Editing. What to expect from a first draft…

I’m exhausted today. Not because I’ve been working my fingers to the bone, slaving over a smoking-hot keyboard (the underside of it is smoking-hot and has slowly been cooking my right leg for the last several weeks). No, I’m absolutely knackered because I went round to a friend’s house last night and only left just before 3am. I finally put my light out just before 4am. And got out of bed just after 10am. Why? I had this strange idea that, just because I’m not going out to work, I still should put in a full day’s work on the writing.

I have no idea where this sudden work ethic has sprung from. Normally it’s great. Today? Huh. I could have done without it. Still, at least I will get some work done. *blinks*

For equally unfathomable reasons, I remembered what I have been meaning to blog about since Sunday: editing the first draft.

Now, if you’ve ever wondered about this, chances are you will have come across a huge amount of advice regarding the quality of your first draft and 99% of it will say exactly the same thing: that your first draft is 100% guaranteed to be a complete crock and you will need to do drastic re-writing and editing, including filling in numerous plot holes and wholesale murder of little darlings before you should even think about letting that beast see the light of day.

Naturally I assumed this would be true of my first draft. So I edited the first three chapters down into one chapter and then changed the beginning altogether before dutifully sending what was now the first four chapters (previously chapters one to six) off to my critique partner.

Who hated them.

Bear in mind this is a woman who ranted and raved to me over the course of six weeks how amazing my story was, etc, etc. Even I was nauseated and I will usually take any and all praise handed my way.

So, yeah, hated them. “Aren’t you writing YA?” she asked. “This feels adult now.”

I can’t record here the words with which I greeted this comment. Suffice to say, there were a lot of them and they were all bad. Some of them weren’t even in the dictionary, but trust me, they were bad.

Luckily I still had the first edit I did (where I put three chapters in one but before I changed the beginning) so I sent her that. “Yes!” she said. “That’s better!”

*Cue much sighing and attempted replacement of torn out hair.*

Strangely enough, I recently read a post by Tahereh Mafi on revisions (among other things), but thought that it couldn’t possibly apply to me. Basically, she writes a pretty clean first draft and then revisions are just adding layers and clearing up little things. I mention this woman because she’s 23 years old and her debut, Shatter Me, ready for querying after only one round of revisions, is due out this November and has already been optioned for film. Obviously for some people, a reasonably good first draft is a distinct possibility.

I had also been ignoring the fact that my critique partner’s first draft of her current work in progress is also very clean. So far I haven’t spotted any plot holes, which isn’t to say there aren’t any, but certainly no real clankers. When I explained to her that everyone says a first draft is always awful, she pointed out “You are too anal retentive to write an awful first draft”.

Couldn’t argue with that.

What about you? How does your first draft show up in the cold, clear light of day? Is it full of holes requiring work with a bulldozer or is your editing process just tightening and layering, rather than full on rewrites?

About Mhairi Simpson

Writer, dreamer. Magic, dragons, pink mice, cake. Come say hi!
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43 Responses to Editing. What to expect from a first draft…

  1. Margaret says:

    I’m definitely approaching mine, if not with a bulldozer then definitely with a chainsaw. Swathes of text and characters falling by the way side!

  2. Jeff Hollar says:

    I personally write my finished product from the first time. Very little editing or revision done ever. It means I write more slowly but have never understood these folks who laud themselves writing 10k words a day and sending half to the garbage

  3. Aravan says:

    I’ve always struggled with the editing for the very reason you stated – “everyone” says that the first draft is garbage, but when I go back through my stuff, a lot of the times I’m only catching grammar issues or similar word use and the like. I’ve always felt like a failure as an editor because I didn’t want to chuck much of what I’d written. When I pass it around to others for the same, I generally only get a few revision sections back. Maybe they’re lousy editors too, heh, but I feel like I’m always reading and tightening and going back over what I’ve written throughout the process (especially, since I’m writing fantasy, even I have trouble keeping up with every bizarre surname spelling). The only exception to that is during NaNoWriMo, when I let the in-process editing go as much as possible. Which, honestly, still isn’t very much.

    Sometimes I think that some of the “advice” and “tips” we get are actually counterproductive. This tidbit I think is one of them. I think it’s important to be able to make the changes that are necessary, but to foster an expectation that the first draft of anything is pure crap isn’t necessarily the most helpful advice, and I think can scare away a lot of potential authors who feel like they’re doing it “wrong”. It’s hard enough as it is without adding layers of potential anxiety, heh.

    • Absolutely. A lot of people remember to add the proviso that their advice is what works for them, as Tahereh Mafi did in the post I linked to, but many others don’t, particularly in craft books or the odd over-simplified How To Write web page that I have seen. Writing is like any other art form – a very personal process linking an emotion in the artist to a corresponding feeling in the audience. There are as many ways to write as there are authors, hence there is no ‘one size fits all’ advice on how to write…

  4. EllieAnn says:

    Haha! Love this.
    I’m one of those who write awful first drafts. And I mean…truly awful. So I’m glad to hear about your method, well done! It certainly put tons of pressure off you for the revision. 🙂

    • Hey, I read some of your early stuff and it wasn’t awful! The story was fantastic – all it needed was cosmetic stuff. Think of it in terms of a moderate acid peel… Fairly drastic, but not as drastic as surgery… 🙂

  5. theaatkinson says:

    loved this post because sometimes, yeah, the first draft is passable. Just never quite right for me. there are times when I edit the crock out of it only to realize I took out things I really wanted. Now, I do NO editing till the novel is done. Then I go back and clean it up. Cause you just never know.

    • Absolutely. I do think that not cutting anything until you have finished the entire novel is a good idea, unless you fell asleep on the keyboard or something. I hesitate to recommend this as a hard and fast rule, because this post is specifically about how misguided ‘hard and fast’ rules can be. But personally, I don’t do major surgery before the novel is finished. A little tweaking to make this sentence read better or to clear up those typos before sending the day’s output to my critter, yes, but nothing more than that.

  6. C.E. Smith says:

    Great post and great comments! ❤

    My first draft as opposite problem you had. My editor thought it was more MG than YA. It was a good idea but plot needed to be bigger with more stakes.

    So for half of Feb I was re-writing like crazy. I was surrised by how much fun it was! I don't mind the actual stage of editing, what I hate is transfering my notes and scratches onto the computer. Drives me insane!

    But sounds like you're getting close to the end? I'm glad you Tweeted this, cuz I gonna follow your blog now ❤

    • Well, I spent about a week just working on those first few chapters. Now I can get on with the rest of the book! At the moment it’s quite simple but I ended up with quite a large cast and as I draw more characters in I’m going to have to make sure it all works. For instance, I know I’ve had someone tell my main character something which my main character then repeats back to them about fifteen chapters later as though she worked it out for herself – OOPS. Hopefully, that’s about as bad as it gets! After that, it’s just tightening dialogue (not my strongest suit) and working on character building for all my supporting characters.

      Yes, I’m not a fan of transferring vast quantities of notes onto the computer. I wrote out most of a short story by hand last night, but that should be less than 2000 words, which is ok. When it comes to typing up reams of stuff, it gets old pretty quick!

      And thank you for following! I’m honoured 😀

  7. I believe I’m in the process of writing a cleaner first draft than usual. I always end up doing many rounds of had-core revisions to punch the plot up, turn character explorations into real scenes and that sort of thing. But this time I’m writing plot-first. My revisions–at least the first round of them–seem like they’ll be polite snipping and jostling compared to the familiar chainsaw and blowtorch. That sort of editing has done wonders, don’t get me wrong; it seems, though, I’m writing a different kind of draft this time around.

    • I have to admit, while my story is led by the characters, I have written this novel in terms of ‘what happens next’, i.e., what are these crazy people going to do now? It seems to have worked in that I am not struggling hugely with characterisation, although I need to add detail there, and the plotline goes in a reasonably orderly fashion. All of which leads to ‘snipping and jostling’ (a fantastic term which I may have to borrow :D) rather than tree surgery.

      • Feel free to borrow snipping and jostling! I’ll need to add some character details, too, and some more physical description in certain chapters. Where are you in your first draft? Have you finished it? I’m thinking about editing when I’m halfway through, in part so I can submit to my critique group and use their feedback to craft the second half. But there’s danger in stopping midway through the plot and going back to the beginning…

      • I’ve finished the first draft. I usually wrote two chapters a day and would re-read and tweak them before sending them to my CP so the whole thing is fairly clean. Most of the bloopers happened in the first few chapters when I was still feeling my way. I also have to add in more description – after all, it is fantasy!

        I think there’s a lot to be said for finishing the whole manuscript before doing any major editing. It takes your mind off the thread of the story and a writing hat is very different to an editing hat. I would recommend finishing the first draft before going to the editing stage. One reason I submitted my stuff to my CP as I went was so that she could pick up on any clangers immediately, before I was too far through. I did that for her as well and getting those pointers while I was still early in the story really was invaluable.

  8. Ryan Lawler says:

    Sounds like you just need a good nights sleep 😛 But seriously, the edit and review process can be very hard when you are doing it to your own work. You are conscious about the fact that you will be biased, so instead you go over the top and cut out way to much or try to make it too edgy, or whatever other mood you are in at the time.

    While critique partners can be a pain in the arse and tell you absolutely nothing that you think is useful at the time, you will probably look back at it in a few months time and realise that what made sense to you may not be making complete sense to them. The author im editing for at the moment really hates my guts because I tell him things he doesn’t want to hear.

    • Yeah, I can imagine that sucks. Of course, you can’t make them take your advice, but if they don’t you feel they’re wasting your time and their money by even asking you to edit.

      Luckily I’m not finding too much I have to cut out, just things to occasionally rewrite and tighten up. Like I said, dialogue is not one of my strengths. Hopefully I’ll be a lot better at it by the time I finish this novel! 😀

  9. I’m not sure how my first drafts turn out. I have a few that are sitting and waiting for when I’m reading to read through. Guess I’ll have to get back to you.

    I’d also agree that the first draft 99% is horrible but not to the point where you should do massive rewrites and edits. Start out small and slowly tweek. That way you don’t accidentally change anything thinking you need to spit shine the first draft asap.

  10. I have been editing mine for 8 months and then I will probably need more editing. I want it to be as tight as possible before I put it out, or try to get an agent. Good stuff.

    • Thanks! 🙂

      Question(s): Are you editing with a particular goal in mind, or just to get it as good as possible? And if it’s the latter, how do you know when you’ve reached that point? Have you edited it so much that it’s now significantly different to the story you originally wrote, or is it getting closer to what you wanted in the first place?

  11. Icy Sedgwick says:

    Having gone back over my first draft I can see there aren’t any whopping great plot holes – it’s more a question of smoothing small cracks and grooming, rather than drastic re-styling. I need to add some sections, but nothing really needs to be removed. Of course, I freely admit that I edit as I go, thus cutting down the amount of editing that needs to be done at the end. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to do that, but if you find something that works for you, then you should stick with it!

    • Exactly. I pretty much do this too – not massive editing, just reading through each day’s work before sending it to my CP. That shows me weaknesses in sentence construction and the odd typo. Maybe I write slower than other people – I know I have a couple of plot holes, but mainly, like you, stuff to be added rather than taken away.

  12. Hi:D

    This is her erstwhile Critique Partner. I didn’t realize I’d gushed so much!! lol But it really was a fantastic first draft. You got the feelings of a teenager just right (My two oldest are now 19 and 18 so I’ve had very recent experience with 16 yo’s from all walks of life) and you really showed your character’s growth. Loved it.

    I don’t recall saying I hated your edits… but will freely admit to the rest. :D:D:D I agree with your assessment. You need to flesh out characterization of your support cast and find all those OOPS moments where inconsistencies happen.

    And, especially after the first few chapters, your work is pretty clean 😀 Love you!

    • I love you too! You’re awesome!! Isn’t she awesome?? Our lives are a permanent, ongoing meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society. “You’re the best!” “No, YOU’re the best!” “No, you are, really.” “No, really, you are…”

      The love never ends. Neither does the whipcracking. The perfect critiquing partnership 😀

  13. Colleen says:

    I outline the HELL out of SUPERNORAML, so my first draft was pretty clean. No major overhaul, just filling in gaps, adding descriptions and the like, although I did completely rewrite the first chapter.

    • The first chapter seems to be the most important for me personally. If I don’t feel like the first chapter is right, I can’t get on and edit the rest of the novel, which is why I took about a week to get the first chapter of FOR THE LOVE OF GODS sorted. Now I think I can move on to the rest of the manuscript.

  14. My first drafts BLOW and I think it has to do with my experience. I’d like to get to the point where they only need a touch up. I just bought a new book called Story Engineering which should be a big help.

    • Oh, I’ve heard of that book!! You must let me know if it helps – I haven’t been able to buy any books at all for MONTHS but I’ve heard that that is one of the books to have, even if you only buy one or two.

      I can’t remember if your current WIP is your first novel or not – maybe it’ll be easier next time? My first novel went completely off-track 20k into an 80k ms and only got back on it 40k later. I was not amused…

      • The author of Story Engineering has a blog called storyfix. It’s very good.

        This is the first novel I’ve decided to revise, but I’ve written others that also made me cringe.

      • Hahahahaha I’m scared to go back and look at my first one. I’m happy to know I’ve made a lot of progress over the last three months – I really don’t want to see the proof in black and white!

        Thanks for the blog info – I think I’ve heard of it but I’ll go and check it out.

  15. MZMackay says:

    Hi! I found your post through a tweet from a friend.

    My WIP now feels like such a first draft that I know I’ll be editing it for a while. The piece is undergoing a critiquing process with my partners, and I still think that after this process it will still need some major work afterwards.

    Such is the life of a writer. The revision and editing process is truly where our work lies. Good luck!

  16. Trisha says:

    It depends. I think last year’s NaNo novel was pretty clean, probably because I…planned it out. 😛 But most of my works have been pantsed, so I admit they ARE kind of messy…

    • Yes, I made a lot of notes for this MS but didn’t exactly plan it. Just kept thinking, ok, what can go wrong now? It usually ended up being an attack by someone or other and lots of blood and guts being splattered about the place. Great fun 🙂 Luckily, because I was sending chapters to my CP as I went she was able to pull me up if anything went horribly wrong.

  17. alberta ross says:

    I dont find plot holes in any 1st draft – i have already lived the story in my head for months – my 1st draft edit is all about spelling, puctuation, and useage of common words (all problems I have) and along away by correcting these tightening happens – miracles of language! it also as all the books have been written in the form of diaries and transcript interveiws it is about arranging them into the best order to tease and tantalize! then I can see if I could add anything. The first three have made it on that first lot of edits – it has to be what works for noneself – I know some people write the book as they go along but I know it so well it’s just a matter of writing it.

  18. So far I’ve needed full re-writes on my first draft (and second draft… and third draft) of Fie Eoin. But I really didn’t write it with the intent to get published, nor with the knowledge to actually write a book, so I figure it’s going to need the most work.

    First drafts of other books have gotten better and cleaner the more I know about writing, so I’m hoping the next first draft won’t need so much re-writing (if any).

  19. I don’t think that I have ever had a perfect first draft. It has always needed to be edited several times before going out to my betas. Then even when I get it back I revise more. I guess some people can get it done the first time, but not me. 🙂

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