There is a running joke in the writing community about final drafts. Or, more specifically, the final, final, final, FINAL draft. That’s because writers are never quite finished with their work. Though I have argued that sometimes we think we’re done–we’re not.
As a first-time novelist, I’ve gone through far more revisions than I possibly could have imagined. And, yes, I am still revising. I tried to deconstruct the different versions and what types of edits there are, but my editing process has been less than linear. First-time author syndrome, I think. In the end, it doesn’t matter what order an author performs what types of edits. What is important is that they do them.
The edits I have outlined below may not follow your writing process–or mine for that matter–but each of the drafts noted below is important. Whether you do them all at once or as separate drafts is up to you. What I do know is, we could almost always use one more draft.
Phase 1: Early Story Construct
I’m going to break this draft process into several phases. This first phase is all about getting the story into shape and giving you something to work with. You can’t write a great story until you have a complete story. Then you can make it great.
Draft 1 – Write Your Story
This is the sh!tty first draft of your book. For most of us, it’ll be a big heaping pile of crap. But hopefully redeemable crap.
Okay, I may have exaggerated that a bit, but I think it helps. At least it helps me. The less pressure I feel to write an awesome story the first time through, the easier it is to write a story. I can always make it awesome later. After all, it’s the idea of your story that compelled you to write it, right? Well, that first draft is just the idea coming to life. It’s an embryo. It still has to grow up to be a know-it-all teenager.
Okay, maybe not the best metaphor.
Draft 2 – Make it make sense
The second draft of your story is where you start making your glob of clay start to look like something. By this point, you know your characters, you know the main story from start to finish, and you know what needs to happen. But you’ve probably written a lot that doesn’t make sense, too. Gaping plot holes, under-utilized characters, underdeveloped settings, side-plots that go nowhere and, possibly unexplored emotional drivers throughout.
Go through your story and clean all this up. It may or may not require a major rewrite, new chapters, or removing large chunks of material. Be brutal, but be effective. While there still may be major revisions to come, this is your biggest story/plot revision. Get the story nailed down here, and the rest of the edits will be far less drastic. Hopefully.
Draft 3 – Incorporate Editor & Beta Reader Notes
Having the “story” pretty much nailed down, you can submit your book to a handful of beta readers and/or an editor. For me, the feedback I got was amazing. First, I made sure my beta readers knew what I was looking for. This allowed me to get very specific feedback about my story.
My editor, at this point, was looking at the overall story. Remember, this is after I went through and fixed “all” the plot and character issues. She found more and helped me up the ante both plot-wise and with the emotional component.
Most of the edits here were not major revisions, but I did add a chapter or two and also used the feedback to move things around to ensure I kept the pacing moving forward.
Phase 2: Tweaking and Perfecting
Again, as a noob author, I did many things out of order. Don’t focus so much on the order of the drafts below, but on what needs to be done. This is what worked for me, but do things in the order that works best for you.
Draft 4: – Single Word Removals
At this point, my manuscript was roughly 115K words. That’s not too long for a sci-fi novel, but it’s still at the high end. I needed to reduce the word count, but I wasn’t ready to start cutting out scenes.
So instead, I cut words.
I had learned an editing tip that suggested you go through your manuscript sentence by sentence and find one word to remove from each. I found this remarkably successful. Not every sentence can lose a word, but many sentences can lose two or three. And in other cases, I found more succinct ways to say the same thing. And that’s all this phase is about, finding a better way to tell the same story, sentence by sentence.
Draft 5 – Verb Enhancement
In the first phase of the writing process, I’m just getting the story together. I try to write quickly to keep the story flowing and not get too bogged down into writing style details and word choices. That all comes later.
Well, for me, it came now.
I tend to use weak verbs. My characters frequently “went” or “looked” or “walked” or “sat,” among many other boring things. I found the book 1000 Strong Verbs for Fiction Writers a fantastic resource for finding and correcting all my weak verb usage.
I literally went through the list in the book one chapter at a time, searching my manuscript for the weak verb. Then scanned the list for a suitable replacement. Not only did that improve my manuscript it also taught me how to think about verb usage in my writing going forward.
Draft 6 – Beta Reader Notes
At this point, I sent my book back to beta readers for another pass-through. It was a new set of readers seeing the story for the first time. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was ready for another round of beta readers, but the feedback, once again, was valuable.
Phase 3: Polish
By now, I felt like I was ready to “finish” the manuscript and get it ready for publishing. I thought that would be easier than it was, but as things go, nothing is as simple as it seems.
Draft 7 – Second Editor/Cleanup
My intention here was to have my editor come in behind me and help me polish the novel. She did a great deal of work helping me with character emotions and motivations as well as active voice. Though, much to her chagrin, I never quite got the passive voice thing. I had to have every instance pointed out to me. She tried, I was stubborn.
But we made great progress on cleaning up and improving the manuscript and then did a final run-through for punctuation, spelling, etc.
My goal was for that to be the final polish before being ready to publish. And for a minute, it was. But then something magical happened.
Draft 8 – Active Voice
One of my strongest weaknesses (see what I did there?) is writing in passive voice. Not only was I not capable of seeing my own passive writing, I wasn’t able to get my head around what passive voice was, despite my editor’s best efforts of beating me over the head with my own words. Then one day, it clicked like magic! I understood what passive voice was AND could see it in my own work.
In short, passive voice is when an action happens to something. Active voice is when someone or something does the action.
Passive: The store was barricaded.
Active: The cops barricaded the store.
That’s a very simplistic example, but it does the trick. Once my brain understood and learned to see passive voice, I was able to go back through my manuscript and revise significantly.
Draft 9 – Reverse Paragraph Edit
I want to say this is my final edit, and for the moment, it is, but then I never know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. But today, I’m working my way through my novel backward!
One of the struggles I’ve always had with editing is I often get wrapped up in the story and forget to be looking for the things I need to fix. I can often gloss over misspellings or even poor grammar just through sheer familiarity.
With this edit, I started with the last paragraph of the last chapter and worked my way to the beginning of the chapter. I then work through the chapter front to back several more times until I ironed out all the kinks. Only then do I move on to the last paragraph of the preceding chapter.
Going through the story backward takes me out of the story and allows me to focus on the words. I have run into a few issues with continuity, but those get fixed when I edit the chapter forward again.
Do I recommend following this process? No. Do I recommend doing all the things outlined in the process? Pretty much, yeah.
Two of the editing processes that surprised me most were the single-word edits and the reverse edit. All the edits improved my story and writing substantially, but these two tactics were far more helpful than I would have thought. But I’m just a noob figuring things out.
What about you? What’s your process like?