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5 steps to magically whipping a shitty first draft into shape

It’s a beautifully crafted literary masterpiece in your head, but miserable on paper. So how do you get from ‘pile of words’ to ‘book-shaped thing’ without going utterly and entirely insane through the redrafting process?

Here’s a big fucking secret: editing isn’t just about making the words sound right or sticking a comma in the right place – it’s about SCULPTING your story. It’s about chopping bits off and smoothing bits down and sometimes changing the shape entirely. Your first draft is meant to be rubbish. That’s what editing’s for.

Imagine you’re Michelangelo and someone’s just wheeled a gigantic piece of shit-quality marble into your studio – a block that’s so flawed no one thinks it’s worth the time and effort (true story). You point your chisel at that slab of marble and you tell the world: “I’m gonna transform this rock into something so frickin’ awesome it will endure throughout the ages as the pinnacle of artistic beauty.” (Paraphrased.)

You set to work.

You sleep in your clothes and your boots and you eat Renaissance-flavoured Pop Tarts and drink a lot of wine. You sculpt the ever-living crap out that block and when you brush that last tiny chip away, what do you have? A great big naked David.

Image of the statue of David with caption: fucking nailed it

So how d’you get from shit-slab to nude-dude? Well, we just so happen to have an entire course devoted to the subject, plug-plug-plug *marketing* <jazz hands> – but for now, here are 5 EDITING THINGS to help you wield that hammer and chisel with the confidence and sheer badassery of Michelangelo:

1. The first draft of anything is shit

Thanks apocryphal Hemmingway quote! Embrace the shitness. It’s ok. It’ll get better. You’ll make it better. Here at Writers HQ we call first drafts ‘zero drafts’, because the more distance you can put between you and that pile of incoherent narrative wrapped in delusions of literary grandeur the better. You’re at ground zero – you can only go upwards from here. As Terry Pratchett once said, ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,’ so don’t be hard on yourself. Once you know what your story is about, you can crack on with a proper draft.

2. Don’t get stuck in the infinity loop

You know the one: fiddling with the same sentence over and over, rewriting that first chapter for the gazillionth time, changing your protagonist’s name back to Susan, no, maybe she’s a Hannah, no, actually she’s a George… Surface editing can be an incredible waste of time if you haven’t actually addressed some of the more fundamental issues with your story. Ignore the typos and the grammatical crimes and hit the big stuff first.

3. Deconstruct before you reconstruct

Chances are your first draft turned out dramatically different to your original plan. Chances are, it’s going to look completely different to your final draft. So stop being precious about it – treat it like a set of building blocks and start deconstructing. Take it apart scene by scene and work out what needs to be cut, what needs to be rewritten, and what can stay. Once you get rid of the fluff (byeee, 50,000 words of unnecessary backstory) it’s much easier to work with the good shit.

4. Tackle edits in sweeps

Trying to edit a 100,000 word novel in one fell swoop is pure masochism. Deconstruction helps (see tip 3) but so does tackling your redraft in several focused sweeps. Swoops. Whatevs. For example: use a swoop/sweep to go through your manuscript looking for inconsistencies in your timeline; or to check that each character has their own distinctive voice; or to make sure you tied up that little subplot about the long lost sister. Editing with a specific target in mind helps you to stay focused and get that shit done, sweep by swoop.

5. Don’t go it alone

Writing is fucking lonely. And your partner/mum/cat only has so much patience when you’re whining about that scene you just_can’t_get_frickin’_right over and over again. Plus, the longer you stare at your own work, the harder it is to be objective about it. You get to the point where you’d rather read James Joyce’s filthy love letters (don’t Google it, don’t Google it, honestly, you will be scarred for life) than go through your book one more time. Here’s where you need a beta reader. Or several. Shout out on Twitter (or @ us and we’ll shout out for you), join a writing group, and swap chapters with a friendly writer/reader who’s willing to give you their thoughts. Or, if you’ve got some spare cash, use an editing service to get some ‘legit’ feedback (though in our experience, the humble beta is just as good in many cases). Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is what you need to solve that agonising plot issue, or remind you that hey, yeah, you can actually write a damn good story. Go team etc yay.

Gif of four hands all stacking on top of each other in a 'go team' kind of way. Except the final hand is a giant fluffy bear paw.

To those who are about to edit: we salute you!



Jo is a writer who procrastinates about writing by writing about writing. She looks exactly like her avatar.


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