How to Edit a First Draft the Easy Way

How to Edit a First Draft the Easy Way

You’ve finished your novel!

It’s a real achievement to complete the first draft of a novel – congratulations! So, what now? You know that an edit is on the horizon! It might be that you’re lucky enough to have fellow writers with whom to share your work. But what if you don’t? Or what if you’ve shared your first draft and have plenty of feedback, but aren’t quite sure how to proceed with your edit?

I muddled through the editing process with my first two novels and ended up with ‘final drafts’ that I was happy with. However, I was without an agent and those novels remain unpublished, so it’s difficult to judge the success or otherwise of my edits! With my third novel, Petals and Stones, I discovered a new, specific, way to edit that I found really helpful. Partly this was influenced by Sol Stein’s brilliant book ‘Solutions for Writers.’ And partly it was influenced by my agent encouraging me to work with her on a chapter outline edit (which I describe below). So, here it is:

Step away before you edit

You’ve written the end. It’s very exciting, and you deserve a rest. Your manuscript deserves this too! Have a break for a few weeks – catch up on some reading, or play around with writing something completely different. Whatever you do, leave your novel completely alone before you begin to edit – it’s amazing the difference it makes to return to an oh-so-familiar story with fresh eyes.

Getting started on your edit

Do keep a copy of your first draft. You might make some changes during your edit that you regret later on, so it’s vital that you always keep a copy of what came before.

When you first return to your work it can be tempting to just start reading through, making small changes here and there, polishing the words as you go along. But STOP! It’s not the time to worry about writing flow, sentence structure, spelling or grammar just yet. What needs to come first in your edit is an appraisal of the big stuff – characters and architecture.

Characterisation is everything

Do you love the characters you’ve created? Are they alive in your mind? Have you been thinking about them during your break? Are they starting to feel like real people that you know? It’s vital that your protagonist and antagonist are well-rounded characters. Inspect them for cliché and stereotypes. It is never too late to flesh-out our characters, and during an edit is the perfect opportunity to make sure we are doing them justice. Is your protagonist flawed? They should be! And what about the antagonist in your novel? Are they complex and interesting, possibly even charming or likeable in some way? If not, you run the risk of them seeming like a two-dimensional ‘baddy’.

Throughout the course of your novel do you develop your characters in a way that makes sense? Many of your characters (but your protagonist especially) will change throughout the novel. Have you paid attention to the flow and pace of these developments? Check that your characters are developing congruently within the story.

The architecture of your novel

If you know your characters well then you will have no problem articulating what they want. Do you know what your protagonist wants? Does the reader know? It might be that your character wants something not to happen – this is still a want. Readers are curious, hungry for emotion, tension and suspense – and they look for it right from the start. Whilst tension may be short lived, suspense is not, and should be present through the whole of a novel to retain a reader’s interest. The classic narrative arc involves a building of suspense in the first three-quarters of your story – your protagonist’s ultimate ‘want’ should therefore remain frustratingly out of reach for most of the novel. It can sometimes be difficult for us to really know whether we have achieved this.

To help you work out what’s happening with the tension / suspense in your novel you can carry out a chapter outline edit. To do this, read through your novel (you can hopefully just skim read for this) and for each chapter (or major scene, if you don’t have chapters) write a few lines that describe the main action, and associated tension, of that section. Have separate pieces of paper for each chapter. Lay them out on the floor or table and take a look at them. What are you achieving in each? Does every chapter move the story on and add to the overall suspense / conflict / narrative drive? The middle third of a novel is often where the tension sags, so look carefully at this area. Look out for chapters or scenes that do nothing for the story, or that hinder the story in some way. Play around with the structure here. Try removing dubious chapters and scenes. Consider amalgamating scenes or chapters that seem to be achieving the same thing – don’t tell your reader something twice! Really try at this stage of your edit to look at the big picture of your novel. You’re asking your readers to go on a journey with you – are you clear where you’re taking them?

The detail edit

Once you’re confident that the structure of your novel is sound, and that your characters are well rounded, you can progress to editing paragraphs and sentences. There is plenty of advice about how to polish your writing and I won’t explore it here in detail, other than to say that brevity is a worthy pursuit; choose your words carefully. Be precise. Reduce adverbs and adjectives. Don’t repeat yourself. Play around with sentence length to keep paragraphs interesting. Show when you need to show, and tell when your story calls for it.


Why not share your experiences of how you edit in the comments below..!

2 thoughts on “How to Edit a First Draft the Easy Way

  1. I enjoyed reading this Joanne, and found myself nodding in recognition. There was a big breakthrough for me when I was able to start looking at chapters with the cool eye of scrutiny and put a red pen through the ones that weren’t working. In fact, that was the point where I started to really enjoy myself – when I realised how rewarding it is to reshape the original ideas into something that reads much better.

    1. Hello Hilary! I’m so sorry I’ve only just seen your comment. I’ve always received notifications when somebody comments, but that didn’t happen with your comment for some reason. I’m so happy that my post struck a chord with you. It’s a great feeling isn’t it, when we begin to see editing as a positive thing! I’m writing a first draft at the moment, and I imagine 2019 will be full of editing. What about you?

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