The basic idea of editing is simple: delete, add, or change in such a way to improve a piece of writing. However, the scope of editing is vast, touching upon every aspect of writing and rewriting, and every level of a manuscript, from the lowly word to the grand structures of plot, characterization, setting, and theme. Up to and including throwing everything out and starting over, nothing is off limits; everything is subject to potential scrutiny.
Editing is often broken up into content editing and line editing, to separate the contents of the story from the mechanics of the writing. This is a practical division for first and final passes, but ultimately mechanics and content are inextricably linked. So between those first and final passes, I think of editing as a more holistic process, which happens at various levels of the text, always keeping in mind my ultimate ends for the story. Here are the levels broken down and my thoughts regarding them.
Words: Use active verbs and specific nouns. Destroy adverbs whenever possible! Look for other personal problem words. Check spelling and/or meaning of questionable words. The sound and meaning of choice words creates the mood, the setting, the characters and themes, and many of the things considered content at a higher level.
Sentences: Identify overwriting and redundancy in content or meaning, and correct it with deletes and rewriting. Check grammar, punctuation, and clarity. Use sentence structures to convey meaning. For example, short simple sentences can suggest rapid action or clarity of thought, while longer sentences can suggest ponderous action or complexity of thought at the sentence level or a higher level.
Paragraphs: Check for clarity and purpose. Tend to paragraph breaks and formatting for dialogue. Again, correct any overwriting and redundancies. Refine words and sentences, until each paragraph flows with poetic quality. Paragraphs should lead the reader ever onward, beginning, developing and culminating movements on the scene and story level.
Scenes: Make sure each scene has a purpose within the story, rooted in conflicts that burrow down to level of sentences and words. Ideally every scene should advance the plot and develop the characters. The point of view and setting should be clear, with reference to key sensory details. For extra credit, sow the seeds of overarching themes and foreshadow future events happening at the story level.
Story: Does the structure of the story create the desired effect? Is there a clear protagonist and antagonist? A beginning, a middle, and an end? What is the conflict at the heart of the story and how is it resolved? How do the characters change as a result of the story’s events? Does the pacing and order of scenes serve the story? And finally, does it all add up? Seek out and correct inconsistencies, errors, contradictions, and omissions at every level, all the way down to the level of the words used for everything, for times, colors, textures, smells, and the names of people, places and things … down to the very atoms that make up the fictitious reality.