Ask an Editor: How to Start Revising First Drafts
You should do a post on macro revisions for post-NaNo. How do you take a hot mess of a draft and figure out where to start editing?— Tiana Smith (@tiana_smith) November 8, 2018
This is a great question. And it’s one of the things that I most enjoy working on as an editor. Those early draft revisions where you are often re-shaping the book can be really fun, but they can also be really daunting for authors. But hopefully the tips below will help you find the right place to start.
First, I always recommend stepping away from the work for a few days or weeks, so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes. You want to be able to see what is actually on the page, not just what’s in your head. And, you want to try your best to approach the book as a reader, not an author.
DISCLAIMER: Everyone’s process is different, and what works for me as an editor might not work for you as an author. Also, every book is different, and every draft has different things that need to be worked on. But hopefully this look at how I approach things will help a bit in trying to figure out where to get started on those early draft revisions.
When you're ready to start revising, sit down and read the WHOLE book. DO NOT stop to revise or tweak or rewrite as you go. You aren’t editing yet, just seeing what’s there. I often like to make a chapter-by-chapter outline as I read through the rough draft, just so that I have a log of important scenes and where they fall. But that’s just for my own reference. The important thing that you want to do as you read is keep a list of reactions.
What things are working for you? Is there a scene that you really like? A character that you love? A bit of banter or conversation that really shines? Jot that down. First, because these are probably the things that you want to keep and preserve in your next draft, and second, you are going to want this positive feedback later, when you look over the other part of the list.
What things aren’t working right now? Try not to get distracted by sentence structure, wording or grammar here. Those things can be fixed later. Right now, try to focus on bigger issues. Is there a scene where you get confused? Are there several chapters where nothing seems to be happening? Or conversely, have you had non-stop action for multiple chapters with no rest? Is there a character who feels out of place or whose decisions seem forced? Write all that down as well.
Once you’ve made it all the way to the end of the book and you have your lists and outline (if you made them), step away from the book again, and focus on something else. You want to give yourself time to process what you’ve just read before you jump in. Then, after sleeping on it, come back and start sorting your notes into categories and sections so you can prioritize them. You don’t want to just start at the beginning and jump in. Instead, take the time to look at the whole picture and create a plan before you start revising.
For most books, I look at things in this order:
Which ones are working? Do they have enough agency? Do their choices drive the plot forward? Which ones aren’t quite there yet? Why aren’t they clicking? Are there scenes where their choices don’t feel natural? What could we change to make them work better? Are we sure that every character is necessary? Do they all (except maybe the villain) grow and change in some way over the course of the story?
Is your world and setting consistent? Are you following your own rules? If you are writing a fantasy or sci-fi story, does your magic or tech make sense? How many types of magic or advanced tech have you included? Do they all work together or are they contradictory? (As a rule of thumb, I find it best to try to limit yourself to only one major kind of magic/advanced tech per story. You can get away with two or three, but the more unfamiliar elements you add to your world the harder it is for readers to keep track of the rules.)
Are the characters driving the plot or is the plot driving the characters? Do the characters' actions have weight, meaning they change the course of the story, or would the outcome be the same no matter what? Also, be sure to look for plot holes. Are there any places in the story where things don’t track, or where there is an obvious easy answer that no one thinks about? Is there a place where the characters act out of character or regress in their character growth without explanation? And finally, does your book start and end at the right place? Are you coming full circle in some way? Do you need more set-up at the beginning or do you have several chapters of backstory that isn’t really necessary? Does the ending feel satisfying? Are you telling a complete story? Have your characters gained something that they were looking for or needed? Did they achieve their goals? Or, if writing a series, did they at least make solid progress toward achieving their goals?
I’m putting this last because this is something that you will probably be looking at through every revision. Every change you make will effect the pacing in some way, but it’s still very important to be aware of. Is the story always moving forward? Are you alternating the different plots and subplots? Is there a nice balance of planning and action? Is your romance spread out across a large swath of the book or does it happen instantly in a few chapters? (Hint: the first is going to be stronger.) Are there any scenes that seem jarring or out of place? Is there a section where you started getting bored? If so, why? Have the characters stopped growing and changing? Have you established clear reasons for their actions? Are they still pursuing their goals?
Once you’ve looked at all these things, you should have a pretty good idea of some of the issues that need to be addressed. Look at those problems and figure out what sections of the book they effect. Take the big chunks and break them down into smaller, solvable issues. Sometimes the answer you're looking for can be found elsewhere in the book.
And if you ever find yourself getting discouraged, just remember your list of scenes and characters that you did like and that were working. You’ve got this!
Have questions for our editors? Let us know in the comments?