Life in Writing
You've finally done it, after dreaming of your story and spending countless hours putting it down on paper you've finally done it! You've written your story down!
Too bad it's probably unreadable.
Let's face it, first drafts are never great. Even the best writers go through several drafts before publishing. In fact the very worst writers are the ones who don't edit, so don't sweat it if your first draft is a little less that what you want it to be, it'll get better.
You probably knew that some editing would be involved, but how exactly do you edit your own work? Isn't that what professional editors are for? The truth is that professional editors are very helpful, but if you're hiring one to look at your first draft, you're going to end up paying them to point out obvious problems that you really didn't need a professional to find. So before you even think about hiring an editor to go over your story, here are four edits you should do to take your first draft from being a first draft, to something worth an editor's time.
Step 1: The Character and Plot Consistency Edit
If you're like most writers, you changed a your mind on a few story details while you were writing. They might seem minor at the time, but to a reader without your knowledge of the story they may make your story incredibly confusing. And changing your mind about things while writing isn't the only thing that can cause confusion. Sometimes characters are underdeveloped, or their motivations are under-explained, or maybe a plot point only makes sense to you because you already know the backstory, but comes off very confusing to the reader. All of these things need to be fixed. your first draft isn't quite ready for readers to review it yet, and these can be hard things to catch without a little help, but it's still worth taking the time to read through your draft and mark every instance of storyline inconsistency and underdeveloped characters. This is the edit that will take the most time, and will require the most changes to your writing. That's why it comes first. It'll be hard to spot everything, but once you're through it, your story will already be much better. And then you'll move on to edit number two.
Step 2: The Unnecessary Sentences/ Clarifying Your Writing Edit
Let's be honest, most writers pen their first draft in language pretty similar to the way they speak. Unfortunately, most people don't speak correctly, and even if they do, they don't speak in a consice and interesting way. Unless you're a major exception, your first draft is going to be jammed full of redundant sentences, overused words, and sentences that just don't make any sense. Now is the time to remove these.
Most people tend to over-write, meaning they use too many words to describe things. This makes your meaning unclear, and stops your writing from flowing. By the time you're done with your editing, your story will most likely be smaller than it was when you started. That's a good thing. Don't be afraid to kill your darlings and slash anything form your story that interupts the flow or coherency. No funny scene is funny enough to make up for taking your reader out of the story. If it's bad, cut it out. During this step it's best to read your work outloud. If you have a very patient friend or spouse who will read the story outloud with you while you make changes then take advantage of it. Hearing the words spoken outloud shows you immediately if they're akward or unwieldy to your readers. Once you're through this round of editing, it's time for step three.
Step 3: The Dialogue Tag Edit
There are two types of authors out there, the ones who use the word "said" way too much, and those who don't use it nearly enough. balancing your said-use is delicate art, but it can be managed. As a rule of thumb, up to two thirds of your dialogue tags can be the word said and the writing can still be good. Any higher than that and your writing will probably come off as flat and emotionless. On the flip side, if you drop below one third of your dialogue tags being the word said then your writing will be showy and distracting. Anything that distracts your reader can quickly kill your story, so don't just replace every said with something else.
Depending on what type of writer you are, you'll have to do different things to make your dialogue tags work, but most people tend to overuse said, so I'll focus on how to fix that. The easiest way, and therefore usually the best way, to change your said count is just to do the find and replace function on Word. Search for said and then read each sentence and every 3-5 saids that you've used depending on frequency, change one of them to another word that better conveys your characters emotion or meaning. No matter what ratio you're going with here, you should also find any instances where you used said + -ly adjective. For example, if you used "Said quietly" this needs to be changed to "whispered."
If you do all of this, your writing will be much more compelling, and then you can move on to the next step.
Step Four: The Grammar Edit
This is the edit that everybody dreads. It's long and it's tedious, but it's necessary. You can download software to help you with it if you want, but otherwise there's no trick to get you through this one. Check to make sure every sentence is in the right tense, and every punctuation mark is used correctly. Since you'll be changing many of your sentences in the previous three edits, you'll definitely want to do this one last.
Once you've made it through all of these steps your first draft will have been transformed into something that people will actually be willing to read. It's still a a long road to getting your book out into the world, but now you'll at least have something worth putting out there.
Daniel M. Quilter is the author of A Soul Divided. On this blog he'll interview other authors, review books, share nerd wisdom from popular sci-fi and fantasy, and occasionally share his insights on writing. See a list of his works or see what he's working on.
Are you an Author? Are you interested in doing an interview for this blog? Find out how by clicking here.
Interested in getting your sci-fi/fantasy book reviewed on this blog? Check out our submission guidelines
Do you write any flash fiction? Do you want to share it on this site? Click here to review our submission guidelines.