How to Edit Your First Draft
You have written a novel from start to finish: congratulations! Now the real work can begin.
Honestly, I wish I was kidding. But that first draft, precious as it is, is a sketch of what your novel is going to look like when it is completed. If you’ve followed any of my advice when it comes to writing the first draft, you will be looking at something that is rough. You might even be thinking: this is a steaming pile of dung and I don’t know why I ever thought I could be an author. (See: How to Write a Novel in a Month, and Why Your First Draft Sucks)
Welcome to the writing life! This, too, is entirely part of the process. I’m a big fan of writing that first draft quick and messy, because it will get you to the end. Now that we’re here, we get to sculpt those words into the beautiful book you’ve dreamed of, softening the edges, fleshing out the parts that are a little thin until you get to something resembling very good.
(I don’t believe in perfection, by the way. Don’t try to be perfect: not only will you fail, but it is utterly exhausting.)
A very important step after a first draft manuscript is completed is that you need to take a step away. Do not ever immediately jump into an edit. Put it in a drawer and work on something else. I’ve heard people say wait at least two weeks, but I think that’s too short. At least, at least, a month. Better yet, several months. You are emotionally attached to the work right now; it’s too hard to make the difficult decisions when you feel physically ill at the thought of cutting out scenes you’ve just cried blood to create. You need to walk away to get that perspective.
So, months later, you’ve pulled out that manuscript. Now we’re ready to dive in!
Read through the entire first draft
At this point, you are not allowed to touch the book at all. Zero edits allowed. You are simply reacquainting yourself to the story, with the perspective time has given you. I would recommend putting it on an ereader so you are physically unable to make changes or corrections at this point – because honestly, it’s like torture, you want so badly to jump in and start fixing things, but it is TOO SOON. If you don’t have an ereader, definitely put it in pdf format for the same reason.
You’re allowed to cringe, you’re allowed to think about how you might want to change things, but don’t make notes or write anything down yet. Just read, as if you are a third-party observer. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised with some of the beautiful things you have created with your own mind.
Establish your Plot Outline
It’s time to outline the plot structure of the novel if you did not do it in the outlining period. This will allow you to see which scenes are working for you, and which need to be reworked. Try to fit your scenes into the Save the Cat method, if you haven’t already. You will need this because you’ll be playing with it as you enter into your revision. (Check out 7 Steps to a “Perfect” Novel Outline)
Whatever you do, don’t go playing with your language yet. It’s a waste of time. Until you’ve established which scenes stay in, and which won’t make the cut, fiddling with details isn’t a good use of your valuable time.
List and Categorize Story Elements
Be very gentle with yourself and with your novel at this point. You are still not ready to make any changes. Now is the time to make notes on the novel.
I used an excellent YouTube tutorial by Ellen Brock, which you can watch here. (Ellen Brock is an editor with a great YouTube Channel, Novel Writing Advice. Her advice is relatable and easy to follow – I’ve watched pretty much every one of her videos!)
In this particular episode, A Technique for Gaining Perspective, she recommends separating every element of the story into different columns: LOVE, HATE or INDIFFERENT.
Start with the major elements, including plot points, major characters, themes, backstories, character arcs, significant concepts and objects, and place them in the appropriate category, based on how you feel about them at this time. There will likely be major issues that pop up, so bold these: they are likely going to be the ones that need the most work.
Now add a fourth concept: LOST. Here, jot down all the ideas, people or concepts you wanted to include in your book but didn’t make it in.
Looking down at your list, you’ll get a better idea of where you want to go. It might show you elements that obviously need to be cut, or placeholder scenes that need to be reworked. (Many of that which needs reworking will be found in INDIFFERENT.)
With this overview, write out a thesis statement of your novel: A paragraph why you wanted to write the book in the first place. Think of what is going to make the best version of your novel, and get rid of anything that gets in the way.
Make a Revision Plan
List out all the problems you want to address in your manuscript. You can make subheadings and organize them.
Eg. 1. Characters;
a. Main Character Protagonist;
I love organizing my ideas like this, but you might have another way that works for you.
For every single one of the problems, list out possible solutions for each. This is brainstorming so throw all the ideas that you can think of into this.
Rework a Scene Structure Outline
Using your love/hate elements and revision plan, rework a scene structure outline.
For every single scene, answer the question: What is this scene doing? Make sure it needs to be there.
Without actually touching your manuscript, cut out irrelevant scenes that do not advance the plot. It’s time to kill your darlings, my friends. Good thing you waited months to start this, so this process doesn’t make you want to cry.
*Keep in mind cut scenes don’t have to be thrown down the drain. It’s a great idea to keep them around or reworked for other projects. One scene I had to kill from a novel worked well as a short story, and went on to win an award!
Ensure that every scene has a turn: a point where the character can’t go back, and a transition or flow into the next scene. If a scene does not have conflict, cut the scene or add it (conflict being something getting in the way of the character’s goal). Also, cut out redundant scenes that serve a similar purpose.
At this point, I also look at the setting – WHERE my characters actually are. If there’s a way I can rework scenes so that there’s less back and forth between physical places, I try to make that happen.
As you’re going through, note what scenes need to be added to meet your story vision, and where they are going to go within the outline (make sure they have conflict too!)
Cut out abandoned ideas and breadcrumbs/clues that were never followed up, characters without a point, conflicts or objectives that have been abandoned.
This is specific to fantasy, sci-fi or speculative fiction: Mark any scenes that violate the novel’s “rules.” Does everything in the book fit in with the rules of the world you’ve created?
At this point, you have pages upon pages of notes to work with. Now, and only now, are you allowed to touch the manuscript.
Rewrite the Novel From Scratch
If your jaw just dropped, pick it back up and start working. It’s important to rewrite everything, word by word. You miss so much when you are just reading over, looking for problems to jump out at you. This way, you’re going through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, ensuring every scene is working for you. So using your first draft and your notes as reference, write that novel again.
Please do this in a new document! You should have about 18 versions of your novel by the end of this, but you always want to be able to go back to older versions as well if something comes up.
Zero in On the Details
Reread the newer version of the novel, and take notes focusing on more detailed elements. Some things to consider:
- Characters: Ensure all characters have viable arcs, and that they are always acting in character. It can be a good exercise to re-establish the character’s wants and needs.
- Elements that are missing
Save a new version of the manuscript and address each of these elements.
At this point, the story should be the story you wanted to create. If it’s not, ask yourself why and go back and address the issues.
Rewrite the Novel Again
You heard me. You’ve worked on the major story elements and scene structure. The story is in good shape. Now it’s time to look at your language.
Pull literally every single sentence apart, and put it back together again. Clean up your verbiage. Use the Emotion Thesaurus to find new ways of describing things.
Print the Novel and Edit on Paper
I recommend reading every word out loud at this point. You get a sense of whether the language is awkward when you have to speak it. Even better: go through the novel backwards, sentence by sentence, reading out loud. Sometimes we get caught up in the flow of a paragraph, and skip over problematic phrasing.
Language problems you should be on the lookout for:
- Grammatical errors, typos, inconsistencies, repeating words, overused expressions, passages that are unnecessary, overused words, narrative that is too flowery, anything that jumps out at you because if it bothers you, you can bet your tits it’s going to bother the reader
- Check for superfluous words: very, really, suddenly, (actually, any word ending with “ly” should be side-eyed – keep only the absolute best), started, began, just, down/up, that, character names. Take these out if possible.
- Filter words: where you use words like felt, saw, heard … these are words that filter the reader through the charater’s mindset, as opposed to allowing the reader to experience the action firsthand. If possible, remove these. Eg. She heard an eerie rustling in the bushes. Better: An eerie rustle sounded in the bushes.
Now You Are Ready … for Beta Readers!
You’re still not ready to publish yet, but your novel is likely in a state where it’s ready to be shown to other eyeballs!
Writing a novel is no joke. It is truly so much work, but when you finally have a novel in hand that’s just like what you always imagined it would be – seriously, what a rush! Writers are special kinds of people, I salute you all, you are amazing!