Your first draft can be awful, as long as it’s finished

The difference between a good novel and a great novel is editing. Before you submit your manuscript for traditional publication, you must edit thoroughly. That goes double if you plan to self-publish.

At the Florida Writers Association’s Mid-Winter Conference West and Reading Festival in Bradenton last week, one of the sessions I taught was called “Elements of Fiction: How to Edit Your Novel Like a Pro.” I can’t encapsulate years of training and experience into a two-hour seminar, or even a bunch of blog posts. But I can give you enough information to give you a competitive edge.

writer writing
Photo by channah

Every writer is aware that great writing means taking your rough draft and rewriting, editing, and polishing to perfection. But I think a lot of us do this haphazardly, without a clear method, mainly because we’re not taught a clear editing method. I know I was never taught editing in my college creative writing classes. I didn’t learn how to really do it until I started working with my own mentors and trainers in my professional associations.

In the weeks ahead, I’m going to outline a clear editing method that will help prepare your manuscript for submission to a traditional publisher. It will NOT be ready for self-publishing. If you are self-publishing, you must at the very least have a copyeditor. None of us can fully edit our own manuscript. At some point you must get another set of eyes on the thing, preferably the eyes of a trained professional. A traditional publisher will provide this. If you’re self-publishing, you must hire a copyeditor yourself.

Let your first draft be sloppy

You can’t begin editing until you have a finished manuscript. But if you completed NaNoWriMo and you have 50,000 words but know you need another 30,000 or 40,000 to finish the story, go focus on that.

Writing and editing are two different mindsets; one is creative and proactive, the other is refining and reactive. You must turn off your inner editor when you are writing your first draft. Lame lines like She walked quickly can stand. You’ll fix it in editing. Move on.

Anne Lamott is famous for her book Bird by Bird, in which she encourages us to write a crappy first draft. OK, she uses a little stronger scatological term than that. Mary Burton, who taught the preconference workshop at the FWA conference last fall, introduced us to the term “sloppy copy,” which she learned from one of her children’s teachers. I like this term better, and not only because it rhymes.

“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you did not write.”—Mary Burton

You can’t edit a blank page. So go finish your first draft, your sloppy copy. Resist the urge to go back and edit the beginning because you decide halfway through to change something. Fix it in editing. As my friend Jeanne Marie Leach likes to say, your first draft can be as ugly as raw hamburger and make about as much sense. It just has to be out of your head and into readable form.

Once you’ve done that, we can walk through the steps of editing and how to ensure that in your manuscript you’ve done an excellent job at all the elements of fiction.

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  1. Yes This! Firm Believer – When I do NaNo, it may take me 30 days to write the novel, but often as long as 2 years to edit it!

  2. I know! My buddy Tim Ward over at New Authors Fellowship said October should be OctoFinishO, when everyone finishes last year’s NaNoWriMo novels before starting new ones. 😉

  3. Looking forward to that editing method outline. I’m just getting into the editing mode after letting my NaNoWriMo draft rest for a bit, and while I’m sure I’ll figure it out, I’m interested in seeing what methods others find useful.

    1. First thing to do, if you haven’t already, is get yourself a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. That book is brilliant.

  4. […] editor friend of mine recently began a series of posts outlining “a clear editing method that will help prepare your manuscript for submission…” […]

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