Category Archives: Editing

Revising Your First Draft: The First Read-Through

What have I gotten myself into?

If you’re in the middle of your first draft, you’ve probably asked yourself that question several times by now. Writing that first draft can feel like running a sprint at times. Your head is full of ideas for setting, characterization, dialog, plot, and interesting scenes. Thoughts are flowing so fast that your fingers can’t keep up. Putting the words on paper is like a mental dump of information. Did you capture it all? Did you get that last thought translated from brain signals to keyboard strokes? You’re not certain, but if you stop to look back you just might miss that next thought that’s bubbling to the surface.

Now you’re starting to get worried. Your “editor’s mind” is telling you that you missed a grammatical error a few sentences ago. And, oh no, was that an evil adverb you used back there? Should you have used walked or ambled? And did you just write”Tom snorted” instead of “Tom said?” Snorted? How the heck do you snort a word? You must be on the wrong track. How dare you call yourself a writer? You should stop what you’re doing, right this minute, and correct those glaring mistakes. You should have known you weren’t up to the challenge. You’re either born with a keyboard on your lap, or you’re not a writer at all. You should just give up now and save yourself the inevitable humiliation.

Whoa. Slow down. Take a deep breath. Now take another. Everything is working as it should. 

But what about all those mistakes? How can you say everything is working? Shouldn’t I go back and fix them?

Well…you could. But you probably shouldn’t. Not unless they’re quick fixes that don’t slow you down and make you think (typos, a missed punctuation mark, etc). Editing can be like crawling down a rabbit hole. Just when you think you’ve reached the end, you see that it goes deeper, and so deeper you crawl. The deeper you crawl the deeper it goes. Before you know it, that five-minute fix just absorbed an hour of your time, and your initial train of thought has long since been derailed. Sure, you can hop on the next train, but it might not take you to the same place…and the food car might not be as nice.

As odd as it may sound, that first draft is all about sprinting. Think of it like opening a package of modeling clay. It’s the raw stuff you use to build your novel. You set it on the table and mold it into a rough shape. In short, you’re giving yourself something to work with, not producing a finished product. That’s for later. It’s perfectly fine to go back a few pages, before you begin the day’s writing, and re-read what you have. Maybe make a correction or two. This may help get you back into the proper frame of mind, feeling the proper emotion, hearing the proper voices, etc. But this isn’t the time to stop and rewrite. You do that after you finish your novel.

OK. I just typed “The End”. My first draft is finished. Let’s go!

Two things: 1) Don’t type “The End”. Go back and delete it. If it’s already in hard copy for some reason, burn the page, delete “The End”, and reprint the page. 2) Slow down. You’re not quite there yet.

I know you’re eager. You’ve just spent weeks or months—maybe years—finishing your first draft. You have a list of changes and edits as long as your arms and legs combined. Time to jump in, right?


But what about that “modeling clay” you were talking about, smart guy?

That story of yours is still fresh in your head. You’ve sweated over every line and word, every ellipsis and em dash. Heck, you even know which cup of coffee you were on when you wrote the fifth sentence of the second paragraph on page seventy-six! Put that manuscript in a place you’re unlikely to remember for the next several weeks and take a step back.

Weeks? You gotta be kidding me?

Weeks is arbitrary, true. And a tight deadline may not allow for it. So let’s focus on what you’re trying to accomplish instead of some arbitrary measure of time. Right now, as you finish your first draft, you’re still too close to your work. Let’s face it, you’ll never be truly objective about the stuff you write, but you’ve never been less objective than you are at this moment. You just finished your masterpiece! You’re reveling in how much you’ve learned throughout the course of that draft, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself because you just accomplished something that few people manage to do. You’re an author now! Go celebrate. You’ve earned it.

While you’re celebrating the completion of your manuscript, you need to get some distance from it. Try not to think about it at all, if you can manage that. You’re a writer, right? So write! Start working on your next project and get the old one out of your head. Pick up a book and read. Whatever you choose to do, get away from your manuscript. When you pick it up again, you need to feel as if the words are somewhat strange and alien…like you’re rediscovering something you had almost forgotten. You’ll recognize the work, vaguely, as something you wrote. But you will have achieved some degree of objectivity and distance. You’re in “the zone” now.

When the manuscript is ready (the manuscript…not you), pick it up again and read it through, cover to cover. Don’t stop to edit! On this first pass, you’re the reader, not the writer. You want to put yourself in the shoes of your reader, and experience what that person is going to experience. You’ll never achieve this if your making corrections page-by-page as you go. It’s ok to take small notes. Some writers develop their own shorthand so that they can leave a quick mark on the page, confidant that they’ll understand it when they see it again. This is a great approach, and one I’m fond of. Find what works for you, but you shouldn’t stop for longer than it takes to write a symbol or two on the page.

So what are you looking for in this first read-through? Here’s a list of some of the things I keep an eye out for. The list is by no means exhaustive:

1. Pacing

Pay close attention to parts of your book that seem to slow down and drag. This is where your reader is going to put your book down. If the problem is really bad, they might not pick it back up. I’d wager that you’ll hear far more readers complain that a book is too slow than too fast.

2. Clumsy Wording

It’s doubtful you chose the perfect words the first time through. Worse, it’s likely you chose words that don’t make any sense at all! Your fingers couldn’t keep up with your mind, remember? So highlight these words/phrases and move on. Jot a replacement down only if you can do so quickly, and without interrupting the rhythm of reading.

3. Cause/Effect

Sometimes, when we’re in a rush to get to the punchline, or busy trying to make a point, we’ll write the effect and forget about writing what caused the effect. This can be tricky, because as the writer you have all of the information in your head. You know the cause that caused the effect. The problem is that your reader doesn’t. Now that you have some distance from your work, you’ll understand your reader’s confusion, because you’ll share it.

As in many things, there is an exception to this: suspense. Take a look at the following two passages and see which one is more suspenseful:

Cause preceding effect

His would-be assassin was back there, somewhere. John raced down the hallway, desperate to put as much distance between them as possible. Another intersection ahead. This was just what he needed. If he could turn enough corners, maybe the assassin would get confused, and John could make his way to the lobby and out onto the street where people were out and about.

He made a sharp right and came face to face with his assassin. He gasped. The color drained from his face, and panic threatened to paralyze him once more.

Cause: “…came face to face with the assassin.”

Effect: “He gasped. The color drained from his face….”

Let’s try this a different way.

Effect preceding cause

His would-be assassin was back there, somewhere. John raced down the hallway, desperate to put as much distance between them as possible. Another intersection ahead. This was just what he needed. If he could turn enough corners, maybe the assassin would get confused, and John could make his way to the lobby and out into the street.

He made a sharp right and gasped. The color drained from his face and panic threatened to paralyze him once more.

He was face to face with his assassin.

I think you can see from this example that suspense can be the exception to the rule. I prefer the second version to the first. It’s like watching a horror movie when you can see the terror on the actor’s face before you see the monster. It builds tension in the reader, and that’s the holy grail because tension is what keeps the reader coming back for more.

4. Section Ordering

This will sound strange at first, but sometimes we write things out of order without realizing it. We have great and wonderful ideas circling around in our heads, but they come out the wrong way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve realized the story would work better if I reordered some of the sections. This is particularly true in manuscripts that employ multiple PoVs and PoV switching. The reasons are as numerous as there are writers, but I’ve found it’s typically a combination of pacing and cause/effect issues that cause section ordering to be a problem.

As I mentioned earlier, the list is far from exhaustive. But whatever you put in your personal list of hot topics, the concept is the same: you’re trying to approach this phase as a reader, not a writer.

One last note about this first read-through: I advise you to print a hard copy of your manuscript, if it’s at all possible. The temptation to revise is just too strong if you’re sitting in front of a keyboard. Try to recreate the reader’s experience as much as possible. It’s worth the time, cost, and effort.

In my followup post, I’ll take a deeper dive into my own revision process and share a checklist with you that I’ve found handy.

There’s a book that I’ve found to be a tremendous help, and you’ll see some of the concepts I merely touched upon explained in great detail.

Revision And Self-Editing (Write Great Fiction)

The book is written by James Scott Bell. You need this craft book in your library! Frankly, I’m a better writer today because of Mr. Bell.

So let me know what you think! Do you have any additional things you look for in your first read-through?

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Posted by on December 9, 2012 in Editing, Revision, Writing


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