Editing Your First Draft: A Guide for First-Time Authors

Congratulations! You’ve just written the first draft of your book. Next comes the daunting, Herculean process of editing said draft to catch any plot holes, underdeveloped characters, errors in sentence structure or grammar, unnecessary dialogue, or any other hindrances to a more polished manuscript.

Indeed, no first draft is good. Some individuals may see theirs as the product of perfection and will skip the imperative editing stage at all costs, but it’s vital—just as important, if not more so, than the writing process itself.

There are numerous strategies to make the editing process more palatable. Here are 10:

Tip #1: Take a Break

Hands up, authors, and step away from your draft. You’ve finished your first draft, but there’s no reason to tire yourself out by jumping straight into editing. Allow yourself to wait for two weeks to a month in order to let the story settle and sink into your mind. By doing so, you’re able to begin thinking objectively about your work without being too familiar with what you’ve written.

If you can’t get your hands off your keyboard or pen, consider working on something new. Write a poem or a short story, even a novella.

Tip #2: Take Notes While Reading From Your Audience’s Perspective

Try getting into the headspace of readers across the globe. What would they think of your plot? Are they supposed to root for or against certain characters? Do they understand the symbols you’ve written? It’s crucial to ask yourself these questions, and to do so when reading through your manuscript for the first time after setting it down for a while. Read through your work as if you were any random reader, and don’t make any initial edits. Instead, take notes separately that you can refer to when you begin editing.

When taking notes, be sure to write down inconsistencies, foreshadowed events that were never elaborated on, underdeveloped characters, characters who lose purpose after a while, awkward dialogue, themes, symbols, or motifs that can be ameliorated—all of which can be addressed when you begin editing, of course.

Tip #3: If It Doesn’t Have a Purpose, Delete It

For this strategy, follow the part to whole rule: Make sure every part contributes to the whole. To restate, if it doesn’t serve a purpose in your novel, then it needs to be deleted (or reworked).

This strategy will hurt. You spent so much time creating characters, why delete them? You added that witty line of dialogue that perhaps has no relation to what’s going on in the scene, do I have to delete it? Aspects that don’t move the plot forward, reveal characterization, or add to imagery need to go. Pack them a picnic lunch and send them on their merry way.

Tip #4: Use Tools

You may not be an editor at a publishing house, and that’s okay! There’s no shame in finding tools to utilize in order to jumpstart a less laborious editing process. Allow the following to help:

  1. Hemingway Editor: As an online proofreading tool, it’s purpose is to point out ways in which you can make your writing clearer. It seeks out and highlights adverbs, passive voice, simpler alternatives to specific phrases, and sentences that are hard to read.
  2. Orwell App: Exactly like the Hemingway Editor, the Orwell App is simply a chrome extension that appears in a plethora of websites such as Gmail and WordPress, unlike the Hemingway Editor where you need to copy and paste your work for it to be dissected.
  3. Grammarly: Another chrome extension, Grammarly is popular due to its programming that can make sure your messages, documents, and social media posts are mistake-free and clear. No matter where you write on the Web, grammatical errors, use of the wrong homophone (affect/effect or lose/loose etc.), and other spelling errors are a thing of the past.
  4. Autocrit: Made specifically with Fiction writers in mind, Autocrit is a manuscript editing software that provides feedback on your writing. With that said, it costs $29.97 per month.
  5. WordRake: Used specifically for Microsoft Office (with another version for Outlook), WordRake is a proofreading software that clarifies your writing by suggesting edits to improve confusing phrasing.

Tip #5: Ask For a Different Perspective

Keep in mind, automatic editing tools don’t replace human eyes. Anne Lamott, in the last few pages of her Shitty First Drafts piece, discusses the importance of finding the right person to bounce ideas off of and to receive criticism from. Moreover, she recommends asking someone smart and civilized who loves your work if they’d be willing to look at your writing. After all, first drafts can be incoherent and shitty more often that not, and getting a second pair of eyes to read through things you may miss can make a big difference.  

Tip #6: Cut Words

Cut empty words, empty dialogue, empty phrases and unnecessary dialogue tags. Words such as “only,” “just,” “really,” “very,” and “that” inhibit your writing. Many of the phrases you have in your manuscript can be edited down, since eliminating them doesn’t particularly affect the meaning of the sentence. For example, “in the event that” can just be edited down to “if.”

Dialogue tags aren’t the enemy. Too much of them, however, is obstructive since they can distract readers from the conversation. They should be present for the first few lines of dialogue to establish who’s speaking and when, but once those lines have been established, the reader should be able to go back-and-forth themselves. In addition, combating the use of dialogue tags with action is key to illustrate the scene.

Lastly, a pro-tip: be careful with exclamation points. There are other ways to demonstrate that your character is unleashing their unparalleled wrath than using a vapid amount of exclamation points. Though it may seem tough to do, use one exclamation point per your entire manuscript.

Tip 7: Large to Small

Painters paint in layers. They paint the biggest parts first and then move into the minuscule details. Writers should do the same when editing, by moving from macro edits, to line edits, to copy edits:

  1. Macro edits: When making macro edits, the most complex stage of the three, you should focus on rewriting the plot and certain character arcs. No big-picture stone should go unturned.
  2. Line edits: This stage consists of editing paragraph structure and sentence flow. The focus of line edits is on the usage of language to communicate the story. Run-on sentences, extraneous words or sentences, and poor transitions are targeted here.
  3. Copy edits: Lastly, copy edits are inclusive of small details, punctuation, grammar and spelling.

Tip #8: Read Books Aimed at Helping You Write

Across the board, authors will always attest that in order to be a better writer, you must read. This is a true statement, but by no means does it translate to being a better editor of your own writing. Have no fear, of course–there are a number of books geared specifically toward your writing which will give you all the information you need on how to elevate your sentence structure, ideas, descriptions, and more.

What I recommend:

  1. Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
    • Verlyn Klinkenborg draws on his experience as a literature and creative writing professor at several prominent universities (currently: Yale) to detail to writers how they can better master their craft. Written like a never-ending poem and ending with examples from notable authors and his own students, Klinkenborg will help you understand that writing sentences is made possible through thinking, noticing, and learning.
  2. On Writing by Stephen King
    • Hailed a master of his field, the prolific Stephen King is commonly looked to for advice. In this part-memoir, part-writing guide, King details all that he went through to get to the place he’s at today, all the while giving the reader life lessons on how writing should be conducted in practice. He endorses going with your gut and writing from the heart, regardless of the fact that he once tossed an early manuscript of Carrie in the trash, only to be salvaged by his wife Tabitha (which he details in his book). There are lessons to be learned, and King is ready to teach.

Tip #9: Try New Methods For Looking at the Smaller Details

As aforesaid, one of the issues with editing our own manuscripts is that we’re too familiar with them and sometimes miss key problems. While taking a break and having different people look at your manuscript are helpful for the big picture (plot, character growth, etc.), consider taking additional approaches at reviewing smaller details with your work.

Sometimes I’ll change up how I read my manuscript by reading backwards. Separating the prose and dissecting each paragraph out of its chronological context allows for a closer revision. This prevents me from focusing on the plot too much, and instead helps me look at more minor details such as specific lines of action or scenery.

Tip #10: Most Importantly, Don’t Panic

Remember: First drafts don’t have to be flawless. The process of moving past those flaws can be overwhelming and tedious, but don’t fret, it’s a necessary step. You’ve made it this far, there is no going back. Drink some tea, go for a walk, or do anything else that will likely calm you down, but don’t panic. As Terry Pratchett once said, the first draft is just you telling yourself the story. You got this. Now go edit your manuscript!

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