Aaah, you finally did it: you wrote an entire first draft of a novel, short story, or screenplay. Time to bask in the rays of light that fall on writers who finish what they started!
Give yourself some time to bask; after all, you’ve earned it. Then, when you’re ready, use the following resources to dive back into your novel – after all, the first draft is never the final draft.
Get Some Inspiration
The best songwriting comes from being as creative as you can and editing it down to the good bits, essentially. Alex Kapranos
Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader. That’s why, to be an editor, you have to be a reader. It’s the number one qualification. Robert Gottlieb
I don’t think anyone is ever writing so that you can throw it away. You’re always writing it to be something. Later, you decide whether it’ll ever see the light of day. But at the moment of its writing, it’s always meant to be something. So, to me, there’s no practicing; there’s only editing and publishing or not publishing. Steve Martin
Learn from Great Editors
My favourite book about editing is “The Artful Edit” by Susan Bell; it offers a ton of tips on ways to approach the editing of your novel. Other resources you can tap into include:
- The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers
- Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers
- Editing the RedPen Way: 10 steps to successful self-editing
Start with a full read-through
After you’ve taken some time away from your novel – how much time is up to you and your process – sit down and read it from cover to cover. Resist the urge to fix small things now; instead, look at it as a whole and consider the big things that you may need to change. Take a few notes as you read so that once you’re finished, you can decide where to start.
Fill in your research
Personally, when I write, I try to write fast. Sometimes, that means I make up a meal out of whole cloth that may be totally inappropriate for my 18th-century Irish settlers, and the editing stage is where I get to fix that. As you go through the details of your novel, flag the points or inconsistencies where you need to ensure historical, thematic, or contextual details are correct.
Follow the narrative arc of each character
For each character, follow their scenes throughout the book. Does their journey make sense? Are there any leaps of logic or dramatic transformations that are not justifiable? Where do you need more or less detail about a character’s choices?
Consider your use of foreshadowing and other narrative devices
Narrative devices can add depth and complexity to your story, but unending repetition of the same clichés can make your readers cringe. Consider how you use foreshadowing and make sure you hint rather than heavy-handedly announce your character’s intentions. Don’t end every single chapter on a cliffhanger. If a character is associated with a sensory experience like a colour or a quality, check your consistency throughout the story.
Consider the beginning and ending of each chapter
Does the transition from chapter to chapter make sense? Have you set up some sort of context for the next scene? Even if it’s a heading that shows the reader that the time and date have changed, ensure they know where they are as they begin the next section of your book.
Consider the beginning and ending of each paragraph
As you get into the nitty-gritty of editing, start to consider how your paragraphs transition to each other. This isn’t just about grammar; think about how your story transitions from paragraph to paragraph. The last sentence of the previous paragraph should lead to the first sentence of the next. If there is a jump in context, is a reader able to follow along?
Polish the opening and closing of the story as a whole
You may find that you now have a better idea of how your novel should open or close, so spend some time on both of those sections. The opening of your novel needs to hook your readers; spend some time studying how great authors open their books and do your best to apply the same principles to yours. You may also want to move opening exposition away from the beginning and spread it throughout the book or move scenes around to bring readers more fully into the world of the novel early on.
Show, don’t tell
Instead of telling your readers that your main character is tired, have his exhaustion written in every movement that he makes. Use all of the senses – sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch – to illustrate the characters and scenes in your book, and get rid of as many adjectives as you can.
Do a close grammatical edit; use every tool you have to catch mistakes
Try Hemingway and AutoCrit to add an additional layer of checks for grammar and other sentence-level mistakes. Use Dictionary.com and OneLook to find alternatives to words and ensure you’re using all of your words correctly. Scour your manuscript to implement the following:
- Get rid of needless words
- Pare down your use of adjectives
- Avoid the passive voice
- Get rid of exclamation points
- Get rid of repetitive words, phrases, or habits
Read Out Loud
This is SO important – reading out loud will allow your ears to hear mistakes that your eyes missed. Reading out loud also helps you smooth out the rhythm of your story and see where your characters and readers might trip up.
Looking for more tips? Here are some of my favourite online resources:
- The Write Life: Self-Editing Basics
- 10 Things to Do Before Editing Your First Draft
Any tips to add? Let me know in the comments!