As every writer knows, the first draft is only the beginning. Once you have a complete draft, it's time for... revisions. If you’ve written straight through without going back and revising (which I try to do unless something really isn't working) then the draft is bound to be in pretty rough shape, unless you’re one of those rare people who can turn out a pristine first draft (if so, I'm jealous!). I always get a moment of paralysis before I start the first edit of a book – the moment when it hits me just how much work is still ahead if I want to get the manuscript into a readable shape. But that’s completely normal, and the best approach is to take it a step at a time. Bear in mind that I'm guilty of everything I'm pointing out in this post, and I think most writers are!
1: The Big Picture
Read through the draft in its entirety, and note down any plot and character-related issues, from inconsistency to confusing elements. Some writers like to note down particular pages/chapters and cross-reference, others might prefer a general list to refer to as they read. The key thing is not to worry about the quality of the actual writing at this point – this is effectively a macro edit, looking at the overarching story, before diving into the minor issues later.
Things to watch out for:
- Look out for inconsistencies, plot holes, points of confusion and any unnecessary scenes that deviate from the main storyline. For instance, that random encounter with a gigantic invisible monster which never appears again probably isn't supposed to be there. (Totally random example. Honest! *shifty eyes*)
- Writers who don’t use an outline (and probably some who do!) might want to make a list of scenes at this point, in a spreadsheet. It’s an easy way to see if every scene needs to be there, and if they’re in the right order - each scene should build on what's happened before, and there should be a sense of forward momentum, not a string of disconnected events. Even though I start with an outline, the story often changes as I write, so I've found it helps to keep track of the scenes in this way.
- The crucial point is this: every scene must advance the story in some way, furthering the plot or a sub-plot and developing characters. A lot of writers tend to overwrite in their first drafts, including scenes that aren’t necessary to the story. I have the opposite problem in that my first drafts tend to be skeletal, often missing whole scenes for foreshadowing and character development. So in my spreadsheets, I look for gaps where new scenes need to be inserted, or what is already there can be deepened and extended.
- Make sure the plot and sub-plots are resolved (or, if there's a sequel, at least resolved enough that the reader doesn't feel cheated).
- This is also a good time to check pacing, and to work out whether you're spending too long at one plot point or rushing through several at once.
- As I write fantasy, I need to ensure that the worldbuilding also remains consistent throughout. Make sure that any rules aren't conveniently forgotten for plot purposes!
- Tied into plot revision – and equally important – is character. Ensure that characters’ motivations and goals remain clear and consistent throughout the story.
- The main character ideally has to undergo some kind of change over the course of the story, and their arc ideally needs to be the main focus. When editing, I make sure that the character is at the centre of each scene, and that they have agency - they don't just follow the plot, they are the plot. This is especially important if you write plot-driven stories (like I do) - I recommend this blog series, which is a great way to see how character development ties into story structure rather than acting independently of it!
- Related: to push yourself even further, ask whether your main character is truly challenged over the course of the story. The harder their journey, the more compelling their emotional struggles, the more the reader will invest in their story. If you find opportunities where you can dig ever-deeper and really make your characters suffer, do! (*evil writer laugh*)
- I also try to look at the characters from a reader’s perspective and make sure their actions are logical. I want readers to sympathise with the protagonists, even if they're not conventionally likeable... (And, uh, with me, they usually aren't. I've been known to say, "Nice protagonists are boring". :P) And definitely ask CPs/beta readers for their opinions on this!
- For minor characters, even if they're only there for plot reasons, make them distinct. This can be difficult, as I've learned the hard way, when trying to introduce a lot of characters at once. Give them one or two memorable traits to avoid reader confusion.
2: Micro Edits
It's often helpful to do the big-picture edits first, but I've found that despite my better intentions, I always end up digging into minor issues in the first self-edit. So now I do several rounds incorporating a bit of both.
- This is the place to check pacing, emotion and tension: three things that are difficult to get right, but are essential if you really want to hook the reader. Try to read as a reader, and ask yourself whether you'd want to keep turning the pages (and definitely get other opinions!). Here, I cut out introspection and long passages in which nothing is happening, add in clarification so the reader can understand characters' decisions and worldbuilding aspects, tweak the pacing, and add in emotional responses and body language. Because I fast-draft, I have to build in these microtensions in the second and third drafts.
- It’s easy to fall into the trap of simply telling the reader what a character is thinking or feeling, but in revision, try to show this through their behaviour, interactions with others, responses to the environment.
- Note: as an editorial intern, one of the most frequent issues I saw in submissions was telling character emotion rather than showing it, and it really does make a difference to how the reader perceives and identifies with the character. The most common one seemed to be, "I was angry". How about showing some clenched fists, a snappish tone, glaring - even better if you can show how this particular character deals with the emotion, in a way unique to them. This can be tricky, but ultimately leads to a more 3D character. Read The Emotion Thesaurus for some golden advice on how to do this!
- One of my personal weaknesses is lacking detail in descriptions, so I take time to make sure they’re vivid and clear. I use this phase to add in the sensory details that really bring the story and the world to life, and make the characters seem like real people. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of writer who overdoes the description and details, now’s the time to look at each sentence and ask whether it needs to be there, or if the story would work just fine without it.
- Another weakness of mine is conveying information at the right time, especially with worldbuilding. It's hard to do this without infodumping, but massive paragraphs of information are a major turn-off for readers! Then again... so is being utterly confused and not understanding what's happening. Try to integrate key information into dialogue rather than exposition. Highlight sentences where you're telling the reader a piece of information, and ask yourself whether it needs to be there. And ask for readers' opinions, of course!
- Now is also the time to check things like sentence structure and repetition, remove unnecessary dialogue tags and adjectives, and ensure that the passive voice (a pet peeve of my publishers!) is kept to a minimum. This means: any verb ending in "ing" ("was running", "were walking", etc.).
- I use Word’s search function to highlight words I tend to overuse, including ‘was’ (nine times out of ten, active is better than passive- ‘ran’ sounds better than ‘was running’!); ‘that’; ‘had’; and other filter words such as ‘felt’; ‘heard’; saw’; ‘thought’… the list goes on! Filter words are best replaced with more concrete language (which is also related to showing rather than telling - instead of saying, "he felt sad", show us his reaction!). And adverbs! Keep them to a minimum. My worst is "just", and also "really". After a while, you start to become aware of which words you tend to over-use – critique partners can be a great help with this, too!
Is that daunting? Absolutely! It takes me 3-4 rounds of edits, including getting opinions from at least two rounds of readers, before I have a manuscript in decent shape. And there are roadblocks along the way. Sometimes it feels like playing Story Jenga, when you change one minor detail and it turns into a domino effect which threatens to topple the entire manuscript. And the fact is, it's human nature to overlook our own errors, so critique partners and beta readers are absolutely vital. Some writers share their work with critique partners as they go; others wait until they have a finished draft to start searching for beta readers, and others wait a few months, do several rounds of self-editing, and then send it to other readers. I find that it can certainly help to get others’ opinions before making major changes to your book - not to mention moral support! The best beta readers/critique partners are both tactfully critical and supportive.
There are many places you can find CP's or beta readers, from forums like Absolute Write to blog events (I know Maggie Stiefvater sometimes hosts a CP Love connection on her blog) to contests. It never hurts to ask around! A word of caution, however (from experience!): be sure you know what to expect before asking. There's nothing worse than receiving critique which is unhelpful - or worse, critical to the point of plain rudeness. Unfortunately, it happens, even in the writing community, and in a career which is emotionally unstable at best, the last thing you need is unnecessary negativity. Tactful honesty is important, but if the critique is delivered in the manner of a one-star reviewer, then, well, to put it delicately, it might say more about the critiquer than the manuscript! The important thing is that it's your story, and all suggestions are totally optional (I say this as an editor, too!). :)
How many edits do you need to do? I've heard different answers to this, ranging from three to ten drafts. I do one in-depth self-edit (or two, if I have a really messy first draft) before sending it to CP's/beta readers for feedback. My reason for this is: writer blindness. It happens. We all have our blind spots. Mine, for instance, are silly overlooked plot holes, character development/motivations, infodumping, telling, lack of descriptions and the dreaded passive voice... and self-editing isn't enough to catch out all the errors. Nor is only one opinion - I put each manuscript through at least 2 rounds of beta readers and it's not uncommon for the final draft to barely resemble the first! I always hit a point where I think the damn thing is never going to be good enough, but it's possible to edit endlessly. At some point, you have to stop tweaking and put it out there, whether that means through querying, sending to your agent/publisher if you have one, or self-publishing (and in that case, hiring a professional editor).
Wow, that was a long post! Like I said, it’s different for every writer – some people love revision, others loathe it. Either way, it's a vital step on the way to the dream of being published, and a part of the process I've come to value highly - even when up to my neck in passive voice and trying to figure out another synonym for the word "looked"...