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How To Start Editing A First Draft Novel

How to start editing a first draft

First off, you deserve congratulations for finishing a first draft. Way to go! (The definition for “finishing” is up to you, by the way.) Now you’re faced with the daunting hellhole known as… revisions. It’s hard to start editing a first draft, especially when you begin to think about all the words you’ll have to change, get rid of, or add. So much work to be done!

So here are my tips for editing a first draft.

Step 1: Step Away

Give yourself some time to cleanse yourself of the novel you’ve just finished drafting. You need time away from the story in order to come back to it with a more critical mindset. You can tuck the manuscript away in a drawer, or tell yourself to not open the file on your computer for a certain amount of time. You can also set a deadline for when you want to get back to the manuscript. Don’t start tinkering right now. Your novel has gone through a lot and needs to rest.

When I’m editing, I let myself stay away from the manuscript for at least 4 weeks. This is enough time for me to start to forget about the story details. That sounds counterintuitive—you should be immersed in your story, shouldn’t you? But the time away from the story will give your brain a break. You need to return to the story with a fresh outlook. If you’re full of the finicky little details, you may miss out on the big picture.

Step 2: Writing and Editing Research

Don’t leave yourself to twiddle your thumbs while waiting for the story to marinate! Take the time away from your manuscript to do research on writing craft and editing tips. This can help you to get back to the story more quickly, since you’re on the topic of writing improvement. The time between manuscript drafts or before revisions is a great space to learn about your craft. This research will help you develop a more critical mindset, too. Revising a manuscript can be difficult because it’s a personal investment; we’ve put our hearts and souls into writing it, so pointing out and correcting flaws can be difficult.

I’ll have a post in a few weeks with some of my favourite craft resources! You can use ebooks, reference books bought or loaned, workbooks, or websites with articles dedicated to helping you improve. Another great way to research the craft is freewriting. Maybe research isn’t for you—that’s okay! You can still work on your craft by writing some more.

Step 3: Decide Your Material

Some writers print out their manuscript on paper. Others convert it to an ebook and review it on their ereader. And others save it as a new document to then revise on their computer. Choose the method that works best for you! I’ll have a post in February going over the pros and cons of different methods. I won’t tell you which one to do, though. You need to do what is accessible to you.

I personally like a combination of printed manuscript and ebook. I print out a copy in a relatively small, but legible, font size and tiny margins. This helps me save ink and reduce the amount of paper used. I then go through the story, skimming most of the time, and highlight entire paragraphs (with a slash through the words, not each line) with different colours to denote the problems I find. I use an ebook format for more detailed, line-based commenting.

Step 4: Begin with the Big Picture

I mentioned “big picture” in step one. When you’re editing a first draft, you need to focus on the larger aspects of a novel, rather than on sentence craft. I consider three aspects to be big picture to a story: plot, characterisation, and theme.

In your plot, look for loopholes/plotholes, cliches, genre tropes, repeated scenes, and forward motion. What can you use to your advantage? Where can you cut? What can you move around?

Your characterisation should involve a protagonist who acts upon the plot. They must propel it forward by acting on it, in any means necessary. The story doesn’t happen around them: they are the story.

Theme, in my definition, covers thematic elements as well as tone. Tone includes your word choice, point of view, and perspective. Before you get to line editing, consider the theme of your story. What is the whole story about, in terms of broad statements? Don’t tell yourself what happens in the story. Remind yourself why the story is being told.

When you begin editing a first draft, my final piece of advice is this: adapt to the draft. Sometimes you’ll need to edit the first act, only to figure out that it needs to change again to accommodate the third act. (Or whichever type of structuring you use/imagine.) It’s not often that a manuscript goes through revisions smoothly, from start to finish, in one spurt of time.

If you’re really stuck, a trusted beta reader can volunteer their time to help you untangle your first draft. Additionally, you may feel like a manuscript evaluation can help point you in the right direction.

Good luck editing! Do you have any tips to share on editing a first draft?

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