How to Edit a First Draft

So you’ve finished the first draft of your new novel. Now what?

*I recently finished a first draft of a new novel. Only took five years. Why so long, you may ask? Well, first of all, I pantsed the whole thing. Secondly, I took a year off in the middle to write a musical. And lastly, it was difficult for me to write; deeply personal on many levels, and made me really dig down deep to see why I write, and what I needed to write. The front half of the novel has been marinating so long, I feel as if it’s okay to dive into taking a pass at revision right away. The following is a post from August 2017, but it was super relevant then, and even more so now. I plan to take all my own advice and dig in.*

I’ve edited half a dozen manuscripts in my writing endeavors, each one requiring differentiated attention. Some need more character development, some more plot structure, some need a better arc, or more heart. I have to be honest with myself with each story, find its flaws and objectively make it better.

train-19640_1280With every revision, I always ask myself the same question, “Is this better storytelling?” If the answer is yes, I steam on ahead. I don’t have any problem changing / cutting / moving anything around if ultimately it will make the story stronger. I also save all of my previous drafts just in case.

But what is the best way to approach a revision?

Researching this topic can be daunting. The experts have a lot to say, and, interestingly enough, they don’t all agree with each other.

Start with the conflict, says Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn.

“Stories must have some form of tension, or conflict, at all times. First novels often start with long descriptions of place or character. The exposition may be beautiful, but prose is never enough to keep your reader interested.”

Start with grammar, says Author House.

“Consult technology. Put your manuscript through your computer’s spelling and grammar checks. Remember, this is not the final step; it is only the beginning!”

Start with rereading the entire manuscript, says Kristen Kieffer from Well-Storied.

“Once you’ve let your first draft cool off for a bit, it’s time to reread what you’ve written. I suggest first reading through your draft without making any notes or changes. Simply read for your own pleasure…and try your very best not to throw your draft out the window and give up on writing entirely.”

There is no best way. Only the way that works for you. I am going to share what works for me.

Let It Marinate

Put the draft away and get some distance from it. Don’t look at it for a while. Write something else in the meantime. When I come back to a draft, I am seeing it with fresh eyes. My memory isn’t great either, and most of the time I come back to it and don’t remember everything I wrote. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised with what I have. Others, I see my plot holes or deficiencies right away. If I start revising the second I type The End, I tend not to see the manuscript as objectively.


Check Plot and Character Arcs

With distance, now I’m ready to dive in and ask myself a whole bunch of questions. Do my characters have strong enough arcs? Do they change over the course of the novel? Are they active enough? Do my character descriptions match up from beginning to end? Are all of the characters necessary? Does my plot have a strong beginning, middle, end? Does the action of the story support my characters and their development? Do I have any plot holes? Do I need another chapter?

I make notes, and then check that all of these things weave together. Again, it’s all about the story telling. Beautiful prose only gets you so far. Ultimately, the plot and characters propel the story forward.

World Building is Essential

I tend to picture things in my head very vividly, and forget to translate all of that to my story in the first draft. Writing all of the descriptions out in the beginning also slows down my writing. I like to make notes for myself, like DESCRIBE THE PLANET, or MORE DETAIL HERE, or LOOK UP THE ANATOMY OF A SPACE SHIP. On my second or third pass, I am going to be building my world, and filling all of these things out. Check out Chuck Sambuchino’s post Tips on World Building for Writers – How to make your Imaginary World Real for detailed questions to ask yourself while building your world.


Know Thyself. Check Your Filter Words

Filter words, we know them, we love them, and we have to get rid of them. For example, see, think, wonder, realize. Filter words clutter up our writing, and put distance between the reader and the narrative. Check out Jen Malone’s post, Quick and Easy Revision Strategies for Days Your Brain Isn’t Working for more tips on filter words. I Write For Apples has a full list, and Diana Urban has 43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately. I know that I also overuse the phrases, “She smiled,” “He sighed,” and “She rolled her eyes.” Know your own word crutches, and don’t be afraid to write without them.

Okay, Everybody Loves Grammar

Maybe not, but in the editing stage it does become important. I am by no means a grammar expert, but there are a few people who are. Check out Laura Cooper’s post, Commonly Confused Commas, or the Purdue OWL Grammar Writing Lab.

Format Properly

Format your manuscript. Jen Malone’s post, How to Format a Manuscript should have everything you need to know about formatting. Make sure your manuscript looks professional. You want agents and editors to take you seriously.

cover sheet

Get Another Set of Eyes

Have someone else read your manuscript. I always give it to my mother first. She has no problem telling me that something doesn’t make sense, or that it’s too this or too that. She is also extremely supportive of my writing endeavors. Then, I bring a few chapters to my critique group. Often, they will pick up right away on whatever is missing, feels forced, or where the voice isn’t strong enough.

Don’t Over Edit

This one is tricky. Is a manuscript really ever finished? There’s a point where I stop editing. If a story isn’t working, I go back to step one, which is Let It Marinate. You can get bogged down in a manuscript. I’ve changed stories from third person to first, past tense to present and back again. I’ve reworked plot structures, and at some point, if it’s still not working, it’s okay to put it down. Write something else and come back to it later.

I believe that each novel you write has something new to teach you about writing, and about yourself. Forcing a story to work will never make your storytelling stronger.

So, there you have it! Congratulations on finishing your first draft. Enjoy and bask in the glory. Happy editing!

Check out the following links for more info on How to Edit a First Draft

7 Steps to Editing Your First Draft

10 Things to Do Before Editing Your First Draft

How to Revise a Novel

How to Edit Your Novel: 8 Simple Steps

What do you consider the most important part of editing a first draft?



  1. This is such a helpful post. I am at the point of beginning the edit on my fourth (and please God) final draft. I am letting it marinate for awhile and then plan to start. This has been helpful in enabling me to consider what my own personal method of editing will be. Plus love the links for the filter words – will definitely be checking them out. Thanks a million for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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