Updated: Jun 28, 2020
Ah, the feeling of a finished draft. All those sparkling pages, fresh and new, filled with your talent, sweat, and lifeblood. Beautiful, isn't it? You gaze at it, thinking to yourself, wow, I'm a real writer. This must be what writing is all about.
Well I'm here to tell you that you're wrong. That pure and innocent manuscript was only the very beginning, the first virginal step in your journey. That, my friend, was the easy part. Guess what time it is? Yes, you guessed it, it's time to take that first draft and tear its guts out. Really eviscerate it. Take the trust and effort you put into each sentence, each scene, and just totally rip it apart.
Now that's what being a writer is all about. No, really - the editing and revision process gets a bad rep. Most people think of it as painstaking, grueling work, and sometimes it can be. It's rough to rough up your rough draft (say that three times really fast), but it's also a natural, free-range, 100% organic part of the creative process! It's where you really get to know your work - and yourself - as an artist. That initial draft was the awkward yet invigorating first date. Now it's time to get into the character of your characters, the things that make this story or article or fan-fiction tick.
It's going to take some time before you two lovebirds are ready to pee with the door to the bathroom open in your shared one-bedroom apartment, but we've all got to start somewhere, right? Here's how to revise like a pro with minimal pain and no messy breakups.
1. Read your rough draft. Now, read it again. Then - for the love of all that is holy - save it as a separate copy.
The first step in the editing process is getting to know your story...intimately. Oh, yeah.
"But wait!" You say in what I imagine to be a querulous, sort of pissed-off tone. "I already know my story. I'm the one who wrote it." Au contraire, my mentally projected friend - you typed it up, sure, but that story is far from written. You've started your contractions and asked the doctor how much longer you'll be in labor for, but the answer is yet to smack you in the uterus like a ten ton brick. You've got a long way to go.
Your first read-through is going to catch typos and major inconsistencies in your story. You'll want to mark those down. The second is going to nab the harder to spot weak points, like minor plot holes or weird dialogue tags (no, he did not cackle that line with an electric grin. Do you even hear yourself? What does that mean?). Once you've caught these cracks in the structure, it'll be a lot easier to focus on the deeper and more nuanced aspects of your plot and character development throughout the rest of the revision process. These first few read-throughs don't need to be too focused. Read like you're a reader. Insert your ideal demographic and put yourself in their situation as you go.
Oh, and a personal tip from yours truly - reading scenes and dialogue aloud, complete with your heretofore unknown voice acting talents on full display, really helps with catching typos and optimizing word flow. I have no idea why. And please, PLEASE, save that draft. Save several versions. Then save again. Take it from someone who once lost 200 pages of a manuscript draft...the two seconds and extra files are a lot better than a mental breakdown and existential crisis.
2. Know the characters. Be the characters. Kick the characters' butts until they make actual sense.
I'm not just talking about your protagonists, here. The plot can be made or broken by those sneaky side-characters and their machinations, so don't neglect them. You need to be asking yourself if these people (or whatever they are) actually make sense for the story. Why do they want what they want? What are their most obvious qualities? And, perhaps most importantly, who the hell do they think they are?
No, that's not a rhetorical irony. The way characters perceive themselves is often as important as how other characters see them. So get into their shoes, boots, hooves, wings...whatever they've got, and figure out how they view themselves in relation to everything that's going on around them. Have they revealed that perception through their actions and dialogue? What you're trying to avoid are the dreaded placeholder characters that can drag your whole plot down into the mire of their own pathetic iniquity.
When you edit, you're essentially smoothing down the rough edges that keep your story's pieces from fitting together properly. You're taking that Ikea furniture, cussing out the manual, and finally (inevitably) going to Youtube or Wikihow to figure out what the hell is going on. Metaphorically. It's the natural process of turning your writing into a story. Your fifteen pieces of cheap, commercial quality wood into a mediocre yet functional "rustic modern" coffee table.
Your characters are the main pieces of that vaguely made-in-Scandinavia puzzle. Your scenes and dialogue are the tiny, mismatched screws and bolts. So yeah, when you're editing, make them...make sense. Otherwise you'll be scanning that return policy and contemplating divorce with your frazzled partner - and you won't even have a coffee table to show for it.
3. Don't rush the process.
I say this at the risk of sounding like one of those pseudo-enlightened guys you meet at a yoga retreat in Asheville, NC - the process is the process, dude. You can't like, rush it, okay? It's gotta happen in its own time, bro.
Really, though. I know you just can't wait to see your shiny, polished story glittering like a gem in the dark mine of the writing process, but guess what also lives in mines? That's right, poisonous gas. Pitfalls. Booby traps. Where am I going with this metaphor, you might ask? I'm telling you to shut up, sit down, and brew that third cup of coffee, because you need to be patient with your work.
For the impatient among us, it can be frustrating to get weighed down by the details of the editing process. What we often need is a shift in mentality. Those details aren't "weighing you down," they're uncovering the story for you and revealing its true form. Think of them like dinosaur poop. Maybe it's not the most exciting find for a paleontologist, but it's still important. And where there's poop, the rest of the dinosaur is sure to follow! So get into that poop and don't rush it - study the poop, embrace the poop. Never discount the poop of your work. Okay, enough poop metaphors.
Basically rushing past the small stuff makes you miss out on the bigger parts of polishing your story. So try to think of the smaller pictures before you get fixated on the final product.
4. Be Kind to Your Work.
I'm not saying you need to print it out and have a lovely prayer circle with your work while singing kumbaya (you do you, though). Just recall that what you're editing is the tentative, awkward, pubescent version of your work. The glow up comes later. And hey, we liked 90s Britney Spears, right? We loved the Destiny's Child version of Beyoncé, even though she hadn't achieved full Queen Bey status yet.
Yes, improvements will come, but that doesn't mean this first draft isn't beautiful in its own slightly haphazard way. Take the time to appreciate this first version of what will eventually be a gorgeous piece. Be that ride or die for your work - you were there before it was cool. Before the fame and fortune and really annoying formatting requirements. No one else will ever be able to appreciate your story from the very beginning. That bond is special, and it deserves a few moments of reflection and respect.
It's the journey, man, not the destination. Okay, well, as a professional writer who gets paid to make things, it kind of is about the destination sometimes. But there's a certain kind of intimacy that comes with that first draft, and I think it's worth appreciating.
The way people edit their work can be as diverse as our thumbprints. Some of us take a linear approach, some hop from place to place, and some of us have no f***ing clue what we're doing and are perpetually shocked when we actually finish the process (guess which one I am).
Regardless, having the right mindset and beliefs about the editing and revision process is half the battle. Maybe 65% on a good day. Definitely 45%, minimum. The point is, you can't skip this part of creative work, so you might as well buckle down and try to enjoy it - or at least really appreciate its value. Editing and revision, after all, is where many writers truly improve themselves as artists. It's where inspiration and skill intersect.
Now go uncover that dinosaur poop and be a star. I'll be cheering you on from a safe, CDC recommended distance!