Sunday, August 22, 2010

I've Finished My First Draft - Now What?

I talk with lots of writers who struggle with the editing process. It leaves them feeling overwhelmed and confused. Many are uncertain of where to begin. As a professional editor, I have a specific process I follow, whether I’m working on a client’s manuscript or my own. There are a lot of things to look for in a manuscript and I’ve found that it takes multiple editing passes to catch everything. I take things in small bites—editing no more than a chapter at a time. I also go from the big issues to the small details. Here are the steps I go through when I’m getting a manuscript ready for publication.

First Pass – I make certain that each scene (if there’s more than one per chapter) has strong conflict and is necessary to move the story along. I’m ruthless here—good writing alone NEVER justifies a scene’s inclusion in the finished product.

Second Pass – I check my timeline and the sequence of events. I make sure everything is logical. For example, I look to see if I have a character giving a response before an event happens.
  • Elisa jumped when a loud pop echoed in the chamber.
  • The loud pop echoed through the chamber and Elisa jumped, knocking her head against the back of the chair.
In the first example the reader sees Elisa jump then reads about the pop.
The second example puts things more logically.

During this pass I also check to see if I have a balance of speaker beats and speaker tags.

Third Pass – I check for passive writing. I do a search for the word was and study each usage to make certain it’s past tense—not passive tense.
  • Stuart was walking across the yard.
  • Stuart walked (or better yet, strolled) across the yard.
Was Walking is passive in the first example.
In the second example the verb is much stronger.

Fourth Pass – I look for telling, instead of showing. These are some clue words I search for:
  • Felt
  • Remembered
  • Knew
  • Watched
  • Saw
  • Looked
  • Was
  • -ing words
  • -ly words
These words let me know that something might be wrong.

Fifth Pass – I look for times when I’ve named emotions instead of showing them.
  • Bethany felt panic course through her system. Had she waited too long?
  • Bethany could feel her nails cutting into her palms as she fisted her hands. Had she waited too long?
In the first example I name the emotion – panic. In the second example I let Bethany’s actions lead the reader to her emotional state. The first example also has a clue word—felt—that would help me see that changes need to be made.

Sixth Pass – I look to see if each scene contains all five senses.
Here are two senses I had to add to the scenes I was working on.
  • Substandard lighting and circulation led to the lingering odor of sulfur mixed with leaching compounds. At almost two clicks beneath the metropolis the noxious haze, unable to dissipate, lingered to burn the throat of any unfortunate worker.
  • Dawn had broken, but instead of beauty, a dank haze hung over the city. He could still taste the metallic bite in the polluted air.
Seventh Pass – I read the entire chapter out loud, making notes about whatever hits me as slightly off.

This is the process I always use. It won’t catch everything, but it gets me a long way down the road. After going through these seven steps I set the chapter aside and move on to the next one. This gives me my second draft.

There are many good books out there on this subject, especially Self-Editing for Fiction Writers  by our own Dave King. All I’ve done is break the process down into one I could replicate with any manuscript. What are some tricks you use when you’re in the editing process?


  1. I finished the first draft of my first novel the end of June and have been trying to figure out how to go about editing it. This list is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for posting it! Sarah

  2. Sarah, I'm so glad this post helped. To go deeper into self-editing be sure to read the book, "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by our own, Dave King. God's timing is always perfect!

  3. Great post. I love editing and making my story better. I will print this and keep it for reference.

  4. Edie - did you know I was planning a major offensive on my manuscript for the next 30 days? Thanks for the advice!

  5. Janet, we're sisters of the pen - I love to play with words! Lynn - I promise I didn't know! Let me know if I can help in any way.

  6. Love this list...will write it out, so I don't miss anything. The thing that helps me most is reading it out loud...hearing gives me a visual, if that makes sense! :)

  7. Excellent list! This is something to keep handy.

  8. Thanks for the comments, Mid and Carla. I'm glad you've found this helpful. I also find reading something out loud helps so much - although it does make my family look at me funny!

  9. I would like to know if there is a problem with printing off your blogs that has information I am needing at this time. The information isn't to be used elsewhere, just it's easier for me to follow if I have the steps in front of me. Thanks!

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  11. Helpful, wonderful...I'm so happy to know of this blog!

  12. Welcome, Britt! We're so glad you like what you see. Feel free to post any questions you might have.

  13. Glad this is still here. Like the others, I finally finished my first draft and am trying to figure out my editing process. Your list is a great start.