Editing Your First Draft: A Tale of Terror

I once told you to go edit yourself after a break of about six weeks. So, let’s say those six weeks have passed, and you’re ready to start editing your manuscript.

So, there it is — 60, 70, 100, 200,000 words — all sitting there just staring at you, waiting for those first cuts or elaborations and clarifications. Where do you start?

Most read their own manuscripts through about five times, but I like to go through mine six. It’s not actually to be more thorough or a topper or anything. You’ll see why in a moment.

Step One: Read for enjoyment.

Here’s what I like to do when I start editing anything. I read it for its content. Just a read through as if I were picking up the book for enjoyment. This step is where you set aside all your judgments and just enjoy what you’ve written. Now, if you’re overly critical of yourself, you might find things during your reading that you don’t like, or catch a mistake in continuity, spelling, or grammar. If you can’t let it go, make a quick note of it and set it aside. Then, just keep reading. Read it through to the bitter end, or the happy end, or whatever ending you’ve written.

This is a healthy way to just get through and enjoy your work and what you’ve accomplished, and it will set you up to start gearing into editor’s mode in the next five steps.

Step Two: Read for supplementation.

This is where you need to add in what you forgot to in the first place. Did you describe a scene but find it lacking? Add details — sound, smell, sights — and the explanation of how characters got to be where they were wherever you feel it’s important. Yes, many people will tell you it’s not necessary to add anything to your first draft, but I’ve found that to be simply untrue. But don’t worry, you’ll cut it down later.

Step Three: Read for expurgation and condensation.

It’s later now…your third read should be finding all those ugly spots where there’s just too much exposition. If you lose between 20-25% of your manuscript, that’s fine. It’s expected. I’ve deleted entire chapters without hurting the story. Cut back on anything that’s getting preachy. You don’t want to mess too much with your story’s point.

You may also want to cut back things that got to be too much (too overtly sexual, violent, or factual). Use your best judgment. Did you really mean to have the family dog eat your antagonist’s manky bits? You might want to take it out, or not. Depends on what kind of mood your going for (and especially important in that case if you want your antagonist to have children). Of course, this will also depend on your genre. Erotica, slasher, shlock, and other genres may allow more graphic detail.

Tighten up your writing. Make your sentences pop, kill the verbosity when necessary, and get your point across.

Step Four: Read for content.

Hand-in-hand with expurgation and condensation, you need to do another read through for your content. Did one of your characters get stabbed on page 37 and is absolutely fine without reason on page 38? Did Sally J. mysteriously move from apartment #4 to #8? Oops! Now’s the time to fix it.

Make sure your timeline makes sense, and you don’t have characters meeting before they’re introduced (unless you’re going for a wibbly-wobbly timey wimey thing and totally doing that on purpose), and that your point of view isn’t bouncing around from one character to the other constantly (unless you’re going for that, but make sure it’s handled with skill to avoid confusing your readers).

Here is the ideal time to do your fact-checking. If you’re using anything in your story that is based in fact (for example, recently I needed to know some stuff about guns and helicopters), do your research. Google, watch YouTube videos, and ASK people you know to be experts. Get the information down and make sure your story makes SOME sense. No, you don’t have to be 100% accurate and can take license with certain things to fit your plot and drive it forward, but if you don’t even make the effort to be accurate, it will show, and your work will get called out for it.

Conversely, you can also write too much on the facts and lose the story — so go ahead and cut that back if you haven’t already in step three. Remember, it’s all about the story. Whether you’re character driven or plot driven, your main focus needs to be your story, not how many hours of research you’ve done or how many experts you’ve interviewed. Ultimately, it comes down to the story you’re telling.

That having been said, some people just don’t care and do it anyway — they just write whatever comes into their head, and damn the research. Unfortunately, it can ruin the fun for your audience. In this case, I would put a disclaimer in your author’s notes, preemptively asking for forgiveness. It can help massage the audience into a bit of forgiveness. However, I’m all for maintaining a balance between your facts and your fiction.

Step Five: Read for sentence structure and minutiae.

This read is where you do your real spelling and grammar check. Take out your fine-tooth comb and start scouring your pages for the correct usage of ‘too, to, and two’ and all that. Make sure that everything is consistent, too. Your dialog doesn’t have to be grammatically correct at all, but it needs to be consistent. You don’t want your Harvard Professor Emeritus sounding like a rural Kansas farmer, right? The same goes for your punctuation. If you’re using the Oxford comma, make sure you’re using it consistently throughout your text.

Check to see if you’re using a single word too often, and take those out. “Quickly, Maynard went to the door and quickly opened it. The girl stood still, soaking wet in the rain. He quickly took her inside and wrapped her up in a towel.” Guess which word needs to go? (Hint: it’s NOT Maynard.)

Do a quick review to make sure you didn’t rename a town by accident, and make sure you spell your place names consistently.

Double check your sentences. Seriously. Make sure you’ve gotten rid of clunky sentences or fixed them in such a way that they’re nice and smooth. Get rid of trite crap.

You’ll also want to ensure that your paragraph transitions are slick and easy. Do this now.

Step Six: Read it to an audience.

When all of this is done, go ahead and find a victim…a willing one, please — and read your manuscript aloud. If you don’t have anyone, record it and play it back to yourself as if you were listening to an audio book. This will help you with your previous five steps. You can catch repetitive and/or awkward sentences here, and that’s a huge help for clarity.

Additionally, you’ll also be able to hear dialog better, and see if you can keep track of who’s speaking.

Finally, it’ll help your pacing, and you can go back and fix spots that drag or slow down anything that’s too rushed.

That’s it!

Congratulations, you’ve gone through your first revision. Now, it’s up to you to do further editing, or allow a second set of eyes to edit your work. This can be in the form of an editor or beta reader. It can give you a different, more detached perspective on your work that can help get your manuscript ready for publishing, and an agent or editor will appreciate it.

Okay…what are you still doing here? Get editing already!

Follow me on Twitter (@Spellvira) where you can read absurdities on an infrequent basis. You can also learn more and read excerpts of my work on my tumblr page.

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