Okay, so maybe drafting isn’t the hardest part of the writing process. After all, there’s a part of the process that everyone forgets about, and it’s the absolute most important part. Editing. You’re not done working on your book when you’re done with your first draft.
Let me say that again.
YOU’RE NOT DONE WORKING ON YOUR BOOK WHEN YOU’RE DONE WITH YOUR FIRST DRAFT.
This is something that writers have a really hard time wrapping their head around. I did, too, when I was first starting out. But a first draft is just that: a FIRST draft. It’s just a starting point. It’s approximately 10% of the process. The other 90% is re-writing, revising, and editing. Terry Pratchett said it best. He said that the first draft is just the writer telling themselves the story. It’s through editing that you discover what you’re really trying to say with a story, who the characters really are, and where the story is really going.
I can’t really give you every editing tip in my arsenal. To do that, I would have to write page after page after page. Editing looks different for every story because each writer has their own strengths and weaknesses. So instead, I just want to give you some resources and some basic steps for editing your work, no matter what it is.
Set It Aside.
This is one of those pieces of advice that’s hard for me to say with concrete confidence because all writers work differently. But when I’ve just finished a first draft (or a second or third or fourth draft) my absolute next step is to set it aside. Trying to jump right back into the same story that you just finished means that you’re just going to make all the same mistakes. You need a breather from looking at all the ideas you just put down on paper. I like to take a minimum of six months away from a first draft before I go back to it. I like to step away and work on something else, and when I come back to it, it’s with fresh eyes, and this is a practice I highly recommend.
This can mean one of two things. There are style manuals and there are writing guides. For example, something like The Chicago Manual of Style or The Elements of Style will help you if you’re having trouble with things like grammar, punctuation, or syntax. They’ll help you with the rules, the concrete basics. Just make sure you’ve got the most recent edition. But if you’re looking more for something on how to write, you’re going to want something like Writing Down the Bones or Save the Cat. These will guide you more in the overall process of editing and getting your story perfect. And if you’re looking for even more specific help, pick up something like On Writing or Bird by Bird.
Join a Critique Group.
Critique groups are absolutely critical. Now, I say that as someone who hasn’t been part of a critique group in probably close to a decade, but when I was first starting out, first learning how to draft and edit and really perfect a story, my critique group was everything. They taught me everything I needed to know about how to take a first draft all the way to something that’s publishable. A critique group can be a group of people in your genre or people writing something completely different. It can be in-person or online (like mine was). All you absolutely need is another pair of (well-informed) eyes to help you find your problem areas. Listen to them and take their words to heart.
After enough time has passed, sit down with your first draft and read it. Read it like you’ve just picked it up off a shelf at Barnes and Noble and don’t be kind to yourself when you look at it. Make notes on things that don’t make sense, things that need to change, or new ideas you get along the way. To be even more of a help to yourself later, try to do this chapter by chapter and if you can, create a new outline as you go so you know what you’re doing when it’s time to start over. Use your guidebooks and your critique partners to nail down what’s not working in your story and what you need to fix on a very basic level: the arc of your story, the development of your character, the overall action that gets your story from beginning to end.
Rewrite, Revise, Reread.
Now, every writer’s process is different. That’s inevitable. These are the steps I take when I’m editing, but you may try them out and find they don’t work for you. When I have a sloppy draft, the first thing I do when it’s time to work on it is open up a completely new word document and rewrite it. Now, some people rewrite every word the second time around, but I just go paragraph by paragraph and copy and paste anything I think is still working and rewrite around those bits. Using the notes you just took on your read through, start to redraft your story so that it makes more sense. Flesh it out. Focus less on getting from Point A to Point B and more on developing your characters and their motivations. Make things fit together in a more concrete way. Focus less on your craft and more on the story. And then, you guessed it, put it away. It doesn’t have to be for six months, but it should be long enough to give your brain a break from these specific characters and plot lines. And when you come back, this is where the fine-tuning happens. Focus on things that still don’t feel like they fit right. Focus on grammar and syntax and make sure that everything sounds and works exactly how you want it to. This can take multiple drafts, so take your time and go easy on yourself. Lastly, read through your book again. And again. And again. Find the mistakes. Come at it objectively. By the time you let anyone else see it, you should be sick of it.
A beta reader is like a mini critique group. It’s someone who can look at your finished product and give you honest feedback on it. You and your beta reader are responsible for setting up your guidelines for each other, but when I send a project to a beta reader, that means I’m done with it. I need one more set of eyes to make sure everything lines up before I can move forward in the process. Usually, when I send my work to my beta, I also send a list of questions. Things I’m feeling unsure about like, is there enough of a certain character, does anything seem confusing or like it doesn’t add up? Giving them a way to read in a focused manner seems to help out a lot. Then take that feedback and do one more edit.
This is a given before or after your first draft of a project, but it’s especially important when you’re trying to edit. You definitely don’t want to accidentally pick up the style of another writer, but you do want to focus on the work your favorite writers are doing. If you’re a new writer, there’s a good chance you’re getting inspiration from a writer who you want to write like, which is fine and normal. Use them as a tool on how to structure your own work and how to edit your stuff. Learn from those who have been doing it the longest, and you’ll have a polished final draft in no time.