How to Self-Edit That Lousy First Draft

Welcome to Part 9 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

The painful panel description was as follows: Panelists will discuss they’re favorite techniques four editing when they don’t have outside reader, or editor too help.

The panelists were: Mark Van Name (as moderator), Julayne Hughes, Margaret Riley, Beth Tanner, and James Stratton.

(I know, I just did Making Painful Edits, but I was in the editing stage when I hit this convention, so I hit more than one panel with the same theme.)

Different Approaches To The Writing Process

Before you can self-edit, you’ve got to have a draft to work with. There are several different methods people use — and just because one worked for you last time, doesn’t mean you’re stuck using the same method every time.

First drafts stink. That’s just the rule. Sure, there are exceptions, but you’re probably not it. But, it’s okay. It’s all part of the process. Ninety-nine percent of all writers are gonna have to edit their lousy first-drafts.

  • Pantsers – Draft it out and see what happens — easier for short stories, writing “by the seat of their pants.
  • Planners – Outline first, then write
  • Plantsers – Create a light outline, but sort out the details as they go, letting the story deviate organically
  • Immediately share chapters as they come out
  • Wait until it’s done before sharing
  • Wait until it’s revised to share

Things To Do To A Rough Draft

Now that you’ve got that rough draft, you’re gonna want to edit it. No, really.

  • Let it age, so you can look at it with fresh eyes. 2-3 months is usually good.
  • Or? Dive back in while the world is still fresh and vivid.
  • Run spellcheck and grammar check. Use Grammarly or EditMinion or the HemingwayApp
  • Change the font and/or print it out so you can look at it with fresh eyes. Or have your device read it aloud to you.
  • Read through and clean up the sentences
  • Outline the draft AFTER you write it, check for pacing and seeing what themes emerge that you can build on
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter
    • Don’t say something 6 times in 6 different ways. Keep the best version and cut the rest
    • Remove the filler words that exist to hedge: “just”, “so”, “well”, “a bit” “feel”
  • Kill your babies, your darlings.
    • We hear this a lot, but what does it really mean?
      These are the pearls of wisdom or great moving drama. It’s not gonna be everyone’s taste. Structurally, look for descriptors — most people have fairly good imaginations. You don’t have to spell out everything about the horse the rider hopped onto. Give them as little as you can at the beginning, move up the details as you move along.
  • Don’t write like a computer programmer or a stage director, you shouldn’t be dictating every move of your character.
  • Draw out your story arches — one for the plot, one for the POV characters. See where each peaks and ebbs and make sure they complement each other. See where you can cut or combine characters, or scenes, or chapters.
  • Don’t let your reader suffer for your research. Just because you spent five hours researching canning techniques, doesn’t mean you need to spend more than one sentence talking about your characters canning fruit.

Tools used for structural work

Maybe the part of the story you’re most worried about is the pacing or plot coherency. In that case, you’re probably going to want to use some tools to inspect your story’s structure.

  • Scrivener corkboard view. Or 3×5 cards on the table.
  • To organize the changes: watch where POV shifts. Color coded by POV or type of scene, etc.
  • Murder maps can be fun if your story has conspiracies.
  • Spreadsheets to track things:
    • When do we see each person
    • Travel distance
    • POV switches.
    • Character info
  • Create your own wikipedia (archivist.com will allow this)
  • Create a sort of D&D character sheet for each character

Editorial Pet Peeves

When editing your own manuscript, you should probably keep in mind the things that professional editors see as pet peeves. They’ve seen a lot more manuscripts than just yours, and I’m sure you don’t want your writing to come across as trite or overdone.

  • “letting go of a breath that he didn’t know he was holding”
  • “walking and walking” Or whatever word you’re reusing.
  • “Continued”
  • Words with the right meaning but wrong connotation
  • Fillers like: suddenly, just, that, of
  • Having every other sentence as a fragment
  • Not using conjunctions to seem more literary
  • Going out of your way to avoid using “said” as a dialogue tag
  • Bouncing POV, without a clear break
  • Bad grammar — for no reason
  • Reusing and overusing words

When to bring in the beta

At some point, though, you’re going to reach the limits of what you can fix on your own. You’re only one person, and you know the characters and the story too well to see what might be missing.

While it’s up to you, you really should bring in outside readers at some point. Some people share a few chapters to see if they’re on the right path. Others wait until the story is polished, then share. If you’re struggling with your story, you may want to reach out sooner.

Beta-readers are usually readers of your genre, but not necessarily writers themselves. They bring a different perspective to your story.

However, a critique partner/fellow writer is going to be more useful with story issues. Be selective who you’re sharing your manuscript with.

As always, you don’t have to agree with the edits, but even if you don’t like a proposed fix, you may want to look into clarifying the scene your beta tried to edit, to make sure it was properly set up.

And? As Margaret said, “you don’t come with the book. If I have to ask you questions, you’ve left something out.” The book needs to stand on its own without explanation.

Once beta-readers have taken you as far as you can go, there’s always one more option. If you’re querying for traditional publishing, you might be able to skip this, but if you’re self-publishing, you definitely want a professional editor, to make sure your book has that professional quality you want associated with your name.

You’ll want to make your manuscript as clean as possible before you hire an editor. You can’t afford not to. You don’t want them wasting time fixing things that Word could have told you, you want them to be able to see the bigger issues.

Make sure you’re hiring the right sort of editor — or get one who can do it all.

Types of Editors: Copy vs Clarity

Content editors are concerned with the plot and characters.

Proofreaders come in after edits and check for typos.

Copy-editors watch for repetitive/missing words, bad phrasing, bad logistics [missing arms, where’d the sword come from], etc.


There are a lot of stages of editing, and I know I’ve covered this topic before in different ways, but it’s always good to get fresh advice from more writers. Especially when they agree.

Any tips or tricks you’d like to add?

Let me know and thanks, as always, for reading.


Shameless Plug: If you’re already attending WorldCon – CoNZealand July 29-Aug 2 (July 28-Aug 1st here in the states), come check me out day one on What to Expect When You’re Ready to Query and Establishing a Social Media Presence.

5 thoughts on “How to Self-Edit That Lousy First Draft

  1. Um, editing that lousy first draft… ” or editor too help.”

    I dunno as I like the name “pantser”. I prefer to say that the characters, or the story itself, tells me where it’s going to go (not “it wants to go”).

    Then, yes, I put it aside, unless a Lightbulb Goes Off, for a few days, or weeks, or a month, and do something else.

    Tough – I’m the 1%, my first drafts aren’t lousy. Tightening, clarifying, editing, absolutely, but I’ve not yet had to rewrite a story

    Like

    • Pantsers write ‘by the seat of their pants’. Sorry you don’t like the term, but it’s out there and firmly established. 😛

      I think “lousy” is a term used by writers comparing the writing to their standards.

      Like

      • Comparing my writing to my standards, I make sure that my first draft does not ‘stink’. I don’t believe that anyone’s skill is helped or increased by writing crap.

        Like

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