Essential writing skills: fixing that first draft

There’s a lot of truth in the old adage that a bad first draft is better than no first draft. The annual National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest is, essentially, geared to produce them.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

I posted earlier on ways of preparing that bad first draft so it’s properly structured – so it has the right foundations. The words may not be right, but the basic form will be. First step after that, as I’ve mentioned, is to chuck the thing in a drawer for a month.

What then? The trick is to understand how editing words. There’s a notion – certainly among beginning authors – that ‘writing’ is the part where you’re assembling the words for the first time, and ‘editing’ is a quick polish afterwards, whereupon the work’s ready to publish. I’ve actually seen tweets from authors announcing they’ve ‘finished’ their book and after a quick edit, it’s going to be published in a week or so.

But that’s how it’s done…Right?

Actually, wrong. A first draft manuscript is way, way off being submitted to an agent or publisher, still less self-pubbed. Editing is as much work as the original composition, and it’s an essential part of the whole writing process. It’s also, separately, a part of the publishing process; and neither part is quick, easy or – unfortunately – cheap to accomplish.

First, there’s the editing needed to finish the manuscript – to get what you’re writing into its final form. This involves a good deal of re-wording and perhaps re-structuring, depending on how you set that first draft up in the first place. Trust me – this will take as long as writing that first draft did, maybe longer. And if it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself why.

Second, there’s the sort of editing done by publishers, which itself breaks down into several phases – proof-editing and various flavours of line editing. It’s also time-consuming, and there are no short cuts. If you are self-pubbing, you’ll have to do it (actually, for reasons I’ll explain, pay somebody else to). The phrase is ‘quality assurance’.

What does all this entail? Over the next few posts I’ll be outlining all of this in detail. Watch this space.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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13 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: fixing that first draft

  1. So timely! I’m preparing to “sanguinate” my Nano now 🙂 Ouch-chop-reshuffle-aspirin-coffee-take a walk–and repeat.

      1. Now I am. In the past, I thought I would keep the first book open-ended. Then I decided it would suck if I thought of something that should have been included in the first while writing the third. I will write all three before querying. One to go! I plan to write it in January, edit in Feb and query in March! Whew!
        Thanks Matthew!

  2. ‘I’ve actually seen tweets from authors announcing they’ve ‘finished’ their book and after a quick edit, it’s going to be published in a week or so.’

    The Look Inside facility on Amazon is proof of how many self-published authors have that slapdash attitude. I wish it were that easy, but I look at my latest project and think about the next year of my life that’ll disappear in the process or writing, rewriting, analysing, rewriting. . . .

    The sad part about all this advice is that so many authors seem to smile, say yeah, good advice, and then ignore it.


    1. Too true! The reality is that the “finished” first draft is actually about half-way, and the full “writing” process really involves integrated work, revision and re-work, up to the point of publisher-ready material. What publishers then do is, I think, what many authors think of as ‘editing’ – line and proof-edit amendments – but the commercial publisher editing process, which I’ve experienced many times, takes months – and with good reason!

  3. Just got hit hard by this earlier this week. After a few months of sitting, I’m tackling a first edit of my Camp NaNoWriMo manuscript I churned out in July. It’s a scary mess, but I’m really hoping I can manage to get it in shape!

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