Finishing the first draft of a novel comes with such a mix of emotions it can be hard to figure out what to do next. Here’s one plan of action, one which I’m currently using on my draft.
Now, if you look at the internet, there are tons of editing and revision guides. Good thing is that’s fine! One style might not work for everyone and at least I tend to mix up my editing routines a little depending on the story. Maybe it’s because I’m still looking for The One Editing Recipe, but that’s a worry for another time.
In any case, this is what I’ve been doing for my current draft:
- Forget it
Once the draft is done, it’s better to just walk away. Forget it to the best of your ability. I let my draft sit for about a month before I allowed myself to think about it again. This gives you a fresh take on the whole thing and can be extremely helpful to notice flaws and plot holes.
- Prepare for the worse
All first drafts need work. Some more than others and some can, unfortunately, be beyond saving. Before you head back to your draft, understand and accept that it might require major changes. If you’re prepared, you won’t feel so discouraged if you find a gaping plot hole or realize one character goes through a mysterious change of personality in the middle of the story.
- Write down what you want
Figure out what you want before reading the draft again. Maybe you already did this before writing the first draft but if things have changed (usually are), or you feel you’ve strayed too much off the course, it’s better to write a whole new list. Doing this before reading is good because your mind isn’t so clouded by what you’ve already written. It’s easy to think “well, this part is already in the story and it kind of works, so why not?” if you don’t have a vision of what you want the story to convey.
- Make an assessment
With my draft, assessing the situation before returning to the editing table told me one huge flaw in the story: it had fallen apart from more places than one. Your draft might be healthy enough to at least stick together for the whole story, which is good news for you. My news led me to realize I was better off starting over, from the beginning. Good thing I was prepared.
- Keep an original first draft safe and separate
Save a copy of your very first draft even if much of it won’t see daylight. Trust me, it can still be useful. Never edit the only copy of your draft! I use Scrivener so I create a folder for the first draft and any other little snippets of text I write but decide not to use. That way I can write a new beginning on an empty document and then look back at the first draft and see if there’s something that’s still viable.
- Choose your destiny: Write or Edit
Your assessment should’ve told you whether you need to start over and use a blank page to recreate your story, or get right into editing what you already have. Don’t get me wrong: each path comes with editing. A lot of it. Rewriting the story from scratch can save you some trouble though if you’re clear on where the first draft went wrong. If you’re moving straight into editing, now’s the time to finally read your first draft.
- Take notes
The more notes, the better. Some say it’s better to read the whole draft once before making any notes, but at least I like to make notes immediately. It keeps my stress levels much lower to know I won’t forget to add some note after reading. Whichever way works for you, make sure you write down all the issues you find. Separate them into categories for easier references when you get to editing. Also compare this list to the list of what you want from the novel. If something’s missing, add it. I recommend Scrivener for this too!
- Edit, edit, edit
I told you. There’ll be editing. I edit first drafts alone, without getting feedback from others, and I suggest this approach. You usually find at least something wrong with the draft on your own, so why not fix it before sending the story to others.
- Get feedback
Once you’ve produced a second draft, which is hopefully much more polished and in better shape, you should find feedback. Beta readers, critique groups, anything you can find. While self-editing is possible and I know some successful people do it, getting outside opinions is extremely important. You can become blind at your own mistakes. To see how I edit once I’ve received some feedback, read this post.
- Rinse and repeat, when needed
Moving from Draft One to Draft Two should leave you with a much more coherent story. There probably won’t be such a clear jump between Draft Two and Draft Three, but maybe there’s still something you want to fix. Pick the steps you think you need (whether it’s some time away from the story for a fresh mindset, or maybe a new round of feedback) and go through them.
In the end you’ll have the best version of your story. It won’t be perfect because nothing ever is, so it’s also important to know when to stop. If you find yourself heading into Draft Ten, it might be time to step back and seriously consider whether the story is going to make it or not.
Good luck with editing and revising! Let me know how it’s going for you in the comments.
PS. For more revising info from another perspective, NaNoWriMo is hosting a How to Revise Your NaNo-Novel workshop today at 4 PM PT.