So you have finished your first draft…


As with writing a novel, there is no single correct way to edit your book. If you are working with an agent or publisher, they will help you through the process and give you access to invaluable support from creative editors, copy editors, line editors and the like. Life is not so simple for us self-publishing authors. So, having gone through this process once, I thought I’d share my learnings by explaining the process I will use for the sequel to Second Chance. This doesn’t mean it will be the right process for everybody, but hopefully all of you will see at least one or two things that will be of help.

1 First read through

So you’ve left your manuscript to lie for a few weeks, haven’t you? You haven’t? Then go away and come back in a few weeks.

Stephen King in his book, On Writing, suggests your first act should be to read through your manuscript from start to finish, preferably in one go, to gauge the pace of the story. Well who am I to argue? At this point do not be tempted to start correcting typos or change wording; that comes later. The whole point of this part of the process is to look at your manuscript from the point of view of a reader. It is all about the big things. What works and what doesn’t? Are there sections that bore you or add nothing to the story? Then take out your read pen a strike them through. Are their areas that fly through too quickly, actions taken with no visible explanation or reason? Make notes to broaden these sections out but don’t start making the changes just yet.

Once you’ve done this read through your manuscript again, this time to identify any major errors; plot holes; character’s names, appearance and gender changing unintentionally, or the characters disappearing altogether. Write your notes either in a notebook, as post its, or as I do, on the relevant scene notes in Scrivener. My favourite error from my last book was finding chapters written in present tense instead of past tense like the rest of the manuscript. I have no idea how that happened. At this point don’t forget to add in any notes you made during the first draft – expanding character’s roles, writing out characters altogether, changing locations to fit with later scenes etc.

2 Make the major changes

The next step is to make the changes you identified in step 1. Again, try not to get bogged down in correcting grammatical errors, this is all about getting the structure right.

3 Edit your prose

Now, finally, you can make the corrections you have been itching to change during the first two steps. It is here you smooth your prose, remove stray adjectives, re-phrase poorly structured sentences and, of course, correct any spelling or grammatical errors. My one piece of advice is to edit first at sentence level, then go through again at paragraph level, then once more at scene level. Only then move on to the next scene. The reason I say this is that in my last book I edited only at sentence level, which gave me a series of wonderful sentences but horrible, jarring paragraphs and scenes when I read them back. The major mistake I made was not reading the passages out loud. Doing this not only helps you identify clunky prose and poorly structured sentences, it also helps you catch the many typos that will be hidden in your text.

4 Send to test readers

The purpose of this stage is to sense check the story and characterisation. One of the issues with editing your own work is that you know the story too well. You know the full history behind the story, as well as what is happening but being left unsaid and undiscovered. This makes you blind to any gaps in your manuscript. Another issue is that during the act of writing  your characters have become a part of you. You love or hate your characters because you know who they are and why they are doing what they do, but have you written it down?

You want your test readers to be concentrating on the big things. Ask them not to worry about grammatical errors or typos (though they will). What you want to know is, does the book work? Are there things that are confusing when they aren’t meant to be? Have you given enough information at the right time to make sense? Have you edited out a crucial piece of information? At the character level, do the readers relate to the characters? Do they care what happens to them? What works for them and what doesn’t? All of this information is crucial to improving your manuscript.

5 Adapt based on test reader feedback

For most people, the first reaction when receiving test reader feedback is either that they’re wrong, or that you have written a piece of garbage. Both reactions are normal and also untrue. What you need to remember that your lovely, kind-hearted test readers – who have volunteered to critique your work for free – are desperate for you to produce the best book you can.  Really good test readers give you blunt, honest feedback. They tell you what works and what doesn’t, for them.  Once you recover from the shock, you’ll realise what they say contains truth you have either been hiding from yourself, or too close to the manuscript to see. This is not to say you should accept everything at face value, but you should have a good reason not to. Once you have accepted those points you believe to be right, make the necessary changes to your manuscript.

6 Read through for flow once more

By this point your manuscript may look very different to the first draft with which you started. Now is the time to re-read the whole thing again, just to make sure the changes you made haven’t had a detrimental effect on the flow of your story.

7 Send to Editor

It’s at this point some authors question the need for an editor. But you’ve made all these changes, spent hours polishing your manuscript and now you are going to pay for an editor. Are you crazy? Well, no, is the simple answer.

Everything you have done to date has been to save time and money for when you get the professionals involved. I’ve learnt to my cost that I am not, and never will be, a line editor. I miss things. Lots of things. My grammar is OK but not perfect. I am very poor at when to use hyphens and don’t get me started on semi-colons. I am blind to certain types of typos. If you have been a regular reader of this blog, some of this will come as no surprise, but in acknowledging this weakness I also recognise that I’ve needed to do something about it. That is where the editor comes in. My editor will help correct the many grammatical errors still present in my manuscript at this point, as well as offering suggestions on how to improve my prose. That’s not to say he doesn’t also offer some structural advice, but that is just a bonus over all the other wonderful things he does.

8 Make changes based on Editor’s feedback

Of course, you don’t have to listen to what your editor says, but in my experience you had better have a bloody good reason not to. I can only think of one or two occasions where I’ve ignored my editor’s advice, and both times he was happy with what I had written and had just offered alternative wordings as an option.

9 Send to proofreaders

If you have the resources, it is this stage where you would send your work to a line editor. I don’t have that luxury, but I do have a couple of  reader friends who have eyes like a hawk and suffer severe physical reaction when exposed to typos. You may say why, having used an editor, should you do another round of proofing. This is because despite your best efforts, you have probably added errors while dutifully making changes based on your editor’s feedback. Or your editor could have missed something; they are only human. I skipped this process last time and as I have written before, my book was launched with, what I found later, over 80 typos in place. This does not mean your book will be perfect, but you should do everything in your power to keep the typos to a minimum.

10 Make changes based on your proofreaders feedback and prepare to publish

The final stage! Well, not quite. You still have a cover to get ready, you need to format your manuscript into the various e-reader formats. You have to produce a pdf layout for print. Then there is the pricing to think about, as well as how you are going to market the book, all of which you should have been preparing while writing and editing your book…

So, is there anything you do that I’ve missed, or do you have any other tips that could help other writers?

29 thoughts on “So you have finished your first draft…

  1. Very good advice. If everybody followed it there’d be far fewer books dumped in disgust because the reader lost patience with the errors in the text. I’m going to reblog this so more writers might take the hint 🙂 I speak as an offender.

    • Thank you. I’ve been an offender too (as I mentioned above) and I’m sure if somebody looked closely they would find an error or two in Second Chance, but at least they can’t say I haven’t tried.
      Thanks for dropping by 🙂

  2. This is a super post, Dylan, full of great advice (and some hard-learned lessons, I fear). It’s not until you embark upon your first editing process that you begin to realise the enormity of the task. You think that with the completion of your first draft, you’re ‘nearly done’ – but you’re not even half way. You make some very good points about recruiting readers, and not trying to do all the various levels of editing in one go, but to be patient about the process. All superb advice. I’m excited by the way you’ve attacked your second novel, making such healthy progress in a relatively short time. Envious… envious… of your dedication to the task. 🙂

    • Thank you, Jools 🙂 Yes, it is quite daunting. One of the best things about doing it the first time around is that, even though you may know what needs to be done, you have no true concept of how large a task it is. Saying that, I really enjoy the editing process. It’s where you get to tease out the beauty from the lumpen first draft you’ve created.

      • Editing…. “Teasing out the beauty from the lumpen first draft”… You could make a career out of this writing game!

  3. Reblogged this on A Writer's Notepad and commented:
    Pending my forthcoming gratuitious post in the next few days (see last post for details), this from Dylan at Suffolk Scribblings is excellent advice for all writers.

  4. Good advice Dylan. The first draft is only the beginning. I’ve spent at least ten times more on editing than I did on writing the first draft and I’m still going. I do find, however, that the process can be quite fluid, i.e. overall read through first then editing prose and narrowing down from paragraph to sentence structure. But then I find I have a new idea that I want to add which might mean a structural change. Later after I’ve incorporated ideas from readers, I might find the sentences are now more clunky etc, or I’ve repeated a word too many times in quick succession. I think all the steps you outline are necessary, but be prepared to re-visit some of them more than once.

    • Hi! Thank you for commenting. You’ve made a very good point. I consciously over simplified the process because phase 3 and phases 5 & 6 could take a number of iterations until you are happy. But this raises another question. When is your book ready?
      One point I picked up from my Editor is that he wished I had sent it to him sooner, rather than after the 6th round of revisions like last time. Not because he wanted more to do, but he wanted to save me from unnecessary revisions where none were needed. And he was right. I edited too far on the 5th revision so that my book was a bare skeleton (and I like my fiction light on description) meaning I had to flesh it out once more before it was sent to him.

  5. Hi Dylan. Just found you, in the tortuous way you do. Great and helpful post. The editing process (says the man with the unfinished book) is fun at times. One thing (and sorry if I missed this in your post) that helped me was to make sure I changed between reading on screen and printing out and reading on the page (as well as, as you say, out loud, much to the kids’ amusement). And who do you use to edit? If you don’t mind a newcomer asking. I’m at that point and having some independent ideas always helps. Geoff

    • Hi Geoff. That’s a very good point. I tend to print out for the first review, so I can scribble notes and block out pages at a time. I then intend to do the initial copy editing electronically, while reading out loud. Last time I tried to do this on paper but there were so many changes it proved confusing. Once the prose is polished, I will do the final proofing on paper, as for some reason it is easier to see typos on paper than on scene.
      My editor is Ben Way (website is currently being built). He is an excellent copy editor and I would recommend him to anyone.
      Good luck with your writing and thanks for dropping by 🙂

      • Marvellous and thanks for the ref; I will keep reading and if you want to pop over at any time, feel free. Two Suffolk walks are amongst the recent posts as a teaser. And as for cricket…

    • I’m with you on that, Peter. I always compare it to sculpture. The first draft gives you the basic human shape but the editing process allows you to capture their expression, the worry-lines on their face or the bitten fingernails.

  6. I am about two chapters away from finishing my first novel…….I literally did not have a cue where to go next, so this arrived with perfect timing. Thanks so much for the advice. I’ll definitely take it all on board. From a total newbie, gracious thanks.

  7. Pingback: So you have finished your first draft… | ellenbest24
  8. Pingback: When are you ready for an editor? | The Proof Angel
  9. Pingback: 6 Things You Need To Edit Your Book | Suffolk Scribblings
  10. Pingback: Helpful Websites for Writing a Book | From Story To Book

Don't be shy, talk to me. I promise I won't bite.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s