While many writers love the excitement and freedom of writing a first draft, I prefer the editing phase. I also call it the rewriting phase to give proper credence to the work required. For me, editing a novel takes a lot longer than writing the first draft. It’s where I do my best creative work and get the most excited about new ideas. If you feel more fearful and reluctant about edits than inspired and motivated, allow me to share a few tips.
Finish your first draft.
It’s a cliche, but it bears repeating: you can’t edit a blank page. You never truly know how your story ideas will play out until you build a first draft with them. In the first draft you can toy around with those ideas and write without inhibition. This process also provides the material you’ll edit later.
Some writers like to get the first few chapters down, ask a critique partner for feedback, and work from there. This can save a lot of hassle later, especially if you can nail down your stakes before writing the rest of the first draft. But proceed with caution. Any amount of editing or feedback before the first draft is complete can compromise your creative process. Do what works for you, but give yourself room to explore ideas without worrying about quality.
Once you have a complete draft to work with, it’s time for the editing fun to begin.
Age your manuscript before you edit.
Like a fine wine or spirit, your first draft needs some time in the cask before you can evaluate it. Put it away for at least a few weeks to give your brain a chance to disconnect. You won’t have the objectivity you need before then. You’ve spent too many hours with the manuscript. A little time away will allow you to view it with fresh eyes.
Work in phases.
Whether you’re working alone or asking a critique partner for feedback, be clear about your focus for this round of edits. The last thing you want to do is spend hours — or worse, ask someone else to spend hours — fussing with line edits for a chapter you’ll end up cutting anyway.
I prefer to edit in phases: start with the big stuff and gradually work down to the details. Focus on structural factors for the first pass or two. Ignore clunky dialogue, passive voice, and other issues with the prose itself. Nail your plot, pacing, and character development first. Polish the language only when you’re confident you won’t be making any more huge cuts or additions.
Do more than read on your computer screen.
The human brain is a funny thing. Studies have shown that doing something as trivial as changing the height of your desk chair can increase your focus. We crave novelty.
Use novelty to your advantage by consuming your book in more than one format while you edit. For example, I like to print a hard copy of my manuscripts and take them somewhere other than my desk. Looking at my words on paper with a red pen in hand helps me uncover edits that wouldn’t have come to me at the keyboard.
Reading your work aloud will help you polish the flow of your prose and get rid of awkward phrasing. A sentence that sounded beautiful in your head might struggle to make it out of your mouth. Wherever you stumble reading aloud, readers are likely to stumble too.
Adopt a growth mindset.
Everyone writes ugly first drafts. If you want that rough draft to become a story people want to read, you need to keep a healthy emotional distance from your work. Seek out constructive criticism and try to stay objective about your own writing.
The strongest writers are the ones with a thick skin for critique and a willingness to put a lot of effort into rewrites. You can either view critique as confirmation that you are indeed the worst and you’ll never succeed, or you can view it as a valuable opportunity to learn and grow. The choice is yours.
That’s not to say you should do everything beta readers or critique partners suggest. Only you know your vision for your story. Not all critique will be useful or applicable to your work. However, keep an open heart and mind and remember why you’ve asked for feedback in the first place. You’re here for your story — to make it the very best it can be — not for your ego. With that in mind, connect with strong writers and readers whose feedback will nudge you out of your comfort zone and help you grow.
As you grow, so will your story — and one day you’ll look back and be amazed at how far both of you have come.