How to Edit Your First Draft Fearlessly
If you’re asking how to edit your first draft, you’ve come to the moment of truth in your writing journey.
You see, every first draft is an accidental disappointment. A dumpster fire of good intentions. A tight tangle of unorganized potential.
In other words, you’re bound to discover that your first draft is, well, not good. It may be excellent for a first draft. But it’s not good for a novel.
I know this because no first draft is. It’s not supposed to be.
When you sat down to take that first stab at telling a story, you weren’t crafting a masterpiece. You were spilling the vision in your head onto the page to be sorted and shined later.
Now, here you are at “later,” which means it’s time to face the mess, and let me tell you: this first edit will probably be the biggest clean-up job of your entire writing process.
That’s why this is the point where a lot of writers freak out and don’t finish. But you’ve got this. You’re brave, you’re bold, and you’re about to learn everything you need to know about how to edit your first draft.
So get that red pen handy.
Preparation for Editing
Before you think about how to edit your first draft, you have to prepare yourself to be an editor.
No, I’m serious. There’s a total mental shift that has to happen. You’ve been so deep in the business of telling this story for so long. Now you have to step back and experience it as a reader… a reader who has zero pre-existing attachments to your world or characters.
Here’s how to get your head in the right space to edit your first draft.
Take a Break
Do not skip this step. This is one of the most important steps for to edit your first draft.
Walk away from your draft for a healthy chunk of time. I’d say somewhere between six and twelve weeks, depending on how long it takes your brain to forget the details of what you wrote.
This step is essential because it allows you to return to your first draft with fresh eyes. You’ll see the story you actually told and not just the one you intended to tell. You’ll be able to recognize when passages are boring, confusing, or rambly. Plot holes will be positively glaring.
And—just as importantly—you’ll see your streaks of brilliance for the thrilling little triumphs they are.
So, what do you do during your time off?
Write something else. Anything else. Maybe you start plotting your next novel or editing the last one. You could try your hand at a short story, do some journaling, or delve into fun writing exercises to sharpen your storytelling skills.
Get Your Head Together
As your break comes to a close and you prepare to edit your first draft, get yourself into the right headspace.
I recommend making these three mental shifts as you get ready for the sometimes-harrowing act of self-editing:
- Your first draft is supposed to be bad. Even Pulitzer Prize winners cringe at their first drafts. Your very first attempt at telling this story does not represent what you’re ultimately capable of.
- It’s time to read like a reader. It still matters what you, the artist, are trying to express. But the editing process is where you evaluate how clearly you’re expressing yourself.
- If it doesn’t serve the story, it’s got to go. Doesn’t matter if it's the most thrilling fight scene or funniest joke ever written. If you’re afraid you’ll never write anything so brilliant ever again (you will, but I get it), save it in a scraps document. It might be usable in another form later.
In short, prepare to be ruthless with your work and gentle with yourself. Then:
Read It All the Way Through
Grab some snacks, pour your beverage of choice, and get comfy. You’re about to read your first draft all the way through.
If you can’t read the whole thing in one sitting, you can do it in multiple sessions. But try to keep those sessions close together. A chunk of time today, then another chunk tomorrow.
I prefer to do my first read with a hard copy. I think there’s something about holding the pages in my hand that reminds me I’m playing the part of the reader now.
But you do you. Just make sure you have the ability to make notes on your draft as you go, even if you’re reading it on a screen. (If you use Dabble, you’re all set.)
Once you start reading, the editing has officially begun.
How to Edit Your First Draft: A Strategy
Think of editing as a big-to-small process. You start with a wide angle and gradually move into a close-up.
Let me explain what I mean.
Read It First for the Big Picture
On your first read, resist the urge to get hung up on details. Feel free to circle typos as you go or note that a passage of dialogue could be better. But note these things only for the purpose of remembering them later.
Right now, you want to focus on experiencing the story.
Is it holding your attention? Where do you get bored? (Make a note.) Do any of your major beats feel too convenient or unmotivated? (Another note.) How do you feel reading this story?
Record reactions in whatever way makes sense to you. Use post-its or keep a notebook or scribble in the margins.
I personally do all of the above, which—side note—is why I love Dabble. Even though I do my initial read with a physical copy, I do my second read in Dabble, and I use all the things. Stickies, Comments, Story Notes, Plot Grid Labels… all of it.
Lay Out the Big Changes
Before you dive into revisions, record your initial reactions to the story.
- Are there any structural issues I need to address?
- Are all the character arcs clear and easy to understand?
- Does the protagonist exhibit a relatable vulnerability?
- Do the internal and external conflicts heighten and complicate one another?
- Do the stakes gradually get higher? Are they high enough?
- Are there any glaring plot holes?
- Are the major themes clear?
- How’s the pacing? Does it speed up and slow down when it feels like it should?
- As a reader, how did I experience this story emotionally? Did I feel what I was supposed to feel?
You don’t necessarily have to solve any of these high-level issues immediately, unless you decide to make major plot changes. In that case, you’ll want to nail down your new plan and maybe even do some rewriting before this next step. That way you don’t waste any effort revising scenes that you’re just going to delete anyway.
Otherwise, you can simply keep this list on hand as you head into this next step.
Take it Chunk by Chunk
You’re going to read again. But this time you’re going scene by scene. Whereas your last read was about making sure the book works as a whole, this round is about making sure your scenes work.
Basically, are these story units doing what they’re supposed to do to further the story? And how can they do it better?
Things to Look for in Your First Draft
- What does this scene do to further the plot?
- Do you need an entire scene to accomplish that goal? Sometimes we do silly things like write a four-page scene just to explain that the protagonist collects teapots. If a scene drags, it may be because it’s not necessary enough. Can you share the same information in another, more purposeful scene?
- If the scene is necessary (hopefully they are), is it successfully fulfilling its purpose in your story?
Consistent Voice and Point of View
- What is the point of view for this scene?
- If the POV is anything other than third-person omniscient, are you maintaining a consistent POV? Or do you sometimes slip into the head of a non-POV character?
- If you’re writing in third-person omniscient, are transitions between character perspectives clean and clear?
- Is the narrator’s voice consistent?
- Does each character in this scene have a clear goal?
- What about compelling motivation? Do they have that, too?
- Do their scene goals align with their big picture goals?
- Is it clear what’s at risk if the character fails to achieve their goal? (It’s okay if you’ve established the stakes in a previous scene. Just make sure that urgency is clear in the character’s behavior.)
- What are the obstacles standing between characters and their goals in this scene?
- If characters are at odds with one another, is that clear in their actions and dialogue?
- How does this scene further the internal conflict?
- How does it further the external conflict?
- Are all the protagonist’s problems resolved at the end of this scene? (The answer should be “no” if you’re not to the end of act three yet.)
Note: Furthering conflict doesn’t always have to mean that a bigger problem has happened in a scene. In some scenes, a character might simply make a decision about how they’re going to handle the conflict. That’s called a “sequel,” and it’s part of the conflict momentum.
- Does this scene use a character's arc to either challenge that character to change, show them resisting change, or show them taking a step in a new direction?
- Is it getting increasingly difficult for your characters to justify old beliefs and goals?
- Is there a logical chain of cause and effect between this scene and the scenes that come before and after it?
- If you’re working with alternating timelines, points of view, or narratives, does the way you’ve braided these storylines together work?
- Is the inciting incident inescapable?
- Does it force the protagonist to make an active decision to leave their comfort zone?
- Does the protagonist cross their own version of a “point of no return” as they enter act two?
- Is there a surprising reversal at the midpoint?
- Is the climax preceded by an all is lost moment?
- Does the protagonist choose to charge into the climactic scene?
- Does the ending establish what the protagonist’s world looks like as a result of their journey?
- Have you tied up all the loose ends?
Also Look Out For:
- Extraneous action, dialogue, or description that doesn’t help build the world or further the story in a meaningful way
- Vague or confusing passages
- Phony or contrived dialogue
- Chapter breaks that don’t give the reader a good reason to turn the page
- Flashbacks that are too long, too frequent, unnecessary, or interrupt tension
So you learned how to edit your first draft and you’ve ripped all your own hard work apart. Now what?
First, you thank yourself, because what you’ve done is hard and humbling and absolutely mandatory for becoming a successful author. You’re incredible for doing it.
Revise. Remember, we’re going from big to small here. If you have any significant changes to make to your structure, character arcs, or overall story, make those first. Then you can go scene-by-scene with your smaller edits.
I recommend not actually changing anything until you’ve done that second read through. A story is just an ongoing chain of cause and effect. You want to give the whole thing a thorough review so you’re aware of how cutting pages 24-25 will affect what happens on page 133.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Once your revisions are done, read it again. Revise it again. Keep with the cycle until you’ve gotten it in pretty decent shape. Do a final pass for grammar, spelling, and punctuation, then:
Once you incorporate their feedback into your book, you’re ready to publish or start querying agents.
When in Doubt, Let Dabble Help
I know this sounds like a lot. But it’s so worth it. Self-editing isn’t just a must-do if you want to write an exceptional book. It’s also how you practice and perfect your craft.
And remember, Dabble is always here to help you think it through. Find your support system among the other writers in the Story Craft Café. Browse DabbleU for more writing guides. Sign up for the Dabble Newsletter to get weekly writing tips.
And if you don’t already use Dabble, try it for free for fourteen days! You don’t even have to enter a credit card to get access to Comments, Stickies, the Plot Grid, and all the other features that make Dabble the best tool for drafting and editing your novel. Click here to get started.
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