How to Edit Your First Draft

Your fingers hover the keyboard. You inhale deeply. Then you do it: you type the words “The End.” You exhale. You blink back tears of joy.

You’ve finished the first draft of your story! It hasn’t been easy, but you’ve pushed through. You’ve done the thing. You finished your draft. Then you think, “Now what?”

First, take a break. Read that book you’ve been putting off in order to write. Treat yourself to a celebratory dinner. Go out with friends. Binge the end of that TV show you started. Shout to the world of your accomplishments via social media. Reward yourself in some way and do something other writing. You deserve a break.

Then, let your draft rest for a set amount of time. Hide it in a desk drawer. Save it somewhere other than your computer’s desktop. Put the story away and work on something else. Chase that shiny plot bunny that zipped through your brain when you hit the midpoint of this novel. Work on something you haven’t touched in a few months, or years. Do something, anything, other than look at the novel. Stephen King suggests waiting six weeks between finishing a draft and rereading it. If you don’t have the luxury of six weeks because of deadline or some other obligation, try to set it aside for at least a week. But the longer, the better.

Set a date when you’ll look at it again and stick to that date. Then reread your draft. Don’t edit. Don’t make corrections: just read it. You can keep a notebook or document handy to jot down notes as you go, in case you notice a scene is missing or something that definitely needs to be fixed. But try to stay away from correcting all your typos or diving straight into editing. Instead, read it as if you are a reader, not a writer or editor, and see what you think of the story. Some people like to print out the whole thing to read it, and others turn it into a PDF and send it to a Kindle device or tablet so they can’t make corrections while reading.

After reading the draft with fresh eyes, there are a few things you can do to help you start the editing process. Create an outline. This will help you figure out what scenes are missing or where you can combine ideas and plot points. Your outline doesn’t have to be fancy or in-depth. A bullet point list of plot points or a summary of each chapter can help give you an idea of what the story is about. You can also organize the story further into specific scenes or plot beats. Separating these onto individual post-its or notecards, whether physically or virtually, will allow you to see the whole story laid out and move pieces of the story around for better pacing and plot flow. Some writers also recommend writing up different summaries of your story so you can pick apart the story and get to the heart of the plot and characters. Summaries can be anywhere between 2,000-3,000 words for novels and 200-300 words for short stories.

While outlines and summaries aren’t vital to the editing process, they can help give your editing a boost as they help you see the story as a whole. Because when you first set out to start editing, you want to look at the big picture stuff, aka the content of your story. There’s no point in correcting typos or polishing your grammar and descriptions if you aren’t even going to keep those scenes in the story. Read your draft again and make a list of threads to focus on: characters, plot, world-building, themes, descriptions, magic system, etc. Then take each one and make a game plan.

Sometimes this will involve rewriting whole scenes and sometimes it’ll merely be tweaking scenes to fit with new ideas or plots. It means changing details and reworking dialogue. It might include cutting chapters or characters or rabbit trail side plots that don’t fit with the rest of the story.

There isn’t one way to edit a story once you get started. What works for one writer might not work for another. Some writers like to pull up the first draft and a new document side by side and rewrite scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph, line by line. Others edit as they go, returning to the previous days work and revising until it’s perfect before moving onto the next scene. There are some writers who will focus on one aspect each time they edit through the novel and will end up writing three or four or ten drafts before the content aspects are finished.

No matter which way you prefer to edit, and sometimes that will take time to figure out for yourself, don’t rush editing. Take your time to truly make the story the best it possibly can be on your own. It’s your story, your vision. Feedback from others can be helpful, and it never hurts to have an alpha reader look over scenes here and there to give you immediate feedback so you know you’re going in the correct direction, but feedback is only helpful if you’ve made the effort to edit to the best of your ability first. A messy first draft will be dumped into a trash can by agents and publishers. Don’t let your story be that abandoned manuscript.

After working on content editing, you’ll want to move into “line” editing. This kind of editing focuses on the smaller stuff, the micro aspects. This could include editing for grammar and punctuation, taking note of word choice and descriptions, or searching for typos and inconsistencies. Ask yourself questions like Does this make sense? or Is this explained or described as clearly as possible? or Did I forget anything essential? During this part of the writing process, it’s good to read your story out loud. While it might sound weird at first to do so, it can help catch awkward sentences, typos, or anything that doesn’t quite work in the story. Changing the font of the story as you comb through it can help point out mistakes as well.

Again, like content editing, slow down and take your time to line edit. It’s not a race, so don’t treat it like something you have to get finished immediately. Set goals and personal deadlines so you don’t slack off, but don’t rush through this just because you want to publish it or share it with your friends.

As a rule of thumb, professional writers usually write about three drafts for a story. There are exceptions. Some writers only need two drafts if they edit as they go, and other writers may need more. But overall, you need three drafts. The first is the messy, rough draft where you get all your ideas down without focusing too much on perfect grammar or story structure. This is the draft where your idea becomes a story. The second draft is content draft where you fix the major problems of the story. This draft involves writing new scenes, rewriting other scenes, and organizing everything into some kind of structure. This might take more than one draft to finish. The final draft is the line edit draft where you polish your story and focus on the nitty gritty details. This draft is where you put in the final touches of the story.

After you’ve done everything possible with your story, find someone else to read it. This could be beta readers or writers whose opinions you trust. Beta-readers are people who will tell you if the story works. They don’t usually focus on nitpicking your grammar or fixing your typos unless you specifically ask them to do that. Instead, they’re the people who are going to look at the big picture content and tell you what could be better. They don’t even have to know anything about writing, since your book isn’t for writers, it’s for readers. Just let them know what you want from them. You could, of course, have people read it before you do the line editing stage, though I would still caution you to make sure your typos are minimal and your grammar is correct.

Once you receive feedback, the process starts all over again. You’ll want to read the feedback and edit based on what your beta-readers have told you. You might receive feedback that you don’t agree with, but that’s okay. Your beta-readers’ opinions are still valid since they’re your readers. Take time to mull over their feedback and double check that you aren’t dismissing an idea or question because of your initial reaction.

Editing can be a lot of work and a daunting task to begin. But writing the story is only one step of the writing process. If you want to see your story being sold in bookstores or published in magazines, you have to take that next step. You have to give yourself time to focus on what you want the story to be and to make it even better than before. So as you type the words “The End,” remember it’s not the end. It’s just the beginning of the process.