Editing by the Numbers

Editing a story is an intense bout with your past self as you go over the dirty mess of your first/second/third/so on draft. If writing is taking ideas and making a story out of them, editing is taking a story and making a story people will want to read.

I had an undeserved self-assurance in my abilities as a writer when editing my first several stories. I felt I got the story right the first time around. My omnipotent knowledge and unfettered love of the story made me delusional. Moreover, I had these delusions when editing from page 1.

I could immediately give the reasoning of plot points that weren’t explained or built up for two-thirds of the story. Questions of pacing were set aside because I knew what “cool” things were around the long corner.

A new author’s overconfidence can derail their editing by assuring the author the story is fine and only requires some spellchecking.

I overcame this problem (in part) by Editing by the Numbers. Here are a few examples of what Editing by the Numbers looks like:

In one of my stories, I once had a surprise appearance by a character who’d only been mentioned throughout the book. I told my inner critic it was all part of the surprise. But, a second wave of panic had me track the distance between the last time the surprise character was mentioned and when he showed up. The distance was 80% of the book.

When I got that statistic, I sat back and looked at the problem through a more objective lens. I asked, “Should a reader be expected to remember a character who was last mentioned 40,000 words ago?” No.

After that, I put more mentions of the surprise character into the story which breadcrumbed important information about him. The changes put the distance between the last mention and the surprise appearance at 7,000 words with a little teaser before the appearance for the sleuthing reader.

In the same story, I had a nag about the length of one of my chapters which I easily excused. “Some chapters will be longer and some shorter than others.” However, I decided to gather the word counts for each chapter and discovered the longest chapter was twice as long as the next longest chapter. It stood out like volcano ache.

The answer was to create a smaller chapter from a disjointed part of the longest chapter and then trim away what was left. The chapter was still the longest in the story but made to be only 15% longer than the next longest chapter.

Another common instance of Editing by the Numbers is when I’m shortening chapters or the story as a whole (underwriters can flip what I’m about to say). I write out the chapter’s word count before I trim it down and use it as reference. Whenever my paranoia seeps in telling me I haven’t reduced the word count enough and I should break out the chainsaw, I do a word count of the edited chapter and divide by the original word count. I’ll often get numbers in the range of 10-20% shorter. I can always use that statistic when arguing with my paranoia about whether or not I’m making an impact on the word count.

Finally, I’ll often get jitters about specific phrases in my stories. Once I had a spine crawling sense of déjà vu about the phrase “quickly and quietly” in reference to a character’s movements. I searched the phrase over the entire story and found I used it over thirty times. Besides being a bad phrase, I couldn’t let the same description of movement be used to the point of unintentional parody. A few changes to better descriptions which reflected the mood of the scene stopped my déjà vu from impeding my editing.

To all writers, I advise you put your story through an online word counter like wordcounter.net. You can track how many times the most popular words in your story appear. This can show the overuse of often unnecessary words such as: that, and, so, rather, then, and a host of filter words.

When I edit down specific words, I search for adjectives (ly) and present participles (ing). I root out any outliers in my searches and come to an educated guess as to the total use. As a rule of thumb, I like to keep my adjectives and present participles at or under 1% of my total word count apiece. If they really don’t fit in the story, I shoot for 0.5% apiece or lower.

When it comes to pacing, Editing by the Numbers can be abstracted into an Action Graph. Jot down every scene and add a point to represent the action in each scene. Then, connect each point with a line and you’ll have a rough estimation of the story’s pacing.

With an Action Graph it’s easy to spot three consecutive scenes in the middle of the story which rank high on the action. It’s easy to spot a long drought of stuff going on.

An Action Graph can be zoomed in on an individual scene to illustrate its pacing. Here, action changes on the scene’s beats. For example, here’s a scene from Star Wars Return of the Jedi.Scene Pacing

Action isn’t the only mechanism for pacing or developing an interesting scene, but overlaying lines for tension, characterization, humor, character development, world building, etc. can help an architecturally minded editor map out their story.

The final takeaway I want writers to obtain form this post is the uses and limits of Editing by the Numbers. There is no magic number for how long each chapter in your story should be. There is no set upon amount of times you should use a single word.

Only you, the author, can decide how your story will turn out. Editing by the Numbers is a tool to combat your overconfidence and underconfidence. Over time you will integrate this tool into your intuition and know which chapters drag on without action or which phrases you use too much. When you get good at that, editing by numbers will still be there to tell you how long the action drought is and how many times you’ve used each phrase.

Mastery of editing by numbers is an easy task for new writers. You only need to research the data of your story and be honest when you review it.

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