By Allison Tait.
“Write as though no-one’s watching.”
“Your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect.”
“Your first draft is just you telling the story to yourself.”
There’s a lot of information around about first drafts and how they can be messy embryos of a polished idea.
What’s more difficult to nail down, however, is just how that mess becomes a polished manuscript, ready to be pitched, assessed and (hopefully) published!
The fact is that every first draft needs editing. Some need more editing than others. And some need to be turned upside-down and inside-out before they even resemble a structured story.
So one of the best skills you can learn as a writer is how to edit your own work.
But, as a first-time writer with no professional editor sitting on your shoulder, how do you go about it?
Start small and build up to it
Having worked through the editing process for eight published novels now, I can say that it does get easier with practice.
The first time I approached a structural edit I wanted to weep as the understanding grew upon me that every tiny change I made in chapter one rippled through the entire manuscript until I ended up with a tsunami of words at the end of the book.
But I’ve learnt a lot.
My approach to my second draft is a two-part process:
- Read it out loud (making notes as you go).
- Do the easy stuff first.
Both are relatively self-explanatory, but reading a story aloud will help you to hear instantly where things are going wrong, in everything from plot to character development. You’ll hear if the dialogue is wooden, you’ll hear if you repeat the word ‘just’ 8000 times.
Once you’ve made a note of everything that’s gone pear-shaped, the next step is to simply begin fixing the easy stuff first. Take out the ‘justs’, fix the bits where a character’s eyes have changed colour, remove the descriptive bits that put you to sleep while you were reading.
Rolling up your sleeves and getting into those ‘easy fixes’ will trick you into feeling like you’re making progress, while at the same time ensuring that you are right there in the nitty gritty of the book.
Because editing is like writing a first draft in that sense – one of the most important parts of the process is showing up in the first place.
7 authors share their top tips for editing your own writing
Of course, there’s more to it than that. And to help you along the way, I asked seven authors to share their top tips for editing your own work.
This is what they told me.
Aim to keep your protagonist active
“When reading through your first draft, keep an eye out for any scenes where your main character is taking a backseat. This lack of agency and purpose can slow the pace and lead to a meandering plot.
“Be wary of having too many scenes where your protagonist is overhearing conversations, accidentally stumbling across things or playing a passive role while other secondary characters take charge.
“To keep the plot and pace moving, your main character should be actively chasing their goal. Don’t let them put their feet up and get too comfy.”
– Veronica Lando, debut novel The Whispering
Know what drives your character/s every step of the way
“Know what they want and what they need and make sure every word, sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter honours this.
“Take some time also to know what your story is about at its core, and write a one-sentence nutshell statement that sums this up. Tape this above your computer and refer to it often.
“This will help you to stay focussed, and avoid your plot meandering into the wilderness.”
– Sue Whiting, latest release Pearlie And Pig And The Great Hairy Beast
Change your perspective
“Print the draft and read it in a different place to where you wrote it.”
– Christine Sykes, latest release Gough And Me
Readers won’t wait for your best
“By the time you get to the end of a first draft you’ll almost always find that your writing is better and way more fluent – as if those early chapters are Rocky Balboa doing his first push-up after a long winter on the couch and the later ones are the climax of the training montage, where he’s running up a snowy mountain barefoot with an anvil in each hand, a cow strapped to his back and a happy grimace on his face.
“Some writers say it’s best to leave time between drafts but I’d recommend jumping back in as soon as you reach the end of round one, while you’re at your fittest and most battle-ready.
“With any luck, you’ll get to the end of that second draft with a much more balanced manuscript that comes out swinging from the starting bell. Readers don’t want to wait for your best.”
– Paul Dalgarno, latest release Poly
Pay attention to structural beats
“Whether you structure according to a Hero's Journey arc, or if you use a particular type of story engine, or you follow a Save the Cat structure…whichever way you structure your story, make sure you hit those key moments.
“Readers feel in their gut when a story isn't going the way it's supposed to go, and that's mostly about structural beats – if the Midpoint Twist moment (for example) isn't there or is out of place, readers *know*, and it can throw them out of the story.
“So keep an eye on your beats!”
– Ellie Marney, latest release None Shall Sleep
Print it out
“Printing out a hard copy of your manuscript will allow you to break the writing down, sentence by sentence. Seeing the sentences in context of the page, rather than on the screen, allows you to inhabit the mind of your reader and see your project from a fresh perspective.
“The other thing I do is to re-read a book I love throughout the process. I pick it up whenever I need to remind myself that one day the book I’m writing will be a finished project – others have done it, so why not me?
“It's a way of pushing through the editing torture.”
– Lauren Chater, latest release The Winter Dress
Leave your work to rest
“This is important because of how the human brain works (it sees what it wants to see and needs a circuit breaker to be more objective). You need to be able to see it with fresh eyes.”
– Emily Gale, latest release Elsewhere Girls
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So you want to be a writer podcast, Al reads a lot, writes a lot, and blogs at allisontait.com