You’ve done a wonderful thing. Finishing a novel isn’t something that everyone can do. Every day a hundred (a thousand!) people will say, “I’m going to write a novel,” or they’ll swear, “I could write that.” Guess what…you DID. You are a WRITER.
Now that we’ve established that – I’m going to tell you to disregard the old argument about when a writer becomes an author, and ignore the quiet voices that say you are an imposter. You are not alone in your dual world of doubt and joy. We’ll save all that for another day.
Today we will focus on what you’ve accomplished. Your hours, days, months, or years spent writing have born fruit and now you need to figure out what to do with all those words. You officially have a FIRST DRAFT – congratulations!
Every successful writer has their personal drafting process. Many work through the process below as they write, but others find editing and writing too much of a distraction. I would challenge you to scour the internet and writing books for more ideas and ways to master your craft, but here I will teach you the 4-Draft version of writing and editing a book.
You had an idea…
DRAFT #1 – The Finished Manuscript
You worked your idea into a story and now you have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can clearly picture your characters, know their goals, and root for them at the end of your story. Here’s what you do with your first draft:
- Don’t share it with anyone. It’s your ugly little baby and some people will love it, but others might say something you can never unhear. Doubt is a writer’s kryptonite. Protect your baby.
- Remember that a first draft is just that – a DRAFT. Like the statue above, you can see what the stone holds and what your vision is, but you still have more work to do to make it a masterpiece.
- First drafts are for getting the story out! Their purpose is to help you shape your idea. It’s okay if it’s a little wonky and needs work.
- Give yourself a break! It’s a good idea to take a few weeks and reset/rest your brain and step back from the project so you can return to it with fresh eyes.
- CELEBRATE – You’ve done something amazing. Remember that.
DRAFT #2 – Carving Out The Shape of Your Story
This is where a Writer turns into an Author. You are doing more than collecting stories and putting them in a box to look at them later. You are shaping art and forming your legacy. Here’s what you need to work on to shape your second draft:
- Do you like it? If you like it, someone else probably will, too. If you don’t – DITTO.
- Are there parts that don’t feel right? Move, rework and revise.
- This is a BIG PICTURE review. Assess your story arc, plot line, theme, tone, characters and voice. Do they make sense in the story? Work for your genre? Achieve the character’s main goal?
- Make sure your plot is working. Does your story fulfill it’s promise to the reader? Is it too fast or slow? Does the ending fit or is it to predicable or “out there”? Is there shape to the story? Do your sub-plots and side characters shape a story that FEELS real?
- Do your characters make sense? Do they fit the plot and scene? If they don’t, was that on purpose? Is there change in your protagonist/antagonist? Should there be change? Are your characters shaping the story or is the plot just dragging them along?
- Check your world and make sure that the scenes are helping the story and that they make sense. Are they well described?
- Are your chapters consistent and breaking where it makes sense?
- It’s a lot to look for, but developing an outline, reading the work scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter can help. Review your work with a checklist (Scene, Plot, Characters, Chapter breaks, etc.) Printing it off can help, too.
- This is the time to remove text that isn’t working. It’s better to take it out now than to have your metaphorical statue end up with a third arm later that needs to be removed.
DRAFT #3 – Taking a Close Look at Your Work
Where your second draft focuses on the chapter-by-chapter and big picture revisions, your third draft will bring you right into your work. Every paragraph needs to be evaluated for purpose, strengths, and weaknesses. Here’s how to work with your third draft:
- At this point you should have your story and characters locked down. Don’t add in a sub-plot or character, change your setting, or rearrange your character goals (those are Draft #2 edits!).
- Check for places where your logic or plot fails. Did something happen in the third paragraph of chapter six and then you never addressed it, again? (Why was that red handkerchief SO darn important?)
- Make sure you aren’t breaking your reader’s trust. You said your hero can’t lie, so why is he telling fibs in chapter six? Can EVERYONE in your dystopian world really speak six languages and disassemble/reassemble a semi-automatic rifle? Your work needs to make sense so you don’t loose your reader.
- Is everything/everyone where they are supposed to be? Is there a car in the driveway on page six, but not on page twelve? Make sure you are consistent with the details.
- Where you were looking for subject matter and plot in Draft #2, here you will begin looking at your voice and word choice. Does your YA protagonist say, “You bet your britches,” while your mother figure says, “What up?” Make sure your dialog is crisp and context/content appropriate.
- Get rid of places with too much he/she/I telling and make sure you’re describing the action of the story instead. I tasted the apple. VS. The apple’s flesh felt gritty on my tongue and the cool juice ran down my parched throat.
- You will also want to check your word count for your genre. Are you over or under the standard word count? When submitting, agents can watch this pretty closely.
- Shape, grind, and carve your story into shape paragraph by paragraph.
- When you are done with your third draft edits, NOW IS THE EARLIEST TIME TO SHARE YOUR BOOK WITH BETA READERS. Many people will also wait until Draft #4 edits are done (for a more perfectly polished work), but other authors are impatient for feedback on the story arc and plot.
DRAFT #4 – POLISH AND SHINE
You’re almost done! Draft #4 focuses on your story line by line. Look for:
- Punctuation (Missing or Duplicated)
- Grammar Mistakes and Proper Sentence Structure
- Dialog tags
- Word Usage
- Two words together
- Sentence fragments or comma splices
- Use of short sentences and long sentences
- Onomatopoeia and Alliteration
- Proper tense
- Character names (Spelling, location, etc.)
- Page Headers and Breaks
- Remove tired language – Almost, Maybe, Seemed to, Just
- Sensitivity Reading
- Overall, you are looking for BASIC LINE EDITS
The fourth draft may be your most challenging self-edit. It’s easy for writer’s blindness and fatigue to kick-in. Try stepping back for a month (or three) and coming back to your work with a fresh eye. Another option is to read your work backwards or out of order. This forces you to look at the words out of context. Many writers recommend reading the work out loud. If that is a challenge for you, Microsoft Word has a built in narration feature or there are programs like Natural Reader available.
If you struggle with this, now is the time to hire an editor, request a peer review, or beg your Betas to tell you when you’ve done something wrong. There are also a number of programs like Grammarly and ProWritingAid that can help. This is the hardest part for me, and I lean on an editor, but many people choose not to go that route. I’ll apologize now for the small slips you’ll find in my Blogs and newsletters, because I know where my strength lies, and it’s not in the small details. I save my editor money for my manuscripts!
That being said, I have been reading grammar books and I picked up a workbook for Elements of Style. Even with a BA in English, I make mistakes. It’s like any second language, if you stop using it you’ll start to slip and it’s been ten years since I sat in a college classroom. Know your weaknesses, admit them, and then ask for help. Collaborative efforts only make your work better!
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates
Finding the best way for you to work is a learning process. Just like any skill it needs to be practiced and honed. The first time I heard about the 4-Draft revision process was from an amazing speaker, Lindsay Schopfer. He teaches online courses that utilize a lot of this information, but go WAY more in depth.
I highly recommend classes, workshops, and conferences. By continuing to educate and grow as I writer, I’m able to build on the 4 draft structure and blend that with a dozen other workshops to polish my work. So can you. Find your own style, and what works for you, then run with it!Up next in the ALW series: EDITORS, PEERS, BETAS – how are they’re different and how to find them.
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