Generally, people think of editing as checking spelling, adding or removing commas, and basically ensuring your sentence structures are, in fact, sentences. But there's a whole other side to editing. You need to consider your story as a whole, the flow, the characters, and, yes, each scene, before you can dot your i's and cross your t's.
In my writing classes, I’ve run into three major red flags when it comes to editing creative fiction:
1. Back-story. A common question I get is, when is it too much? If you’re asking, you’ve got too much. Go to any conference or workshop and you’ll find out that your first 10 pages are often a toss. They’re usually full of back-story and description that would be better served scattered into the action of the story later. By the time you hit page 11, something good is going on – and that’s what you want your reader to experience right up front.
2. Exposition. Some people will read a lot chapters filled with minute details of unusual hobbies or topics because they believe if they got through those sections then they will get to something good. Don’t make your reader wait. Ever read Moby Dick? All those chapters on whale blubber in the middle of the book just about killed me (sorry if you're a fan). Just because you know it, doesn’t mean you have to teach everyone about it. Adults are generally more forgiving when they face longer passages of back-story. Children and teens won’t take the time to slog through paragraphs of exposition when they could be playing Madden Football on Xbox. Throw in a factoid here and there, add a detail or official term that makes the scene real, but don’t make us read all the chapters on blubber.
3. Dialogue. I had a student tell me about a story she kept reading because she hoped if she got through this one boring section of details, the author was going to get to something good – but when she got there, it turned out to be boring dialogue. Why? Because the dialogue didn’t move the story forward any more than the details did. Dialogue has to mean something – introduce new information, extend a character’s motivation, involve emotions.
I have a great editing loop for scenes to make sure you’re getting to the actions and not getting distracted by back-story, exposition or pointless dialogue. I can’t remember where I found this, so if you know, please tell me:
1. Identify your 10 weakest scenes (yes, this might be your first or last scene).
2. Number them with #1 being the most boring pitiful scene you’ve ever written, and #10 being sort of okay but not quite right.
3. Delete scene #1. Ruthlessly and without remorse.
4. Now, review #2 for the 3 O’s:
Objective - what does your character(s) want?
Obstacle - why can’t he have it?
Outcome - positive or negative (usually negative),what will be the next problem?
5. Repeat step 4 for the rest of your scenes.