Fine-tuning your book doesn’t have to be complicated. Let me show you 5 simple steps to go from first draft to polished perfection!
So you’ve written the first draft of your novel.
CONGRATULATIONS! You have done what so many people only wish they had done! But you know very well that your book isn’t done yet.
With a strange mixture of exultation and dread, you make yourself a new cup of coffee. You sit down at your computer. You take deep breath as you prepare to begin the editing process.
STOP. Don’t do it! Never edit a first draft!
I can see you looking at me in distressed confusion, but editing is simply not the next step. Let me take you on a personal tour of the Second Draft… and beyond.
Step 1: Deep Breath…
What I want you to do first is to take a little time away from your story. You need to cleanse your palate, as it were; you need to be able to look freshly at what you’ve written. Whether you choose a week or a month, set a goal. Let the story simmer.
During that time, feel free to jot down notes somewhere that won’t get you sucked into reading your first draft again. I’m talking about notes on what you want to fix on the second pass. Maybe you want to flesh out that one character’s backstory a little; maybe there’s an opportunity for foreshadowing you missed; maybe there was a piece of dialogue that could’ve been more poignant, or you want to make sure so-and-so says something particular after such-and-such an event.
At the close of your rest period, I want you to keep these notes handy, but you’re not going to use them yet. You’re going to add to them as you do a simple read-through. If there’s a rewrite that burns within you before you’re done, make sure to create a separate document for it—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewritten something and second-guessed if it was really better. You want to be able to compare versions, if you’re anything like me, or you’ll drive yourself bonkers.
Step 2: The Rewrite
This is where you turn your story into a book.
You are not going to go through the pages you’ve written and alter them, not in any way. I can’t emphasize enough: this is not the editing step, and you want to preserve your ability to compare versions of different scenes. If you choose to do a third draft, you’ll then be able to take your favorite elements from each version and blend them together.
There’s another rule to rewriting: never use copy + paste. You may be surprised, as you retype the scene you crafted before, how new juices begin flowing and your chapters begin to evolve and develop. Remember, your first draft was like a skeleton; this is where you’re adding the meat, not just fixing missed commas and apostrophes.
This is also where you delete scenes that don’t matter or make sense. This part is hard—people in the industry call it “killing your darlings.” But you don’t have to delete forever; you can save what you love in a separate file, creating a resource to come back to when you’re writing other works. Even if you don’t ever use them again, convincing yourself you might does truly take some of the pain out of deleting them from the current work-in-progress!
Step 3: Formatting
This doesn’t happen until you’re satisfied with your story as a whole: you are happy with the plot and characters and how they’re rendered; you’ve got a bang-pow opening chapter, steady pacing, increasing tension, a mind-flipping climax, and a cathartic denouement. You’ve seeded in all your subplots and tied up all the loose ends.
This is where you go to Google. You’ll look up the standard manuscript formatting accepted by literary agents in your arena (The big 4 are fiction, non-fiction, cookbook, or children’s book) and format your manuscript accordingly.
Make sure you do this step BEFORE sending your work to a hired reader or editor. If they feel the need to format it into what they are used to, that’s going to be done on your dime.
Step 4: Now You Edit!
Some writers suggest changing your font for this part of the process—as in, ctrl+a (select all) the first draft document and make the whole thing Comic Sans. The idea is that, because your brain anticipates the words on the page, it’s easy to miss mistakes. Changing the font makes what you’re viewing into a new image, causing your brain to notice variance you might otherwise have skipped over.
This is where you read through one last time, correcting mishaps as you go—within the same document, so long as you don’t choose to do any more major rewriting. You’re going to look for places you typed “form” when you meant “from.” You’re going to look for all that missed punctuation, those run-on sentences, any unclear passages. Fix ‘em up and make ‘em pretty.
Step 5: New Eyes
Before you send anything off to an agent or publisher, I beg you, have it read by someone impartial. Some of you may have bookish friends and family willing to read your work and critique it honestly; others of you may join writing communities on Facebook or elsewhere, and find someone else seeking a beta reader willing to exchange manuscripts. There are also places where you can pay for this service, but buyer beware! Don’t give anyone money unless you carefully vet them.
Optional but highly recommended: hire a line editor. You could theoretically use Grammarly or a similar service, but human eyes will always do a better job. If you’re serious about getting published, whether traditionally or not, you want to make sure your work shines. You don’t want it full of distracting errors and easy-to-fix mistakes.
Again, be sure your potential reader or editor is qualified and reputable before you give them any money. If you encounter anything fishy, report it or ask for advice at www.writerbeware.com. Writer Beware also has a Facebook page you can follow.
Once you’ve had a few people read your manuscript, you consider which critiques you’re going to apply and which you’re going to cast by the wayside. Be circumspect. Remember, these readers don’t have the same bias that you do. Their advice may be hard to swallow, but don’t discard it without consideration.
Now that you’ve completed the five steps, you are DONE! Can you believe it?
I know, I know, you’re not actually done with the book. You still want to publish that puppy, and that means either prepping your query and synopsis and pitch (the traditional route) or cover design and marketing (the indie/ self-publishing route). But the heart of your book is complete. That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to make any changes, and it doesn’t mean the journey is over… BUT YOU WROTE A BOOK.
Are you more of a pantser or a plotter? What methods help you go from concept to book? Comment below!
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