Whether you did NanoWriMo or just decided to write a 50,000-word pile of shit and then try to shine it into a pile of gold, this is for you.

Does this sound familiar?

I wrote my first draft pretty quickly and came out

with a huge mess. How to I make sense of it?

I’m not sure I can edit it into something decent.


Not everything can be saved

Let’s say you have a white 2011 Hyundai Sonata. It looks pretty okay. But you want to make some upgrades. You can outfit it with some cool features. Upgrade the stereo, suspension, and rims.

But you need to recognize that you can’t turn your white 2011 Hyundai Sonata into a NASA spaceship. If your novel sucks, let it go and start something new.

Don’t try to attach a state-of-the-art rocket to it and expect great things. Your audience will still see a floundering Hyundai trying to be something it’s not. And you don’t want a car with identity issues, do you? 

If you’re too self-biased and think everything you write is amazing, you need to do two things:

  1. Phone a friend. Send your draft to someone who is a talented writer and editor. Someone who would tell you if your draft made them throw up on themselves. You need someone honest, not a yes man.
  2. Read more. The more books you read, the more it will put your measly “skills” into perspective. While I do think I have a unique voice, I’m far outmatched by literary greats. It’s a healthy perspective to have (to not be delusional).

Let’s assume you wanted your novel to be that Hyundai. All you need are some realistic upgrades. Great. A few rounds of editing can do that. 

That’s not too much to ask.


Start with plot

If you write your first draft quickly, you’re bound to have awkward wording, character inconsistencies, grammar flubs, repetitious dialogue, and many more things that jump off the page screaming at you: MAKE ME LOOK PRETTY RIGHT NOW!!!!

But you need to have self control.

In the second draft, you need to look at the plot, character arcs, subplots, theme, and foreshadowing. These are the big stuff.

You need to look at the big picture before you edit the details.

Why? Okay, let’s go down this rabbit hole. Let me use a parable. 

Barbie is worried about the disconcerting tinge her arms have taken. Her shirt is too tight, so she can’t really feel her arms. But Ken doesn’t want to be around her due to the fleshy scent emanating from her limbs. So she spends $275 on skincare products and returns her arms to her normal skin color.

The next day Barbie goes to her plastic surgeon and discovers that both her arms are dead. Since her tight shirt cut off blood flow, now both arms needs to be amputated.

Poor Barbie. She should have fixed her blood flow before she fixed her stench. Instead she focused on little things like how grossed out Ken was at her odorous fleshy arms. Maybe she could have saved her limbs if she had been able to look past the gross stuff for a few seconds. 

Fix the big stuff before you fix the small stuff.

It could save your arms.

But in all seriousness, after perfecting the little things in a chapter, how much does it suck if you realize after looking at the big picture that it doesn’t belong and you have to amputate it from your novel. Hours wasted.

And I wouldn’t expect Ken to stick around with your chapters amputated.


Set specific goals for each draft

Don’t sweep over your entire manuscript and expect it will be polished.

With each pass-through, focus on something specific like tracking a sub plot to see if it’s as compelling as it needs to be.

I got this editing outline from a reader. I took the liberty of altering it slightly. So, thanks for this template, Kyra!

  1. Set it aside for a few weeks.
  2. Major revision of first draft. Focus on the big picture.
  3. Major revision after using beta reader feedback of the big picture.
  4. Refine action, descriptions, dialogue, characterization, etc…
  5. Line edits. Smooth out sentences, correct errors and inconsistencies.
  6. Copy edits. Correct remaining small wording and grammar errors.
  7. Proofread on paper.
  8. Send to your editor.


Although I enjoy the editing process, for me it often feels endless. Having an outline of what the editing process should look like helps me a lot. It gives me peace of mind so I know when I’m truly “done.”

Of course every writer is different. Having an outline happens to help me greatly.

Side note: I didn’t publish a blog post last week because of Labor Day. I was traveling and was with family. And of course long weekends means reading a new book. The Martian is fantastic. My wife got tired of me raving about it between reading sessions. You should buy it and annoy your partner with how amazing you think it is.

Question(s) of the day: What resonated with you? What’s your experience been with editing your first drafts?