10 Things to Do Before Editing Your First Draft
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So, you've finished the first draft of your novel. Congratulations!
With a completed draft under your belt, it can be tempting to dive straight into edits, revising all of those pesky plot holes and other weaknesses you created along the way. This, however, would likely be a big mistake. Revising is a massive undertaking, requiring plenty of planning and objective thinking.
With that in mind, let's take a look at ten smart steps you can take before launching head first into the overwhelm that is editing a full-length story. How much time and effort you put into each step may vary depending on several factors, but each one is important to consider no matter your writing process. Shall we begin?
Step #1: Take a BReak.
Editing requires objectivity, and so one of the worst mistakes you can make is to jump straight back into your manuscript after completing the first draft. To revise effectively, you need to put a little distance between you and your story.
Generally, I'd recommend waiting at least two weeks before taking a second look at your story, or one to two months for best results. In the meantime, you can draft your next book, plan a new project, catch up on your TBR list, or otherwise refill your creative well.
Step #2: Read through your manuscript.
Once you've let your first draft cool off for a bit, it's time to read through what you've written. During this time, resist the urge to take notes or make changes. Read simply to reacquaint yourself with your work, and try your best not to throw your manuscript out the window.
First drafts are rough, all of them. Your own isn't going to be pretty. Luckily, the magic of writing happens in revisions, which we'll begin planning in our next step!
Step #3: Take a Look at Your Story's Plot.
With your initial read-through complete, it's time to take a second spin through your manuscript, this time taking notes on any big-picture changes you'd like to make. Specifically, keep an eye out for plot holes and any other weaknesses in your story's arcs.
It's okay if you don't quite know how to fix these issues yet. Just make sure to write them down so you can mull them over in the days and weeks to come.
Step #4: Consider Your Story's Pacing.
Consistent pacing is vital to a story's readability. As you work through your draft and iron out the major weaknesses in its plot, consider your story's pacing as well, taking notes on what you'd like to fix or change. Use the following questions as a guide if you're unsure where to begin:
Do certain areas in my story lag too long without conflict or feature way too much action happening at once? Have I given as much attention to the consequences of conflict as I have the conflict itself? Does tension decrease over time in my story rather than amping up as it approaches the climactic sequence?
Step #5: Kill Your Darlings.
Being honest about what just isn't working in your story is hard, but it's key to telling the very best story you can. As you read through your manuscript, consider where you went wrong in your first draft. What story elements just don't serve a purpose?
This may be a certain scene, a character, an entire subplot, a theme, or something else entirely. Whatever the case, if it doesn't move the plot forward, lend context to the story world, or aid in your characters' development, now is the time to be ruthless in deciding what won't survive into the second draft.
Step #6: Reconsider your characters.
As you continue reading through your manuscript and taking notes about the changes you'd like to make, take some time to review your characters. If you didn't create a character sketch during pre-writing, do so now, then compare the character you've developed to the one on the page.
Have all the important elements of this character's personality, history, and worldview made it into the manuscript? Where are they acting out of character? Could you throw them into any situations that would allow you to explore a new element of who they are?
Step #7: Smooth out your Character Arcs.
Most of your characters will experience internal arcs during your story. Whether they're overcoming a fear, battling a regret, attempting to avoid temptation, or otherwise undergoing development thanks to the events in your story, take a moment to ensure this development happens smoothly.
Here's a step-by-step breakdown on building character arcs if you're looking for a little guidance as you read through your manuscript and take notes.
Step #8: Re-establish your Characters' Wants & Needs.
Characters are what drive stories forward. Whether your character has a clearly defined goal, is looking for a little change, or is merely rolling with the punches another character is doling out, make sure you know exactly what it is that's motivating your character to take action.
If you're unsure, you risk that invaluable connection that hooks readers into your story. But by using your characters to develop the plot, you give readers a reason to invest in your story and keep turning pages.
Step #9: Iron out the details.
By now, you have plenty to consider as you tackle the second draft of your story. However, if you like having a full revision plan in place before diving in, now's the time to tackle some of the smaller but just as important elements of story: theme, framework, world-building, voice.
Which elements are missing or underdeveloped in your first draft? Which could use a major overhaul?
Depending on your genre and story, some of these elements could create a butterfly affect, with one small change developing into complete rewrites of plot, character, and beyond. Make sure to give them the time of day!
Step #10: Make a game plan.
No two writers approach revisions in the same way. You may wish to write many small drafts, making changes to only one story element at a time. Or, you may wish to work big, revising all of your story's major elements during one draft, then refining or moving on to line edits in the next.
The choice is up to you, writer! But with all that said, I would encourage you to take a look at the list of changes you'd like to make to your story and prioritize what's most important. Don't work on refining your prose if your plot is still in shambles or your themes if you're still developing your character arcs.
Cut through the editing overwhelm by identifying which changes will have the biggest impact on your story, then considering how those changes might affect other story elements. With a prioritized game plan in place, you'll find it that much easier to conquer your story's second draft, writer!