Editing a novel: What the frick is a zero draft?

First things first: if you’re here because you’ve finished your first draft and are venturing into the big bad world of editing… HUGE FUCKING CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU! No really, take a minute to feel all smug, because finishing a draft is a massive achievement and we totally understand if you’re exhausted, sick of the sight of your own words, and want to hide under a rock forever.

THIS IS ALL PERFECTLY NORMAL.

The second thing you should know is this:

Image of Ernest Hemingway writing in a notebook with text quote: "The first draft of anything is shit."

First drafts are meant to be shit. ‘Tis true. So stop worrying if yours stinks worse than the inside of a tauntaun. The purpose of a first draft is to get the ideas out of your caffeine-addled head and onto the page.

In fact, start thinking of your first attempt as a ZERO DRAFT. And if your zero draft is a pile of shit, well, that’s fine – turn that shit into fertiliser and use it to sprout the beautiful seed of your REAL story…

Image of Sir Terry Pratchett wearing his signature hat and a big grin. Text quote reads: "The first draft is just you telling yourself the story."

Your zero draft is there to provide you with the fundamental building blocks of your plot. It ain’t meant to be pretty. But what it should do is show you what works, what doesn’t, and what’s missing.

And you’re certainly not alone. Plenty of famous, successful authors have written shitty first drafts. It’s part of the process. For example:

  • Tolkien’s original plans for Bilbo had him drenched in dragon gore surfing out of Erebor on a river of blood (actually, that sounds amazing – why would you cut that?)
  • Markus Zusak reckons he rewrote the first 90 pages of The Book Thief over a hundred times
  • The Great Gatsby was almost called The High-Bouncing Lover (yes, really)
  • Roald Dahl’s James almost travelled in a giant cherry instead of a peach (and check out some of his other distinctly dark early draft ideas here)

So do not panic, brave editor. Chill the frack out and find peace with your own less-than-perfect first attempt. It will get better. It will. No really, IT WILL. But it doesn’t happen overnight.

Editing is really about breaking down that zero draft into pieces and putting it back together again, stronger and more coherently. More on that in the next blog post, but first – listen to the sage advice of Bridport prize-winner and all-round amazing author person Vanessa Gebbie as she talks about how to prepare for the editing process:

***”What’s the ‘jumper over the screen trick?” we hear you ask – well, it’s another piece of excellent advice from this video – in which you cover your computer screen with a t-shirt or sweatshirt or whatever (alternatively, turn your font to white) to stop you constantly going back over your work and re-ordering and nit-picking at it. Sometimes to break through a writing block you just have to forge ahead.***

Right. Ready for more edity goodness? Check out Redrafting VS Surface-Editing – the next blog in our novel editing series. >>
And for the full editing experience, with hand-holding and whip-cracking all the way, sign up for our online novel editing course – Plotstormers II: The Editing Strikes Back!
Jo Gatford

Jo Gatford

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