How to edit the first draft of your novel
One of my favourite literary quotes is from the late Terry Pratchett:
‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.’
Letting your first draft suck is actually a lot harder than it sounds. Quite often, the thought that your writing isn’t up to the standard it needs to be first time around can put a lot of writers off ever even finishing it. What’s the point? It’s not good enough. The writing is weak, the plot is clunky and the characters don’t have decent arcs.
But that’s what first drafts are supposed to be. Drafts. Heavy outlines. A first draft is scaffolding that you gradually build around until you have a structure that can stand on its own. Strengthening the writing, sorting out the plot and making sure your characters grow are the kind of issues we fix after we’ve laid the foundations.
And that’s what we’re going to look at in this post – how to edit a first draft into something you want to show to the world.
First, back away
This is always my first piece of advice to anyone who is about to embark on their next round of edits – take a break first. Have some time away from your manuscript. Why? Because when you’ve just finished your first draft you are far too close to the story to see its flaws – or at least to see the solutions to those flaws clearly.
Trust me on this one, getting some distance will help significantly. At the very least, leave it a week, but I’d recommend longer if possible. If, during that break, you get ideas for what you want to edit or scenes you want to change, jot them down in a notebook with as much context as you can. When it comes to embarking on your second draft, you’ll be ready to go.
Do a chapter breakdown
I like to use Excel for this, but flashcards or a notebook or pretty much anything that you fancy will work. What you’re going to do is go through your novel and sum up every chapter in one or two sentences. Force yourself not to do too detailed a breakdown because at this stage we’re just looking at the big picture.
In my Excel spreadsheet, I use the following columns: Chapter number, Summary, To Edit.
‘Chapter Number’ is self-explanatory. In the ‘Summary’ column I write my few sentences per chapter. Then, in the ‘To Edit’ column I make notes on what I’d like to add to or change about that chapter. If you came up with any notes while you were taking a break, this is where you begin to track those. We’re going to keep adding to this at every edit stage so you may not have notes for every chapter just yet.
I like to use Excel for this because if I think I need to add in a chapter somewhere I can just drag the rows down to make space and then adjust the chapter numbers. Pen and paper is a little more permanent and I hate having to scribble out the numbers – but that’s just me. Do what works for you.
Big picture edits
Okay, so now we’ve got our chapter summary with a few edits noted, we’re going to really start editing our first draft. In the industry, we call this stage developmental editing – it looks at the story as a whole rather than all of the small parts that make it up.
Big picture editing is not easy because, as the name suggests, it requires making significant changes, so we tend to want to avoid doing this early. However, as tempting as it may be to spend your first round of edits tweaking sentences, it’ll be wasted time if you later realise that that whole scene you perfected no longer works and has to be cut.
So what are we looking at for big picture edits?
Whether you are following a three-act structure or you’re using the Hero’s Journey stages, you need to evaluate whether the structure works in the order you’ve chosen.
Don’t forget subplots, too. Are they introduced at the right time? Do they fit well into the main narrative? Do they have a satisfying conclusion or is it a loose thread you forgot to tie up?
Similar to structure, but this is more about the timing of events rather than the order they come in. For example, have you written that your protagonist started their three-month adventure in June and finished it in December without accounting for those extra months? If you’ve referenced days of the week and had time pass, has your calendar stayed true? This is important even if you don’t use traditional time-tracking in your novel, as some fantasy and sci-fi writers are known to do. Whatever method you do use, it has to be consistent and error free.
For this one, you’re going to want to focus separately on each key character who should have an arc. Is your character the same person they were at the start of the story? If they are – should they have changed given what they've experienced? If they aren’t – was that change believable? And is it a satisfying change for the reader? This doesn't mean it always has to be a change for the better, but we have to be able to buy into their arc.
This is definitely something that you want to evaluate early on in the editing process. I mean, if I’m being really honest with you, I would probably suggest checking you’re happy with the point of view you’ve chosen about a third of the way through writing. Why? Because, holy macaroni, it is not a fun task rewriting an entire novel in a different PoV. I’ve been there. I’ve edited novels that have been there. It’s painful and time-consuming. The earlier you settle on this, the better.
Here’s a blog post about the different points of view you can write, and the pros and cons of each.
Nervous about doing a developmental edit or not sure what to look for? I offer manuscript critiques for novels of all lengths and genres. In a manuscript critique, I read the full story and provide a detailed report on pacing, voice, plot and narrative flow, structure, dialogue and character development. This report is a good starting point for your big edits.
On to the smaller edits
Right, you’ve fixed your big picture stuff, your plot makes sense, the timeline is coherent and your characters all have well-defined, satisfying arcs. Now your foundations are firmly set, it’s time to look at the paragraphs, sentences and words.
In editing, we call this stage either line editing or copy-editing. Ultimately, it’s where we look at paragraph structure, the length of your sentences and whether they flow well, the choice of words you’ve used and if there’s something better.
I’ve talked a lot about the different aspects of copy-editing on my blog and YouTube channel, so to save rehashing all of that here, I’m going to link to that content:
For edits you can do yourself pretty easily, check these blog posts out:
Preparing your manuscript for an editor or agent – this is a blog post about how to self-edit your work to the standards an agent would like to see.
8 ways to trim your novel’s word count – this one isn’t just for over-writers. There are tips in here for cutting words and phrases you may not realise you’re overusing.
I did a whole series of blogs and a video on how to craft great dialogue:
If you’re going the traditional route for publishing, you don’t need to hire a professional editor before you start querying agents, although you might find it’s useful if you’re not getting any bites after a while.
If you’re planning to self-publish, I do highly recommend looking into editing services because you won’t get the same support that writers get in publishing houses.
Send to your betas
You may choose to do this between the big-picture editing and the smaller edits stage, particularly if you want a second opinion on whether the structure, plot and character development works before you dive into the copy-editing. If you’re fairly confident that the structure is fine, send your manuscript to betas after you’ve done your copy-editing. If you have enough betas to choose from, maybe use them at both stages.
Finding your betas and what to expect from them is a whole other topic that I will cover in a later post, so for now we’re sticking with the basics. Find some readers that you can trust and whose opinion you value. It’s advised not to use family or close friends as beta readers because they may not be as honest with their critique as you need them to be.
Unless you’ve worked with an editor in any of the other stages, your beta readers are likely to be the first people who see your story. You want their raw, honest opinion and constructive critique. Give them as much information as they need going in, but try not to shape their experience too much as you should aim to get an unbiased review from them.
Yep, it’s not over yet. Once you’ve received feedback from your beta readers, it’s time to go back through the manuscript and make all the changes you deem necessary. It’s important to remember here that you don’t need to agree with everything your beta readers tell you, but do give their feedback deep consideration.
Though it’s hard to do, especially after you’ve already worked so hard on every scene and sentence, don’t be afraid to make some tough cuts at this stage. If multiple betas have told you that a particular character brought nothing to the story or a certain chapter was unnecessary, cutting is sometimes better than reworking.
If you’re precious about your writing, try pasting your cuts into a different Word document – who knows, you may get to use them in another story one day.
A lot of people come into editing thinking that they just need to do a proofread. Believe me, this is very common and almost always not the case. If you didn’t already know, proofreading is actually the very last stage of the editing process and it’s done on the ‘proof’ copies of a book. These proofs are formatted as the book will be once printed and there should be no major changes to make at this stage.
If you’re curious to read more about the different stages of editing, here’s this blog post for you.
When it comes to proofreading, you’re looking for those pesky errors that inevitably slip through the net. I’m talking about the homophones, the missing apostrophes and the double spaces after a full stop. You often won’t spot these until you’re actively looking for them, so don’t skimp on this stage. It’s hard, intensive work but incredibly valuable.
How many drafts until it’s ready?
There is no ‘right’ number for this. The novel that I'm currently querying is up to Version 17 because I made a new version for every draft I intended to make key changes to. I'm also an edit-as-I-go writer, so that led to more drafts than is probably usual. Looking back, I don't think I actually wrote the ending until maybe Version 14 or 15!
It could be that it only takes you two or three drafts to get it right. The number of drafts will be different for every author and every project and it’s not bad if you go through a lot or not many at all.
The process of writing is incredibly subjective and no two writers have the same approach to their edits. Don’t get too hung up on whether you’re doing it ‘right’ or as others would do it – just knuckle down and focus on making your story what you want it to be. Take each editing stage as it comes, be thorough and trust your gut.
Writing a first draft is hard. Editing it is even harder. But, damn, is it worth it in the end? Abso-frickin’-lutely.