How to Edit: After the First Draft

So, Darling, in our last talk we went over how to edit a first draft. Now it’s time to talk about what comes next. The good news is, when you’ve written your second draft, a lot of the mountain is already under your feet.

But to recap: looking at your first draft, you should have the beginnings of the story, the beginnings of some good characterisation, and fix up the grammar a bit. Once you’ve done this, I have two very important words of advice:


I’ll repeat:

G O    A W A Y.

It’ll be painful, you may experience separation anxiety, but trust me, you’ll be better off by leaving this baby in a drawer and going outside for the first time this decade. In relationships, they say distance makes the heart grow fonder. The same is true in writing… there needs to be distance before you come to back to your second draft.


Looking at your second draft:

Now you’ve had your break (Stephen King recommends at least 6 weeks, though I don’t think I could physically stand more than two), it’s time to come back to your story with a clean mind. It’s not your baby, or your lover, or both (god forbid). Not anymore. It should feel almost as if someone else wrote it. Now, it’s a hot mess someone else made, and it’s your job to clean it up.

The first thing you do is print it out. Slap it on your desk, bed or whereever you’re going to be for the next day or so, because you’re going to read the sucker. The faster you can read it, the better. You’ll have time to savour your own genius when it’s in print- this is business. You’re trying to build the BIG PICTURE of the story in your mind, and the best way to do that is to read in big chunks. If you can do it all in a day, do it in a day. Laze around at your own peril.

Once you’ve done this, you’ll have a good idea of what needs to be changed. Maybe there’s a character who does nothing for the plot, maybe there’s a sub-plot that leads to nowhere- but there’ll be something. Make a note of it- by the end of this, you’ll have a big fat dossier of improvements to make.

You probably had a plot or an outline before you started writing, but odds are some things have changed, so here’s where I have a weird piece of advice: outline again.

Your new outline should basically be a summary of your story- but more detailed, with different sections. Different characters might have totally new arcs, which means fresh outlines for them. It might be easier to outline scene-by-scene, but as long as your outline is accurate to what you have on the page, you’ll be fine here.

Once you have your outline, you can go through, scene-by-scene, and analyse what you want to happen- with your characters in their individual arcs and with your overall plot, too. Whatever doesn’t contribute to the story, you can scrap. Focus on whatever’s important in the scene, story, character arcs; and make sure it happens.

Not sure what happens in a scene? Take a break- not to cry and eat chips, but to do something constructive. Look at a scene from a movie or book that’s similar to what you want, and analyse it. What happens? What have the creators done to make it work? Once you see how other people have done something, it makes it a lot easier to do for yourself.

Fix any major points that you believe should be fixed. Trim the fat off of your draft- kill your darlings. You’ll suffer, but your reader will thank you for it. Working on your second draft is the most painful thing for writers because it’s where the most trouble is. Editing is a process of constantly recognising you’re not as smart as you thought you were- and sometimes you’re dumb as the kid you sat next to in nursery school who ate his own homework.

Here’s an industry secret to help you out with this feeling: every writer has it. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, everyone. We all have stories that lurk in the deepest corners of the dusty boxes beneath our beds. What distinguishes the amateurs from the professionals is the ability to cry through these edits, admit we’re not as clever as we thought, and then put the work in to fool everybody else.

Cut everything that shouldn’t be there. Your second draft should be fewer words than your first, unless you’ve had to do MAJOR rewrites. Just make sure there’s nothing in your story that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. Sometimes there are whole characters, whole subplots… sometimes there are just little words or silly scenes that you need to cut, hack, saw, and delete.

As for the smaller bits of the process, here’s some advice:

Find the words you overuse, and replace them. I’ve driven my beta readers to the brink of insanity by having too many romantic leads with ‘golden eyes’ whose ‘tears trace down their cheeks like diamonds’, at this point even I’m sick of this stuff. Does that stop me from writing it in the heat of the moment? HECK NAH. But, can I fix it when I’m doing my in-depth read-through of every scene? HALLELU-YAAASSSS!

Find where your sentences are too long, use too many commas, etc, and fix them. This is one of the most pedantic and annoying jobs, but it’s yours, so you have to do it.

Find the cliches and fix them, too. Do the same for as many of the adverbs as you can.

Look for themes and symbolism and try to emphasise them when you do your rewrite. This is where the literary aspect of your work should shine. The part where high school kids who might study your work will groan and go, ‘but Miss, the curtains aren’t blue because the protagonist was sad, the writer just thought blue was a pretty colour!’

There’s nothing wrong with adding in pretty imagery, but if you can help it, the imagery should all relate back to the OVERALL MESSAGE of your story. What are you trying to say? What images are associated with what you’re talking about? How can you incorporate them into your story without seeming heavy-handed?

Do a read through of your story, after you’ve done ALL OF THE ABOVE. Don’t share it with anyone but the empty room, if you can help it. Make a special point of reading dialogue out loud, as it’s easy to overlook wooden dialogue otherwise. I like to read dialogue in different voices sometimes, just to stay awake in the long editing hours.



Third draft:

It’s okay. Deep breaths now, after all, you’ve just made huge leaps and strides in your story. Have some cake- hell, you deserve a WHOLE one, after doing all that! But save the last slice until you’ve completely finished everything I’m about to tell you. It’s good to have rewards, but only after you’ve done the work.

Get a second opinion- or at least five of them. Note whatever anybody says, especially if multiple people say the same thing. It took me a long time to realise that the audience is always right- it won’t feel like it when you’re editing, but you’ll realise it when you’re reading. When you’ve got all their opinions, apply them to your re-write.

Be meticulous. Fix sentences, metaphors, any little niggly things you think aren’t working even after re-writing your second draft.

Run your re-written 3rd draft through the Hemingway Editor. One of my beta readers suggested this, and at first I was skeptical, but now I realise it’s a saviour. I always used to miss a bunch of long sentences, but not now. Not ever again. This is great for looking at adverbs, sentence structure, and a lot of other things on a minute level.

Don’t overthink when you’re doing your re-write for your third draft. You’ve done all the hard thinking back in Draft 2. Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and try not to cry.

It’s okay to hate your story at this point. By the time Stephen King had finished Carrie, he hated her, too. By the time I’d been through the ringer with my first-ever published short story, I hated it. I was convinced the infinite rounds of editing had knocked the soul from each word, that I’d never hear from anyone about it ever again… but I was wrong. And you’re probably wrong to hate your work, too. I know I can’t convince you, but I have to tell you: IT GETS BETTER.

Don’t overthink things, and it’ll all be swell.

When you’ve re-written, it’s time to read through. There shouldn’t be much left to change. Little things, word choices, an awkward metaphor here or there. Maybe an obsolete sentence that might have been important once. Now is the time to savour your work, to remind yourself how far you’ve come from your first draft, and how close you are to being finished.


Finished draft:

You’re never going to think it’s finished. Tears spring to my eyes telling you this, but it’s true. Writers will never stop having things to change in their manuscript- it’s just not in our nature.

You might wish to repeat the editing process for draft 2 or draft 3- this is fine, but I don’t recommend doing going through the ringer more than five times for a single story, if you value what’s left of your sanity.

You know it’s ready when:

1- Your friends and beta readers have stopped speaking to you because they can’t handle reading what is essentially the same draft ‘AGAIN, for christ’s sake’.

2- You’re not changing major things, it’s just words and commas. You need to pry your manuscript from your cold, half-dead hands and send it off and out into the world.

Good luck, Darling.




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