Learning to edit your own writing is an essential part of every author’s life.
Even if you plot every sentence out in advance, you will still need to edit your first complete draft to ensure it’s as good as it can be. If you’re more at the ‘pantser’ end of writing, editing becomes even more essential.
I remember the first time I managed to complete a first draft. It was a 67,000-word romance novel and I thought it was done. I had the right number of words, in the right order, and had managed to bring the story together into a satisfactory (happy) ending.
I submitted it to Harlequin – and it was summarily rejected.
So I paid to have it assessed and got this [summarised] feedback: “The sex scenes are HOT but it needs a good edit.”
At that time, I was working as a freelance writer and, to me, editing meant tidying up the sentences, making sure the punctuation was correct, and ensuring I hadn’t repeated myself. So I did that, and tried again.
By this stage, I’d taken myself to a Romance Writers of Australia conference and was beginning to understand just how much I didn’t know about writing romance, in particular, but also about the creative writing process in general.
So I set about learning more about my craft, writing many more manuscripts of up to 90,000 words. Finally, I sold one and began the process of a professional structural edit.
And that’s when I really learnt how little I knew about editing.
This was not moving a comma and changing a word or two – this was a wholesale upending of the story, asking deep and hard questions about my character’s motivation and shining a massive spotlight on every tiny plot hole I’d been convinced no-one would see.
Editing can be hard if you don’t have a good system
Since that difficult and uncomfortable moment, I’ve learnt a lot about editing over (nearly) nine published novels, but never lost sight of how incredibly daunting it can be to take a manuscript you’ve completed and then take it apart. To shuffle words, chapters, ideas and characters around and to realise that your first ideas are not necessarily your best.
In fact, I’m in the middle of the process again, working through the fourth rewrite of a new middle-grade manuscript that has not reached the ‘right’ stage just yet. I wrote the draft, asked for feedback from trusted readers, and rewrote it. And then we did it again, and again.
This draft is the hardest because I’ve realised that I’ve been resisting the hard stuff. My readers have been telling me the story is not working and I’ve tinkered and tweaked, but I haven’t burnt it down (in places) and started again. That’s what I’m doing this time.
But whether you’re looking at a first draft or a third draft, the process remains the same.
To help you learn from my mistakes, here are some tips to get you started.
1. Read the whole manuscript.
No matter how well you think you know your story, read it again from start to finish – out loud if you can. Print it out and write on it as you go. Stick post-it notes all over it. Draw on it in red pen. You need to get hands-on and dirty with every draft.
2. Write a scene list.
Write a list of every single scene in the manuscript and what happens. Just a simple overview:
‘Bob works in the garden’
‘Bob is sent on a quest’.
The point of this is to show you a) the pacing of your story (if Bob is still working in the garden in chapter five, for instance, you might need to tighten up your beginning) and b) any inconsistencies in your plot (if Bob is sent on a quest in chapter 1 but is working in the garden in chapter 3, for instance).
3. Focus on your character.
Your main character needs to drive your story. If you introduce your character in chapter one, but then chapters two and three focus on the history of your kingdom setting, for instance, you’ve sidelined the main story. Be clear in your head about your character’s goals and motivations and then work through your manuscript, ensuring they are clear to the reader.
You will always hear writers say that distance helps with editing – and it’s true. Writing your draft and putting it away allows you to read it with fresh eyes. For me, it’s also helpful to put some distance between that first read of the whole manuscript and the moment I actually dive in and start to move things about.
If you’re editing your own stories and need a bulletproof system to ensure you’ve polished your story to the best possible version it can be, check out Cut, Shape, Polish. You can access this course immediately and it will help you identify any structural issues and fix them, create a seamless journey for your reader and enhance your chances of being published.
Read the manuscript, write your scene list and then allow the whole story to breathe in your mind for a little while. It’s amazing how clear the path can seem once your subconscious has had time to kick into gear.
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al’s next middle-grade novel will be out in July 2023. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.