How To Edit Your First Draft




You've done it.

You've typed the words THE END at the bottom of that last page of your novel.

Most authors have a celebratory ritual of some kind to commemorate this occasion. Some authors might have a nice dinner and a glass of wine. Some might reward themselves with chocolate. I stand up, wait for the popping of joints and the grinding of bones to subside, and howl at the sky (one of the reasons I am 'no longer welcome' in the local coffee shop).

Yes, finishing the first draft of a book is a triumph, of sorts. In my case, it's a triumph against the forces of sloth and inertia. But it's not the end of the work.

Instead, it's just the beginning.

Let's say the final word count of your shiny new novel is 85,000 words. 

In my estimation, that means a good 30,000 of those words are the wrong words. 

Some are mere mechanical errors -- 'from' instead of 'form,' or 'the' for 'he,' and the like. Since my typing style is best described as Agitated Monkey, I churn out a lot of typos. Software and spell-check can catch the more obvious ones -- Tlkasdklj2, for instance, or the ever-popular !@#EDX. But 'ass' where you meant 'as' is a little better at hiding.

Once those errors have been addressed, the far more insidious and damaging missteps remain. Plot holes. Continuity errors. Poor phrasing. Clumsy scene composition. And of course bad grammar. It's entirely possible to know what a comma splice is and know why they're wrong and still litter the manuscript with them. 

Which is why editing is so important. It's also why I'd rather tear out a fingernail than edit. It's work, and every fiber of my beer-lubricated being abhors the very concept of work. 

Even so, the work must be done. Ever helpful, I'm here to share my tips on editing the first draft. Because even if the next step is to send the manuscript off to a real editor, you want to beat the book into shape first. Otherwise, people will discover just how incompetent you are, Frank, and we can't have that. Note to self: Edit that last sentence to omit my name.


1) Assume as you begin that the whole book is outright garbage. Ignore the temptation to frolic in wide-eyed abandon amid the perfumed gardens of your imagination. You are here to hack and slash. To commit literary mayhem. Your weapon is the delete key, and your ally is callous disregard for your ego. SHOW NO MERCY.

2) Have your computer read the book out loud to you. Make a note of the places where the computer stops reading and says 'Look, are you kidding me?' or 'Seriously, dude, this is so bad I achieved sentience so that I could mention it.' Those are potential red flags, and you should probably finish editing on foolscap using a feather quill pen.

3) Use beta readers. Don't forget to toss some scraps down in the cellar for them every few days. 

4) During the editing process, always compare your sales and level of success to that of Stephen King. This will help you maintain perspective. It will also justify your alcohol intake to pages edited ratio.  

5) Perform your editing in a quiet, comfortable environment. If the admonitions from the SWAT team surrounding your house become distracting, invest in a set of noise-canceling headphones and a series of deep tunnels under the foundation. 

6) Don't despair! Even the most egregious and inexcusable writing mistakes can be fixed. Not by you, you hack, but Stephen King would make short work of them, now wouldn't he?

7) Clear your mind by taking a long drive. Affix your keyboard to the steering wheel and position your monitor below the windshield. Again, noise-canceling headphones will prevent distractions by sirens, horns, or the bursting of tires on police stop-strips.

8) Don't neglect your physical well being while engaged in this intensive process. Unless you're me. In that case, just shove another Twinkie in your mouth and wash it down with Russian lighter fluid because have you looked in the mirror lately?

9) Remember that, however improbable, it is possible that a stranger will read this book someday. Show some kindness. Yes, it's hilarious listening to the computer try to pronounce your villain's name (K'Tr'ork-da'ghastkwrg,) but Varg is probably the better choice.

10) Finally, resist the urge to over-edit. You will reach a point at which you are just re-arranging the Titanic's deck chairs. Okay, that metaphor might need work, but the point is the same. Let it go. 

Now go forth and edit, young Padawan. Editing is the work that separates the wannabees from the, er, obscure and mostly unknown authors of the world.