By Christine Carron
In software development, the process that ensures that a delivered product works as expected is called quality assurance (QA). Perhaps as a result of being steeped in software development for over twenty-five years, I have always thought of the editing and revision process in writing as Story QA.
Story QA is like a target and it involves three phases:
This phase is all about having confidence that your arrow (your story) will hit its intended target. This is big-picture editing/revising. It was the phase that was the hardest for me to grasp when I first started writing.
Why? One, because to be able to get this level of feedback you have to have the whole story mapped out (outlined in some form) or drafted. So depending on your process, the first level of editing you really need might not be possible until you’ve written a full first draft.
Another reason is due to a limitation of the critique group process. In a critique group for novelists, you generally get feedback on fifteen to twenty pages of your manuscript at a time. It is really, really hard (i.e., impossible) for someone to give you big picture feedback when they don’t have the big picture to consider.
A final challenge to getting feedback at this level is that it requires a deep understanding of story mechanics. I certainly didn’t have that knowledge starting out. Neither to build into my story, nor to even know this was the level where I should be focused in the early stages of revision. Revision was just one big stress blob of I-hope-I-can-make-this-right when I was at the beginning of my writing adventure.
But challenges aside, Hitting the Target feedback comes from editorial processes such as developmental editing, editorial assessments, and structural editing. The main concern at this phase of editing/revision is if the story is working overall. There is no sweating the details of grammar or spelling or punctuation, or even awkward sentences.
Once you have your story on target, you move to the next level of Story QA, which is refining the manner in which you aim and land your story arrow. In this phase, the focus is lines, paragraphs, the music and flow of the language, the meaning created by the combination and structure of the sentences you put together, etc.
This middle phase of Story QA is all about ensuring you are telling the story as vividly, potently, and beautifully as you can. This process is aptly called line-editing. In this phase, we move from being relieved just to hit the target, to reveling in the beauty of the arrow’s flight and in the satisfaction of that perfect thwack when our arrow’s meaning and style lands exactly as we intended.
This phase is also where a lot of critique group feedback ends up focusing due to, as previously noted, the piecemeal nature of the critique group process. Critique groups absolutely can be invaluable to writers, yet at the same time it is good to be savvy about where they have limitations. Then you are not relying on them for something they cannot provide.
But focusing here is also where we as writers can get caught up when we are self-editing, too, instead of stepping back and doing the big picture heavy lifting. Why? Because line-editing is more manageable. Fixing the meaning of a sentence is easier than ensuring that your entire story is working overall. But we must remember that a perfect sentence doesn’t matter one iota, if it is in a chapter that ends up being cut. Start with the big picture first. Then go to line-editing.
Once your lines are flying and thwacking in a way that delights you, you move into the final phase of the Story QA process. Here you focus on nitty-gritty corrections. This is where copy-editing and proofreading work falls. It is the most detailed-oriented phase of the process.
In this phase, you (and the folks who are working with you in this phase) ensure that your story has correct spelling, in-voice grammar, and even looks well on the page, so looking at line breaks and page breaks, etc. This level of story QA is obsessively focused on the center of our Story QA target, and is about making your story error-free.
Story QA is a critical part of the story creation process. Moving methodically through it will ensure your story sparkles at every level. Plus, it empowers you to ask for the most effective feedback you need at a given time. Which means you can own your writing and your revision process at a whole new level. And that, my friends, should put a little Story QA swagger into your step today. Sweet!