Some writers love drafting. Others love revising. I’m a hardcore reviser. Drafting is but a means to an end: I do it because I need to acquire a rough draft before I revise.
I suspect this means I end up with slightly rougher rough drafts than those who prefer to savor the initial writing. That doesn’t bother me a bit. If you’re facing a mess of a draft and wondering how to start tidying it up, here are a few of my go-to strategies:
Give it time
After I finish a draft, I take a break from the manuscript. Sometimes a deadline forces this time shorter than I’d like. In those cases I rely extra heavily on the techniques below. However, nothing beats a bit of distance to refresh my writing muscles and get me ready to attack those edits. I’ll even put a manuscript away after an intense editing phase.
When we spend too much time with a project, we get lost in the weeds. We lose perspective on the big picture: how our manuscript hangs together and how it would read to someone seeing it for the first time. Putting it in a drawer for a few weeks gives the brain a chance to disengage from the project and regain some fresh-eyed perspective.
Read it aloud
I include a read-aloud in my editing process for almost everything I write, from personal blog posts to novels. It’s easy to get lazy about this, especially nowadays when a pandemic lockdown has turned my one-person office into a three-person office. I caution against skipping it. Reading your work aloud is the best way to catch awkward phrasing and unnecessary nonsense.
Your writing should flow smoothly and make sense when you read it aloud. Sometimes I lose focus on my reading and stumble over a phrase, but if it feels awkward in my mouth a second time I know I need to revise. Many phrases that sound lovely in our heads don’t translate well to spoken word. They won’t translate for our readers, either.
Likewise, I often catch myself going on tangents when reading aloud. The conversational sound of my reading brings out places where I need a better transition or where a paragraph needs to move earlier or later.
Print it out
A change in perspective helps us read our own writing more objectively. At least once in my editing process, I read my manuscripts somewhere other than on my computer screen.
Traditionally, I’ve printed them out and marked them up with a red pen. I recently tried doing this electronically using an iPad and Apple Pencil to save paper. I was impressed by how closely it replicated the feel of the analog process.
If I don’t need to make detailed notes, I’ll convert manuscripts using the free app Calibre and put them on my Kindle. This gives me the experience of reading my work in the same format as a published book. My brain automatically expects something of that quality and judges accordingly.
Find a critique group or partner you can trust
All the tricks in the world will never give you a true outsider’s perspective on your writing. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you have a whole world of information in your head that forms a larger context for what’s on the page. Your future readers won’t have that context. Before you put your writing into the world, get it in front of someone who can give you that fresh perspective.
Don’t get just anyone to do these crucial first reads, either. When choosing a critique partner or group, get a feel for their writing and their feedback style before you make any long-term promises. Are they writing at a similar level to you? Are they willing and able to give you the critique you need? Same goes for beta readers: do they read widely in your genre? Can they give you honest, articulate, and helpful feedback about your book? If not, keep looking. You can look to friends and family to praise your writing. Valuable critique, the kind that will make you a stronger writer, is harder to find but well worth the effort.