The Science of the First Edit

I feel like I could hear the collective sigh of relief on December 1st as every Nanowrimo participant realized that it was, at last, over. To those who participated in any capacity, congratulations! Putting the effort in to start, finish, or even think about a novel is a tremendous achievement in and of itself.

But now you are faced with a new challenge. Before you is the first draft of your novel. A beautiful achievement full of shit that you need to fix.

The first edit of a novel is, in my opinion, more painful than writing the first draft. You are forced to face those late-night mistakes, rushed paragraphs, and failing plot lines—something you happily ignored as you struggled to simply bring something into being. It is also a challenging round of edits because it is one you are likely to take on on your own. Sure, you have beta-readers, but why give them something that you know has mistakes when you could instead use their editing time to look for things you didn’t catch?

Lucky for you, Three Houses Press is here to help. Below is the step-by-step process that we use when we are working on a first, unedited novel draft, created through years of experience in the field and as writers ourselves.

Step 1 – Leave it the Hell Alone

This is, in my humble (professional) opinion, the best thing that you can do. Some say that distance makes the heart grow fonder, but I believe that distance makes the heart grow more realistic. When you write and finish a novel, or even just a chapter of your novel, you fall into this little honeymoon phase with it. But, just like in every relationship, time changes the way you see things. That beauty mark turns out to be acne. That cute way they talk with their hands is actually quite annoying. And no, that one joke they tell all the time does not stay funny.

When you spend time away from your novel, you can come back to it with a fresh head. You no longer are so absorbed with thoughts of your novel that you aren’t able to see the reality of what isn’t working. You also are cleared from the headspace that knows what it is you were trying to express and you can actually read what you wrote and have to wonder at its meaning. And, more often than not, you’ll realize that you did not do a great job at marrying your thoughts with the words on the page.

Step 2 – Write Down Your Plot

This step is more likely to aid seat-of-your-pants writers than those who spent months agonizing over every detail of the book before they sat down to write, but, as will be shown in later steps, it is a must for every type of writer to do.  

Oftentimes, our plots are not quite as exciting as we thought they were when we were feverishly writing in the midnight hours. So, before you get super invested in the phrasings, punctuation, and other small details, skim your book and write down the plot in a series of bullets. If, by the end of the book, you realize that certain parts were less enticing or brought the pace of your book to a screeching halt, you can go back and use your list to play around with the plot.

In doing so, you are less likely to resort to rewriting massive sections of the book. Instead, you will move points around here and there until you find the magic formula of order that improves everything or, in the process of moving things around, you realize the one small section that needs to be changed in order to complete the puzzle. Overall, you are improving your chances to keep the rewrites to a minimum and preserve more of your original hard earned words.

Step Three – Invest Time in the Characters

You can do this step at the same time you do step two.

As you skim your book, keep a notebook or document (OneNote is a great software for organizing novel materials) open with each character having their own page. Every time they are described, write the description down. Every time they do something, write down what they did. Every time they express some moral outlook, write down what it is. Be sure to note chapters or page numbers when you do.

It amazes me how many first drafts contain characters that are not consistent. And I am not talking about characters that are inconsistent because they are growing and developing, but characters that simply fluctuate because either the author doesn’t know who they are, or the author doesn’t want to let them be who they are.

By listing every description, action, and expression of morality, those moments where you reigned in a character are going to stick out more than they may do when you are reading the event in text. This means you can quickly jump in and fix it, and your book will be much better for it.

You may also find that you have a character with absolutely no consistency, with every moment they are shown on the page contradicting or invalidating another. For these characters, you know you need to go back to the drawing board and figure out who they are, why they are important to your plot, and create a formal strategy for going into the book and removing the old version of them and inserting the new. That sounds daunting, but it isn’t. Why not? Because of step two. Because you took the time to record your plot and the page numbers of important character moments, you have the tools to strategically examine your novel from a distance and create a plan that allows you to go in like a drone and strike those exact spots that you need to update. It saves you time. It fixes your basic problems.

Step Four – Dig Deeper

Now that you’ve tackled the broad issues of plot and character, you can start doing what you thought you were going to need to do in the first place: dig deep into every chapter, page, paragraph, sentence, and word; rip it apart; and put it back together again.

This is editing in its most traditional sense. You are going to find things that don’t make sense and that just don’t sound great. But you’ll fix them. If not on the first pass, then the second, or the third. Because, yes, I recommend three full passes, with at least a few days between each of the passes, before you consider the first round of edits to be done.

What is important about this step is to keep your eye on the bigger picture. If a chapter doesn’t seem to be working, you have your plot outline that you can reference to see if you even need the chapter or if you could develop a different way of presenting the chapter that doesn’t disrupt everything else. If a section of dialogue or action isn’t coming out right, you have your list of characters that you can use to see if you can create added conflict by changing up who is talking when, or what one character might say or do that will put them in greater conflict with another in the scene. The moral here is that you have the tools to be really deliberate with every difficult change.

And, if on the third pass you still aren’t sure about what to do about a section, just highlight it and leave it alone.

Step Five – Use Your Beta-Reader

We can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything alone. Outside readers are highly advantageous because they do not have the close, personal relationship with the book that you do. They’ll find the things you missed. They will tell you the hard truths.

Because you spent so much time with your first edit, they will be able to focus on those other things, rather than tell you your character sucks and needs a total rewrite. That doesn’t help anyone and, if you hadn’t made the change already, you may have lost the opportunity for their real and helpful feedback on things you couldn’t have seen on your own by following the previous steps.

These readers can also help you find solutions that you know you need but you haven’t created yet. Ask them to look for those highlighted parts. Leave a comment explaining why you’re struggling. Because they aren’t likely to spend as many hours thinking about it as you (try a minute or two, instead), they’ll come up with some quick, dirty, but probably perfect solution.

Now, was that so hard? Yes. It definitely was. The biggest advice I can give you when it comes to the first edit is to remember that writing the book was the art, editing the book is the science. Create resources for yourself and use them. By creating a strategy that sits outside of the lines of prose, you are making things easier on yourself and your sanity.

Then, when all is said and done, send us your book. I can’t wait to read it.