Writing a first draft takes so much of your time and energy. When you finish something, celebrate your accomplishment! It’s proof of your creativity and hard work. If you really want your writing to grow, the next step is surviving the editing process.
Editing can seem scary. Daunting. Confusing.
Use these tips to get started.
1. Take a Break from Your Work
It’s so important to let your brain reset after finishing any story. Close your draft and spend the next few days or weeks doing other hobbies. When you feel ready to return with a newly energized, distanced perspective, you’ll get your best editing work done.
2. Start With Developmental Editing
Writers often think that they have to start editing line by line, looking for grammar and spelling issues. While you’re free to do that, you’re likely going to add and remove plenty of content before your final draft is done.
Instead, start with developmental editing. Read through your work and take notes about how the larger plot points are working or not working. Does each chapter move your characters through each point on your plot outline or your visualized storyline?
This step may involve adding new scenes or removing others. It can also mean reworking old scenes so they’re less wordy, more descriptive, more actionable, or whatever you feel is missing.
Take notes about plot holes too. You don’t have to fix them on your first read-through, but note where they’re happening and why they’re holes. You can return in your second read-through to address them.
You can also survive the editing process by breaking your developmental editing into questions, like:
- What is my story’s theme and does each chapter support that theme?
- What does every character want and do they achieve that? Why or why not?
- What motivates each character? Do they retain that motivation or develop a new one to better serve the plot? (Sometimes writers forget about initial character motivations while getting lost in the writing process. This is the time to revisit that!)
- Do you have a beginning, an inciting incident, a building through the middle, and a payoff at the end? (You can have much more than these, but these are very basic plot mechanics to look for.)
3. Save and Start a Second Draft
After reading through your manuscript and noting the things above, create a copy for your second draft and start working on your notes. It’s good to have a separate second copy in case you want to include something from the original draft later on or compare where your story started/how it ended up.
Again, you’re not supposed to worry about line work at this point. Focus on bigger-picture story issues like plot mechanics, how scenes work/don’t work, plot holes, and your theme(s).
Reminder: there’s no timeline for getting these steps done. Work when you have the energy and take breaks when you don’t. Your manuscript will stay right where you save it.
4. Reread Your Work
When you’ve worked through your list of notes, make a copy of your manuscript and start Round 3. Reread your story and start a new list of bigger-picture notes as needed. This time, the list should be shorter or include new notes that you didn’t catch before. They may also include notes for new scenes you just added.
The point of this reread is to make sure that your manuscript still works. Your plot shouldn’t have any holes, it should flow smoothly, and it should be engaging.
Here’s a key concern for many writers: how do you edit your story without getting away from your original intentions?
Keep your eyes locked on why you write your original draft. If you make edits/scene removals or additions with that purpose or theme in mind, your story will stay on track. It may eventually look completely different than what you originally wrote (if that’s your editing journey), but the heart of it will remain the same.
Try posting your story’s purpose or theme on a sticky note attached to your monitor.
You could also write the theme in your document’s header so it appears on every page.
5. Save and Start a Fourth Draft
Yes, it’s time for another new copy that’s your official fourth draft.
Take a deep breath. This is all part of learning to survive the editing process.
Remember—you can still walk away and return to your work later! Burnout won’t result in the story you’ve been working so hard to create. Get some sleep, see some friends, and enjoy your other hobbies. You’ll come back ready to go.
The fourth draft is another chance to read through your work and ensure that everything works. Your chapters should get your characters closer to your theme/purpose with each page. The scenes should flow, not repeat information, and keep you engaged.
When you have a small list of edits or none at all, it’s time to start line work.
The spell-check feature of any word-processing software is a lifesaver, but it’s also not perfect. You’re going to have sentence structures that spell check deems incorrect when it actually works for your writing style or character. You’ll have fake names you made up that spell check wants to change.
If you use spell check, proceed slowly. Read every sentence with a flagged issue to make sure it’s a good or bad suggestion.
You can double your line work by combing through it by yourself. Print your story and grab a highlighter or use the highlight feature on your computer. Note linework issues that you can fix with a quick edit when you get a chance, like:
- Missing punctuation
- Wrong punctuation marks
- Missing words
- Inconsistent capitalization or spelling
- Formatting issues (spelling out numbers vs using numerals, etc.)
- Using the wrong tense in some paragraphs or chapters
- Inserting indents as needed
- Extra spaces between paragraphs
6. Send Your Work to Beta Readers
Repeat the saving, making a copy, and editing as many times as you want. When you feel like you’ve got your strongest draft yet, you can send it to beta readers.
How you define beta readers depends on your specific situation. You may have a few writing friends who know the craft well and will read your work with a professional eye. You might have a family member or best friend who doesn’t know about the craft of writing but always reads your work.
There are also places like Reddit threads and Facebook groups where people volunteer as beta readers.
The primary reason to get fresh eyes on your work is to get notes from someone who hasn’t been working on the content for months or years.
Their advice might not always be usable, but it’s still an important part of editing. Your beta reader might suggest points where they lost interest because your pacing slows down or point out places where you described your protagonist as having long hair when they have short hair during the rest of the story.
You’ll know which suggestions are actionable and which aren’t based on who’s speaking and how it resonates with your story’s purpose. You’ll probably get better advice from other writers who have been through editing before, but that doesn’t mean their advice will always be correct.
Always check in with your story’s purpose or theme before taking action on a beta reader’s notes.
When Should You Stop Editing?
One of the final battles during your editing experience will be recognizing when you can stop working on your manuscript.
There will always be moments when you could think of a new scene or a new way to rewrite a scene. That doesn’t mean you have to!
Ask yourself these questions to finish your editing when your story is strongest:
Question 1: Have I Worked Through the Most Essential Plot Mechanics?
You’ll know you’ve survived the editing process when your finished manuscript doesn’t need more structural work. By structural, I mean that you’ll be at peace because your manuscript:
- Doesn’t have any plot holes
- Addresses your theme/message from beginning to end
- Showcases each character’s growth through plot developments
- Has natural dialogue
- Has introduced and resolved conflicts (with the exception of conflicts that will continue in a sequel or series)
- Has no known typos or grammar issues
Question 2: Are My Edits Improvements or Are They Inconsequential?
You could spend a lifetime swapping character names, adjusting your world map, or revising how you describe locations. You might like your edits better, but they aren’t vital to your story’s plot or character development. If there’s no substantial improvement with your edits, you’re likely done with your manuscript.
Survive the Editing Process Like a Pro
Editing can be tricky at first, but using steps like these will help you whack through the densest parts of the work. Take your time, give yourself space to rest, and you’ll create the story you’ve been working so hard to finish!