, my story will be vastly improved.
And then it just might be in good enough shape that I (perfectionist extraordinaire) might be willing to let more people read it.