How I Self-Edit A First Draft

Happy summer!

It’s in full swing here–at least schedule wise. The weather has been unusually cool the past few days thanks to a storm that came through over the weekend, but I expect the heat to return soon. Missouri is notorious for jumping from 60 degrees to 90 in a single week.

On Friday, I sent off my latest work in progress to my critique partners–cause for celebration! But it wasn’t without some prodding to get it done. See, I work best on a deadline. I think it’s why I did so well working at a public relations agency. Everything was on deadline there, and I worked very efficiently. So a little less than a month ago, my husband asked if I had set myself a deadline to send this manuscript to my critique partners.

Nope. But he was right that I needed to. I set it for June 9, and I achieved the deadline. It required cutting out social media for the last two weeks and working a bunch of extra hours last week, but I did it! I share some extra thoughts about the social media piece of it in my June newsletter today. Subscribe to make sure you catch all my news.

But back to my topic for today, my favorite of all: revising!

While I have to come up with all kinds of tricks to get through drafting–like setting daily word count goals and jumping around in the manuscript to stay interested–I enjoy diving into a revision and fixing the words that are already there. Some drafts are more put together than others, and a lot of that depends on how well I plan them in advance.

I did not plan this draft well in advance. You may recall my post on not getting stuck in your writing process. I started writing this book without a full outline, which was sort of fun but also left me with way more work than usual when revising the first draft. As a result, I took a very structured approach to my self-edit.

1. Read through & make notes like a critique partner

In the past, I’ve sometimes jumped right into revising without reading through the whole manuscript. I’ve learned that’s not always the best approach. Particularly for a tricky first draft–like this one–I find it helpful to read through the entire book like I would for a critique partner, making notes, but not changing anything yet. Here’s why.

  • By reading straight through, I get the big picture of the story. This helps me determine what I need to tackle overall from a plot and character standpoint.
  • It reveals where I need to do more research before I jump back in.
  • I never remember everything I wrote. I was sure I was missing a key motivation for one of the characters. I read through the first couple chapters and spent a good couple hours agonizing over it, brainstorming solutions. I kept reading and guess what? I’d already written something in I’d forgotten about. That is why I recommend reading the whole thing before worrying about it. Make a note of the issue and move on, because you might have already solved it. If you didn’t, you’ll know that soon enough.

2. Do additional research

Since I randomly decided to start drafting during my brainstorming/outlining phase, I left a lot of gaps where I needed to confirm facts and dig more deeply into how certain things would play out. As a result, before I could dive back into revisions, I conducted a couple of interviews, checked out a stack of library books, watched a bunch of research materials, and generally nailed things down to ensure any future copyeditors (fingers crossed!) won’t be questioning my facts.

But even when I have carefully outlined books in the past, I have still found places where I needed to do additional research after the first draft.

3. Create a revision checklist

If I’m revising based on notes from other people, I generally already have a kind of checklist. Using the in-line notes from my read-through, I developed a revision checklist for myself that addressed:

  • Major and minor plot issues/solutions
  • Character arcs/mannerisms
  • New threads to be added
  • Research to be added
  • Character motivations to be woven throughout
  • Information to be moved to a different part of the book

4. Revise!

I always tackle big picture issues first, because they tend to trickle down and affect minor plot issues as well. Next I cross off (and yes, I literally cross them off) the other plot items. I address character items last. With this book, I have two points of view, so I handled each POV separately to ensure they sounded distinct.

As I’m going through, I also clean and tighten the text, but that’s a whole other post. I cut this manuscript by 7,000 words, despite adding two scenes.

5. Final read-through/add chapters

As I was getting close to my self-imposed deadline, my final read-through was more of a skim, but my main purpose was to add chapters to the book. I write in scenes rather than chapters, so a first draft is never formatted properly for readers. Scenes often become chapters, but sometimes they’re way too long and need to be chopped into shorter chunks to keep the book moving along. Once the manuscript is formatted, I send it off to readers!

How do you self-edit? Do you have any other steps? Or any questions about my process?

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