This article is posted to Page2Print.
Last year I wrote an article about the differences between writing and editing framed through athletic activities. I’d like to talk this time more specifically about the process I use in all the various editing drafts, and why I break up editing the way I do. It’s a time-intensive process, to be sure, but it certainly is effective in producing the best possible story I am capable of producing. So strap in and don’t mind the pun.
Is it Drafty in Here?
As a note: Each draft typically tackles a specific aspect or aspects of the editing phase, and each one tends to build on the last.
First draft = Write with reckless abandon. I make only minor changes during this draft, as this is the actual writing of the story. Changes I know I want to make are notated but not actually changed until the first draft is complete. I just write forward as if I had made the changes and fix it after the fact. I don’t let editing get in the way during this draft because if I do I will never move forward with the story.
Second draft = Correct the broad strokes and mistakes in story and character from First draft, usually with a lot of notes from the First draft. This is where I try to make sure that the plot, story, and characters are consistent, logical, dynamic, and believable. The notes and thoughts I had during the writing of the First draft are indispensable to the Second draft. Most other elements get ignored during the Second draft, such as plotholes and pacing. Most of those elements can be naturally worked out just fixing the plot and story, the characters and their motivations. Revisiting this step is common as other changes are made later.
Third draft = Find plotholes created from First and Second drafts. These can be as minor as “where is a character in this scene?” to “holy crap this breaks the entire story”. This is a very focused draft that seeks to eliminate as many logical fallacies and plot inconsistencies as possible. Is there an easier, much more obvious way for the characters to achieve a goal? Why the hell aren’t they using it? This is a very important draft as it will settle the problems your most logical readers may have. Is there something about the world that just doesn’t make sense? That would hopefully be dealt with before you ever begin writing, but sometimes logical tenets of the universe you’re writing don’t become obvious until later, and this is the draft to fix them.
Additional Second and Third drafts = These are just going over the major story and character elements to make them consistent again after making plothole changes, and then looking for new plotholes again. It can be as little as one more of each draft, or (as happened to me once) six more of each as each revision breaks something somewhere else. This and any Additional step usually passes quickly as I’m very focused on what I’m looking for. It’s an essential step to drop back and do more Second/Third drafts so that as you move forward to other aspects of editing, these are as tight as you can make them.
Fourth draft = Pacing and thematic content. This is where I decide if the story flows well and hits the right feel, as well as if what I wanted to explore with the story thematically is coming through, and how well it comes through without just explaining it outright. My fourth draft can take a while, as I’m examining a lot more than just the structure of each scene independent of other scenes, but the structure of each scene as it also relates to other scenes. A lot of minor tweaking happens in order to get the thematic content to a point that people can pick up on the subtle nuance without me just bashing them over the head with it. Remember that readers are smart and can understand reading between the lines. This is the draft to make your point in a more subtle way.
Additional Second, Third, and Fourth drafts = Same thing as additional drafts for Second and Third beforehand, except now I’m looking at all three: character and story; plotholes; pacing and theme. Because each one is tied to the others I have to go through all of the steps again, but this step typically goes very fast if I’ve done the other drafts well.
Fifth draft = Fix the prose and dialogue, tighten up the narrative, add and remove details and description. This is where I’ve already fixed the major plot issues, character nuances, pacing and theme. I’ve already settled the story and removed the plot holes and logical fallacies I could find. This draft focuses completely on how smooth the reading process will be, and on adding or removing details as they are found relevant to the scene or the story. Does each sentence work with the sentences around it? Does each paragraph work with the other paragraphs around it? Do chapters?
Additional Fourth drafts = Changing dialogue and narrative, especially adding or removing description and details, can muck up the pacing, so I run through this again. Usually by this time, unless I’ve significantly changed scenes by way of dialogue and narrative, I can ignore the second and third draft steps in this transitional phase. Usually adding or removing details or tweaking dialogue doesn’t break plot or character, or add new plotholes. Be mindful of the possibility, though.
Sixth draft = Grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, etc. I very sincerely wouldn’t bother with this step until you think everything else is good. Because anything you fix grammatically has a chance to be completely cut later or completely reworked later due to some other reason, why bother? This step is the step a lot of people like to do first, but I just can’t agree with it. There’s just no reason to apply makeup and concealer when all the deep plastic surgery is yet to be done.
This is very important, and I can’t stress it enough: If you are not an expert in the arena of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling, Microsoft Word and other editing tools that purport to help with this ARE NOT SUFFICIENT. If you are not an expert, bring in outside help, preferably an editor friend who will not charge you. Lacking that, if you can find someone to do the grammatical editing for you at a decent price, this is a severely major step and you should eat the cost. It is probably the least regarded step in editing for new authors, but if you can’t fix the lion’s share of grammar, spelling, syntax, and punctuation, you need to farm this out.
Seventh draft = This is typically just a reading to see if anything new pops out. By this point I am no longer making significant edits, just minor cuts and rewording to make the prose flow smoothly. You can consider this similar to the Fifth draft, but with an eye on just how it actually reads and flows as an entire entity.
Eighth draft = This is the final draft before giving it out to people to read, in which I turn off the editor and attempt to read it like I was just any old book reader instead of the guy who wrote it. If I find anything in this reading that I didn’t like, I go back to previous drafts for those sections. This draft is finished when I read through the whole thing without feeling like I need to make changes. I go back to any previous drafts if necessary to fix things and then start again. This way, it is as good as I can make it by myself.
Beta Phase = If you can find a community or a group of people who will serve as Beta Readers for you, this is the time to hand it off to them and let them read it. My Beta Reader pool consists of four people generally, and has been as many as seven. Give them a timeframe that you expect to hand it off to them, and a timeframe that you would like to have their responses. Beta Readers are not editors, they are your sounding board and can be very helpful in specific elements such as character and pacing. Some of them may point out grammatical or spelling errors, and this is good, too. A week is good for shorter novels, and I would add another week for every 50,000 words above 100K. Your Beta Readers are your first fans, and should typically consist of fans of the genre itself. Giving them a soft time limit (two weeks for instance) assures that you will have something to work with in a decent amount of time, and giving them structure will help them meet the goal of finishing it.
Ninth draft = This draft is a combination of Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth drafts. The difference is that I have notes from Beta Readers about what they didn’t like or found wrong. With new perspective I can approach the drafts again and make any changes that I think they were correct about. In the end, your Beta Readers are a useful resource, but the decision ultimately rests with you. If they think the pacing is off, they may be right and you just couldn’t see it before. Or you could see it differently and go with your instinct. Don’t just blindly accept their critiques, really consider each one as if they might be right.
Additional Eighth draft = I run through it again before giving it back to a smaller subset of my Beta Readers (usually just one or two who had the biggest complaints) and ask them to check those sections with the biggest changes. The final draft is complete only when I get final approval from the core Beta Readers or sufficient time has passed without them rejecting anything.
And there you have it. As I said up top, it is an extremely time-intensive process, but it at least provides me with the best possible version of the story that I can produce without outsourcing the majority of the editing work.
Does my process differ from yours? How so? Do you disagree with the way I approach editing? Let me know in the comments and we’ll duke it out!
~Rick Cook Jr.