Finishing a first draft is a hard-won accomplishment, one you should definitely celebrate! But of course it’s only the first step. This article offers tips and recommended resources for editing your first draft before passing it on to an alpha or beta reader or an editor. This information will also be helpful during the writing process, even if your story idea is still germinating.
When editing your manuscript, start with “big picture” issues, including point of view, characterization, plotting, and pacing, before worrying about sentence structure and grammar. Otherwise you might waste a lot of time fine tuning sections that will need to be drastically changed or cut out altogether.
The Big Picture:
- Dig more deeply into your characters.
- Make sure your characters are driving the plot.
- Look at your protagonist’s character arc.
A. Point of View: I mentioned this first because, regardless of the type of novel you write, characters are the heart of the story, and many problems with character development stem from issues with point of view.
Point of view is basically about what a character knows. When J.K. Rowling writes from Harry’s point of view (3rd person limited), we aren’t aware of anything that happens when he isn’t in the room—or of what anyone else is thinking—unless they tell him.
Look at your use of point of view. Did you write in 1st person point of view (“I”), where a character (usually the protagonist) tells the story?
“Siobhan said that I should write something I would want to read myself. Mostly I read books about science and maths. I do not like proper novels. In proper novels people say things like, ‘I am veined with iron, with silver and with streaks of common mud. I cannot contract into the firm fist which those clench who do not depend on stimulus.’ What does this mean?” (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon)
Is it 3rd person limited point of view (“he” or “she”), where the story is told through one character’s eyes at a time?
‘‘’Mercy!’’ Catelyn cried, but horns and drums and the clash of steel smothered her plea. Ser Ryman buried the head of his axe in Dacey’s stomach. By then men were pouring in the other doors as well, mailed men in shaggy fur cloaks with steel in their hands. Northmen! (A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin)
Whatever it is, see if you used it consistently.
Be wary of contemporary omniscient point of view, in which the narrator knows everything that’s happening in the story and can read the thoughts of all the characters. This can be done well, but it’s difficult to pull off, and there’s usually a more effective way to tell the story.
As a writing coach and editor, I find that when the characters aren’t fully developed, omniscient point of view or inconsistent use of third-person point of view is often the root of the problem. The author jumps from the mind of one character to another (often called head-hopping), trying to convey the thoughts and reactions of everyone in the room. The reader is unable to stick with any character long enough to get to know and care about him.
If you’re narrating from various points of view throughout your story, consider going through the manuscript and highlighting the sections that reflect a particular character’s thoughts and experiences, using a different color for each character. Is there is a great deal of jumping around? Does it fluctuate between 1st person and 3rd person or between 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient? If so, I recommend choosing one character (probably your protagonist), or several characters if you want to alternate points of view. Consistently tell the story through the point-of-view character’s eyes and share only her thoughts.
If you alternate points of view, think carefully about how many point-of-view characters you need. There is no hard-and-fast rule. It depends on the length of your book and the conventions of your genre. Romance novels commonly use two points of view: the two romantic leads, alternating between their perspectives. Mysteries and thrillers often stick with one point of view, typically the sleuth. Fantasy novels sometimes have four or more point-of-view characters; they can get away with more if the book is very long. (A nod to George R.R. Martin.)
Whatever you decide, choose your point-of-view characters thoughtfully and be careful not to confuse readers. Sticking with one point of view per chapter works well. Another technique is to use a transition sentence (“George rolled up his sleeping bag, thinking of his years fighting in the war…”) That sentence lets readers know, right off the bat, that you’re putting them in George’s mind.
Effective use of point of view can make or break a story. Luckily, there are plenty of good resources on the subject.
- “The Basics of Point of View for Fiction Writers” by Joseph Bates on Jane Friedman: This article explains the differences among various narrative points of view and the pros and cons of each one.
- “The Ultimate Point of View Guide: Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited vs. First Person” by Joe Bunting on The Write Practice: This article explains the differences among various narrative points of view and offers examples.
- “Point of View: What Does Your Character Know?” by Jami Gold: This article offers excellent tips on using various points of view and on understanding feedback from editors, alpha/beta readers, and critique partners on the use of point of view in your manuscript.
Books on Point of View:
- Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
- The Power of Point of View: Make Your Story Come to Life by Alicia Rasley: This is an outstanding book, exploring the use of point of view in fiction in depth. This can help you create more vibrant characters.
Articles on Avoiding Head-Hopping:
- “Head-Hopping Gives Readers Whiplash” by Beth Hill on The Editor’s Blog
- “What Makes Omniscient POV Different from Head-Hopping?” by Jami Gold
Articles & Podcasts on Making the Most of Point of View and Narrative Voice:
- Writing Excuses Podcast, Episode 12.2: “How to Nail Character Voice in First Person”
- “8 Ways to Exploit First-Person Point of View” by Stephanie Ward on Eats, Shoots Edits
- “Deep POV—What’s So Deep About It” by Beth Hill on The Editor’s Blog: She explores close third-person point of view.
- “Casting the Spell” by Donald Maass on Writer Unboxed: He provides tips on using narrative voice to draw readers into your story
1. Dig More Deeply Into Your Characters: Does your main character seem like a real person, with both strengths and flaws? Is she likable? Interesting? Will readers sympathize with him and care what happens to him?
Not all protagonists have to be likable. People love television characters like Sherlock and Dexter, but they aren’t necessarily people you’d want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.
Some characters seem to lack redeeming qualities altogether. Maybe you have a colorful, hilarious antihero or you’re going to take readers on a memorable journey through the mind of a psychopath. In any case, something needs to compel us to keep reading. In the same vein, the antagonist needs to be well developed and interesting, and the secondary characters should be vibrant and lifelike.
Characters are brought to life through their actions, thoughts, and dialogue. If they haven’t yet come to life on the page, it could be that some scenes were written before you knew the characters well enough to completely flesh them out. Maybe you’re a “discovery writer” (or “pantser”) and these characters were blossoming in your mind gradually, as you wrote the novel. Or if you’re a “plotter,” you might have been focused on the plot rather than delving deeply into your characters.
If your characters have become real living, breathing people for you now, as you edit you can dive more deeply into their thoughts, enrich their dialogue, and revise to ensure their actions are consistent with who they are.
If you would like to get to know your characters better, this is a good time to dive in. There are plenty of templates online to help you create specific details about your characters. (Here is an example.) Also, consider freewriting a monologue from a particular character’s perspective. Let the character tell you what his childhood was like, his most important experiences, and what he wants most out of life. Let her explain why she made the choices she made. This activity can be very revealing and a lot of fun.
2. Make Sure Your Characters Are Driving the Plot: Virtually every story starts with a character who wants something. The most important question to ask about your character is what do you want and why can’t you have it?
The character’s goal, which might change throughout the story, drives the plot, and whatever is standing in the way of that goal is the conflict. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss’s goals are to provide for her family and protect her sister. Later, her goal is simply to survive. The oppressive government of Panem is the primary obstacle. It keeps her family and her district in desperate poverty, threatens her sister’s safety, and thrusts her into the brutal hunger games.
Be sure your character’s goals are driving the plot. Otherwise, you risk having a character with no agency; things just happen to her instead of her struggling to direct her own fate. You also risk having a plot with no clear chain of cause and effect. An example of cause and effect:
- Katniss has to care for her family because her father died in the coal mines. Taking care of her family, especially her sister, becomes her primary goal.
- Because her primary goal is to protect her sister, she volunteers for the hunger games
- Because of that, she has to leave District 12 and fight in the arena.
…and so forth.
3. Look at Your Protagonist’s Character Arc: In most compelling stories, the character grows and changes in some way. Usually facing the conflict in your story nurtures that growth. Perhaps the heroine in your fantasy has to face a life-threatening challenge. To become ready for that, she must face smaller challenges and become stronger, braver, and more resilient. Maybe the hero in your romance has met the woman with whom he’ll find his happily ever after. They could be perfect for each other, but he isn’t ready. First he has to let down his defenses and deal with some weighty emotional baggage. These are examples of positive character arcs.
Some stories have negative character arcs; instead of growing and becoming a better, stronger person, the protagonist morally deteriorates. This is the basis of classic tragedies, such as Macbeth. Modern examples include Walter White in Breaking Bad and Lester Nygaard in the first season of the Fargo series.
Whatever kind of story you choose to write, look at how your character evolves from the beginning of the novel to the end. Most good stories include a satisfying character arc, and this helps ensure that readers will find your protagonist compelling.
Articles & Videos on Creating Rich, Well-Developed Characters:
- “How to Craft Compelling Characters” by David Corbett on Writer’s Digest
- “Getting to the Core of Your Characters” by C.S. Lakin on Live Write Thrive
- “25 Things a Great Character Needs” by Chuck Wendig on Terrible Minds: (NSFW) Chuck Wendig is knowledgeable, thorough, and consistently hilarious.
- Jenna Moreci: “How to Create Believable Characters,” Part 1 & Part 2 (some strong language) Jenna is an engaging and entertaining YouTuber. Here she explains five steps to creating a believable character and gives a specific example.
- “How to Build a Villain” by Jim Butcher on Magical Words
- “7 Ways to Write Thematically-Pertinent Antagonists” by K. M. Weiland on Helping Writers Become Authors
Articles on Creating Strong Character Arcs:
- “How to Write Character Arcs” by K. M. Weiland on Helping Writers Become Authors
- “Developing Themes In Your Stories: Part 1 – The Character Arc” by Sara Letourneau in diyMFA
- “Don’t Know Your Story’s Theme? Take a Look at Your Character’s Arc” by K. M. Weiland on Helping Writers Become Authors
- “Character Development: 9 Tips for Convincing Arcs” on Now Novel
Books on Characterization and Character Arcs:
- The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman: This is organized as a reference book, offering strategies for conveying characters’ emotions. It’s a great resource to have on hand if you’re stuck or need a springboard for brainstorming about your characters.
- Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development by K.M. Weiland
1. Decide Where Your Story Begins: A common problem with first drafts is ineffective pacing. There is no magic formula. It depends, in part, on the type of story. Some start with a bang and some benefit from more patient pacing. But in general, if no important action unfolds until a quarter of the way through the book, you are likely to lose your readers. Where does your story actually start?
One common problem with first drafts is too much backstory on the characters or setting, often called info dumping, in the opening chapters. Readers want to jump quickly into the story. They’re willing to trust you to let them get to know the characters and the world you’ve created gradually, as the story unfolds.
When providing developmental editing to a client, I typically write a one- to two-sentence summary of what happens in each chapter, focusing on what’s important to the story. If the answer to “what happens in this chapter that’s essential to the story?” is “nothing much” through the first quarter of the book, there’s an issue with pacing. Figure out where the story starts, and consider cutting earlier scenes.
2. Make Every Scene Count: In the same vein, consider the purpose of every scene in your book. What’s important in terms of plot, character development, and establishing the setting? What can be trimmed out?
In general, every scene in your story should have a purpose: advancing the plot, developing characters and, in some cases, worldbuilding. Creating an outline and synopsis (below) can be incredibly helpful. While outlining, jot down a brief description of each scene. (This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule but, basically, a scene has the same characters doing something in the same location. When new characters arrive or people relocate, a new scene begins.) Note the purpose of each scene.
I outline my novels on Scrivener. Since I tend to be a discovery writer, I do this after writing the first draft, or while the draft is in progress, to figure out where all the pieces fit. I create a note card for each scene and give it a title. Often it’s a silly title, like “Exploding Toilets and Impressionism.” I do this simply so I can remember the gist of what happens in that scene. I also jot down “Story Beat/Purpose” on each card. If I can’t identify a clear purpose, I consider scrapping the scene. This helps ensure that the pacing won’t drag.
Another common problem is for the pacing to gallop along too quickly. I often see this in fantasy/adventure manuscripts. The author is eager to hold the reader’s interest, so the story moves from one battle scene to another, without giving readers time to catch their breath.
If you find this problem in your writing, strive to create a pattern of rising and falling tension. For example, after a scene in which readers are in peril, include a more quiet, thoughtful scene in which they recuperate, discuss what they’ve just learned about their enemy, and refine their strategy. Mastering the concept of “scene and sequel” can be extremely helpful.
This is a graph I created illustrating the level of dramatic tension in a client’s manuscript (The graph continues on the second line.) I rated the tension in each scene on a scale of 1 to 6 and charted it on the graph. Obviously, this is not an exact science, but it highlights one of the reasons the plot was working well. The tension rises and falls throughout the book, and it gradually increases throughout the novel, peaking at the climax of the story.
3. Outline Your Novel: If you didn’t consciously use story structure or follow an outline in developing your first draft, this can be quite helpful now. You can reverse engineer your novel, outlining it scene by scene. This will let you see the bare bones of your story structure and pinpoint scenes that aren’t working as they should, including scenes that should be deleted.
4. Write a Synopsis: Another way to identify problems with plotting and structure is to write a synopsis of your novel. Boiling your story down to a concise summary will reveal how the plot fits together and make it easier to hone in on problems.
Articles on Where to Begin Your Story, Handling Backstory, and Making Every Scene Count:
- “5 Wrong Ways to Start A Story” by Courtney Carpenter on Writer’s Digest
- “A Trick for Keeping Your Plot (and Story) on Target” by Janice Hardy on Fiction University: This is an excellent resource on making sure every scene in your novel is necessary to the story and fully developed.
- “What’s the Story on Backstory?” by Rachelle Gardner on Books & Such Literary Management
- “Weaving Backstory Into Frontstory” by James Scott Bell on Writer Unboxed
- “Writing Patterns Into Fiction: Scene and Sequel” by Angela Ackerman on Writers Helping Writers
Articles & Videos on Story Structure:
- “The 4 Story Structures that Dominate Novels” by Orson Scott Card on Writer’s Digest
- Brandon Sanderson on The Three-Act Format (Write About Dragons): Brandon Sanderson is a successful fantasy writer. This is geared toward authors of science fiction and fantasy, but offers useful information for all fiction writers.
- Dan Wells on Seven-Point Story Structure: Dan Wells is another successful fantasy writer. This is a useful blueprint for plotting, especially for fantasy and adventure writers.
- Brandon Sanderson on Try/Fail Cycles (Write About Dragons): This is another useful plotting device, and if you’re a “discovery writer” or “pantser” rather than an outliner, this might work for you.
Articles on Story Tropes & Archetypes:
Articles, Videos & Podcasts on Outlining:
- Novelcraft by Rachael Stephen: (some strong language) She talks about using Scrivener to plan a story, developing a plot embryo through brainstorming, determining motive and conflict, outlining, and other topics. She breaks down the outlining process into manageable parts.
- Jenna Moreci: “How To Outline Your Novel,” Part 1 & Part 2: (some strong language) Jenna is an engaging and entertaining YouTuber. Here she answers questions about outlining a novel.
- Writing Excuses Podcast, Episode 12.20: “Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft”: A discussion of how “discovery writers” or “pantsers” can apply structure to their work during the revision process.
- Kristen Martin: “How I Outline My Books: My Five-Stage Process”: Kristen is a YA science fiction and fantasy author. She describes a process for writers who are somewhere on the continuum between “plotters” and “pansters.” It utilizes the three-act structure. Her method could be easily implemented in Scrivener.
Information on Plotting Speculative Fiction:
- Brandon Sanderson on The Hero’s Journey (Write About Dragons): This is a useful blueprint for plotting, especially for fantasy and adventure writers.
Information on Plotting Romance:
- Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes: This is a fantastic resource for romance writers. It offers a specific story structure to help you create a compelling plot and relationship arc. Gwen also provides a template for creating a romance on Scrivener on her website.
- “How to Write a Romance Novel: The Keys to Conflict” by Jennifer Lawler in Writer’s Digest: A good romance novel needs a viable conflict; what’s keeping the protagonists apart? Seasoned editor and author Jennifer Lawler will help you get on the right track.
Books on Outlining:
- Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success and Outlining Your Novel Workbook by K.M. Weiland.
- Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and Plotting Your Novel Workbook by Janice Hardy
- Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell
- Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story and Structuring Your Novel Workbook by K.M. Weiland: Again, if you’re a planner (rather than a discovery writer, or “pantser”), or if you think your writing process could benefit from more structure, these are excellent resources.
Writing a Synopsis:
- “The Secret to Nailing Your Final Draft” by Lisa Poisso
- “How to Write a Novel Synopsis” by Jane Friedman
More About Plotting:
Recommended Resources on the Editing Process:
- Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft: A Step-By-Step Guide to Revising Your Novel by Janice Hardy
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King
To recommend additional resources, please contact me.