“Take one raw first draft…”
I first wrote out my editing process a few years ago, and it’s been up online ever since and was featured on the NaNoEdMo site for a while. Looking at it again I realised my process had changed a bit and the recipe could do with some refining. So here it is, updated and really rather long…
My Editing Recipe
So I’ve written the first draft of a novel. I’ve given it some time to settle. Long enough to get emotional distance from it and forget some of the details. But now at last it’s time to start the editing.
1 first draft
Step 1: Read as a reader
I read it in a format where I can’t edit it. Anything so I can’t fiddle as I read. My usual method now is to read it on my ereader. That’s how I do most of my reading these days, so it feels like a natural book reading experience.
And that’s what I’m trying to do here. Have a natural book reading experience as if I’d picked this book up at a shop or online. I want to get a high level feel for the book, as if I were a reader coming to it fresh. I don’t make notes or corrections at this point. I ignore the typos. I just read. Afterwards I make notes about general points, overall impressions.
Step 2: The Real Outline
You thought outlines were just for planning? Think again.
I make a big list of all the scenes in the story. Just a line per scene, a note so that I’ll understand what scene it refers to. I do this in Evernote these days, but all kinds of ways work. Spreadsheets, documents, index cards! This is like the skeleton of my story.
Step 3: The New Outline
I look at my Real Outline and think about the scenes.
Why might I move a scene? Pacing is the usual reason here – for example to delay the resolution of a cliff-hanger. Or just to make the timeline work more smoothly. If something about the timing doesn’t seem to work I’ll try making a time line of what everyone is doing and where at that point. I think about journeys. Did someone go from A to B in two hours, but B to A in twenty minutes for no explainable reason? I make a note of these issues for later reference.
Why might I split a scene up? To create a cliff-hanger could be one reason. For example: Someone bursts in the door and a big fight breaks out. Why not have a guy burst in the door, cut to another scene, before going back and seeing what happened after the guy burst in the door. A cliff-hanger doesn’t have to be action based, they aren’t just for thrillers. A cliff-hanger can be something someone says or finds that’s a shock or a revelation. Cut away and come back later for the rest of the details.
Why might I cut a scene? One of the primary reasons I cut scenes is for being really short. These are often for me just “reaction scenes” to something that went before. I needed them in the draft to work out how a character feels about something. But in the editing I’ll find I can get the important bits of that scene elsewhere, or I can merge it with another longer scene.
Sometimes I might want to cut a scene that basically works fine, but it just isn’t needed, it slows things down, or there isn’t really any conflict. Patient Z had two other scenes before the current opening scene back in the first draft. I cut them because they lacked conflict, they explained too much and they were just boring in comparison to the current crowd-pleasing “hot shirtless guy wakes up in chains with guns pointing at him” opening.
Step 4: The Rearranged Draft
Finally I’m going back to the text! Calm down, I’m not rewriting any of it yet.
After making sure to save a copy of the first draft safely out of the way as a backup I open the draft up to start putting the scenes in the order I’ve worked out in my New Outline.
I pause to give thanks for the miracle of Cut & Paste.
If I’ve done a lot of rearranging, then the easiest way to get the scenes into the new order is to open a new blank document file and cut and paste the scenes into it following the order of the new outline. If I have new scenes to add, I make a note in the text of where they will go, maybe with a very quick summary of what they’ll contain.
Eventually the first draft file will either be empty or have only have cut scenes left in it. If there are cut scenes then I rename or save this file as something like Cut Scenes.
I DO NOT DELETE IT!
Even if I don’t change my mind and decide to add one of the scenes back in later, I can still strip them for parts. There’s no need to lose say a nice bit of dialogue I could extract from a cut scene and fit in somewhere else.
If I haven’t done a huge amount of rearranging I use the original file (lemme just check I made a backup…) and move any cut scenes into a new blank file. Then I keep that file of cut bits safe – just in case!
Step 5: Write the new scenes and do large rewrites
At this point I write any new scenes I want to add. I do them pretty fast, leave them purely as first draft like the rest of the novel. If there are any scenes that need extensive rewrites I do them. I now have what is essentially the second draft.
Step 6: Chapters
I rarely write a first draft with chapters. But even if I have they’ve likely been a bit messed around by the rearranging. So this still applies. I look at my New Outline and my text and decide where my chapters are. I may have spotted some natural chapter breaks when reading and marked them already in the New Outline.
Step 7: Read it again.
If I have done a lot of rearranging and adding new stuff in, now is a good time to read the whole thing again to see if it hangs together. I know I’ve done lots of reading and no apparent editing at this point, but, believe me, all this work I put in beforehand makes the editing of the prose much easier and faster.
I read more critically this time. I don’t start making changes to the text though. I’m still looking at the Big Picture. Pacing and the plot, characterisation, plot holes, inconsistencies. If the new order pleases me then all is good. If I want to tweak the order of the scenes again I go back to Step 3 and do it now.
I have at least one brave beta reader who can deal with first draft prose, and since this is a good time to get a fresh opinion I may send it to them at this point.
Once I think I have really nailed the structure of my story in the outline (while being prepared to still tweak things!) it’s finally time for me get back to the text and start changing things.
Step 8: Back to the text
I work on the story chapter by chapter. This is when the real nitty-gritty of line editing and rewriting begins. And this step will usually take longer than all the other steps so far. But because I’ve already found and solved all the plot hole and timeline issues I can edit a chapter at a time and take that chapter to near final draft stage before I start on the next. And I can do so fast and with confidence! I know I won’t have to come back later and rewrite it for a second time, because of a problem I suddenly find in a later chapter. I already found the problem; I’m making those changes now.
I try not to think about anything but this chapter when I’m working on it. Why?
Step 9: Last Pass
After Step 8 is when I will usually send it off to a beta reader. Or I might have been sending a few chapters at a time to them while I was working on it. This usually gives me a break for a few days from the editing. I use this time to write my synopsis and query ready for submission.
Once it’s back from the beta readers I start my last pass on it. I’ll fix anything they’ve spotted and make my own final tweaks to the prose. The very final part of this last pass is one last spell check!
Tips for last pass proofreading!
By this stage my very familiarity with the text becomes a handicap. My brain fills in what it thinks it knows is there instead of what is really there. To combat this I try to introduce an element of unfamiliarity to it.
Step 10: Abandon it
It’s said that no work of art is ever finished, merely abandoned. If I go back and read the whole thing one more time I will still make tweaks here and there. I will still spot typos. If at this last reading I really do spot a serious problem that I must fix, then okay, I take another pass at it, repeating as many of the steps as you need to.
But I don’t go on pecking at it forever. At some stage I must say “this is as finished as it’s going to get.” And the longer I go on with it the more I will start to get bored with it and even hate it. Editing doesn’t always improve something. There’s no rule that says the line I rewrote today is better than it was before.
It’s also a case of diminishing returns. I learn a lot writing the first draft. I learn a lot from the editing. Every subsequent pass at the editing I’ll learn less as my focus gets tighter and tighter. Eventually I have to leave it be and move on to the next story and apply all the things I just learnt to that new one.