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The Complete Guide to Editing Your First Draft Like a Pro

Bryan Collins
Sep 14, 2017 · 15 min read

You spent hours working on it.

You gathered up fresh ideas, researched your arguments meticulously, and put in your time in the chair. The work paid off, too.

You got the words out of your head and onto the blank page and now, finally, you’ve finished writing your first draft.

Or have you?

When you read through your article, something terrible happens.

You know deep down it’s not very good. Those ideas you thought were great don’t quite hold up, there are gaps in the research and the writing.

Shudder.

Now, you’re unsure what to do.

A deadline is looming like a guillotine.

How are you going to take this messy first draft and turn it into something you can serve up to your readers?

If you’ve ever struggled with these types of problems, you are not alone.

In this article, I’ll explain how to self-edit a messy first draft and get it ready for a pressing publish.

The job of first drafts

Neil will never show you his first draft. (credit)

Please don’t feel disheartened if a read-through of your first draft disappoints. Its only real purpose is to exist.

So, it doesn’t matter if the writing is clunky or your ideas half-baked. If you’re struggling to accept this, I’d like you to lower the bar.

Many writers call their first pass the “vomit draft.”

In an interview with Tim Ferris, author Neil Strauss said:

“…your first draft is only for you. No one is ever going to see it, so you don’t have to worry about it. You’re not going to turn it in. You’re not going to show it to friends to evaluate — because it’s only for you.”

So, expect misplaced apostrophes. Become friends with the passive voice (at least for now).

Don’t look surprised when typos slip out and when some ideas are so clichéd that they make How I Met Your Mother look like Macbeth.

It takes several revisions to turn a first draft into something you can publish.

We’re going to get there during the editing process.

Knowing when you’re ready to edit your first draft

Have you ever written a paragraph for an article, edited it, written another paragraph, and then reworked that, too?

And on and on.

An hour goes by…

… and all you’ve done is rewrite the same part of your article.

Ouch!

I used to write and edit first drafts like that. This is a terrible way to approach editing, and here’s why:

When you try to write and edit at the same time, you’re doing TWO different activities.

The part of your brain that needs to get ideas out of your head — your internal writer — shies away from your internal editor.

The part of your brain that takes a first draft of an article and turns it into something that shines — your internal editor — does his or her best work when you have a complete first draft.

Separating writing and editing into different activities that you do at different times will help you write and edit first drafts faster.

Now, if you’ve finished writing your first draft and you’re itching to start editing… hold on.

Let your draft sit in your computer or on your desk for a day or two, or at least long enough so the writing doesn’t feel so fresh.

This way, you’ll be able to cut and prune your draft with a more critical eye.

Preparing your first draft like a professional

A messy edit: Look at this glorious spaces between each line

Editing your first draft is more important than obsessing about finding the right tools.

So, by all means use the “Track Changes” feature in Word or Google Docs if they work for you.

Your editing tool of choice should enable you to restore earlier drafts of your article in case your changes don’t work.

That said, while employed as a print journalist, I learned several self-editing tricks.

The journalists I worked with often printed out at least one draft of their articles.

Then, they turned their computer screens off and read through this draft, marking up the pages with a red pen.

I asked my editor, “Why?” and he said:

“Paper is less distracting than a computer, and it forces you to concentrate on the flow of your ideas.”

Now, before you print out your draft, change the font of your writing to Courier, the line spacing to double, and the size to 12.

Courier is a monospace font, meaning there’s an even distance between each letter, so your eye will spot issues easily.

This will give you space to write your edits with red pen in between sentences and along the margins.

Then, all you need is some paper and a quiet place to work.

Tip: Install Courier Prime. It’s an updated version of Courier designed to look good on newer screens.

Performing editorial triage

‘He bored his readers to death’ (credit)

The American editor Sol Stein likens editing an early draft to triage.

Like the doctor overwhelmed by what she sees before her, it’s your job to fix the big problems first.

To do otherwise, according to Stein, “is like treating casualties on a first-come, first-served basis without regard to priorities.”

So, sit down at the table with a pen and read your first draft in one go.

Then, while re-reading, write your proposed edits above each sentence.

Strike-through words with your pen, use arrows to indicate where you want to move your sentences, and write in the spaces between each sentence.

Your markups don’t have to make sense to anyone but you. If you’re in doubt about an edit, circle the sentence or word with your pen, and decide on it later.

I also sometimes read my work aloud and record myself using the voice memo app on my phone.

Then, I listen back to this recording and mark up the manuscript. The act of saying something aloud helps identify problems in a way my eyes can’t.

Now that you have a sense of your manuscript, you’re going to edit it in at least three different ways.

What’s the big idea (and just who is this for)?

Firstly, consider the direction of your article rather than the finer points of spelling or grammar.

So, ask yourself:

What’s the central idea behind this article and have I addressed it as simply as possible for my audience?

To answer this question, re-read the brief from your editor. It should explain what the article is about and who it’s for.

As Aaron Orendorff notes:

“Without a clearly defined target market — real people with real problems looking for real solutions — you inevitably end up writing for the one person you shouldn’t be: yourself. Self-centeredness is a plague, especially when writing copy.

If you don’t know your article’s goal or target audience, ask your editor.

For example, let’s say my editor says:

“I want you to write a 1,500-word article explaining how an indie writer can drive traffic to their author website through SEO.”

Then, in my article, I write about the value of an email list for indie authors, bloggers, and podcasters.

My advice may be solid, but I’ve gone off-brief.

It’s a better use of time to fix the article’s direction before wading into a line-edit.

And that means a rewrite.

But I don’t have an editor!

If you’re self-publishing your work, avoid trying to convey multiple complex ideas in a single piece of writing.

If I explain how an indie author can implement SEO, grow their email list faster, monetize it, and sell more books, I’m tackling too many big ideas.

This approach leaves the reader feeling exhausted and confused. My ideas are better suited to a book or a series of articles.

They don’t belong in the next draft.

In Expert Secrets, entrepreneur and author Russel Brunson also recommends new writers simplify their work using a tool he calls a “kinda like bridge.”

“Every time I run into a word or a concept that is past a third-grade level, I stop and think about how I can relate that concept to something they already know and understand. The same way I would try to explain complex ideas to my kids.”

In case you’re wondering, the single idea for this article is:

For new writers, editing a first draft is kind of like learning to cook.

The first few meals may turn out over or under-done, but by mastering the right skills, you’ll soon create something your readers love.

Eliminate weak writing

Pay particular attention to instances of the passive voice. This voice demonstrates how the subject of a sentence changes because of an action… and it’s awful to read.

Consider:

“The first draft was written by me quickly and easily.”

Instead, bring this passage to life with the active voice, wherein you explain who did what and to whom.

“I wrote my first draft quickly and easily.”

Also, watch for imprecise language. For example, consider this sentence:

“I make a side-income from self-publishing books.”

It reads fine, but ‘make’ is a lazy word, and the sentence is vague. Instead, try:

“I earn a thousand dollars a month from self-publishing books.”

Cut 10%. Yes, really.

This man wants you to prune your work (credit)

When Stephen King was a fresh-faced writer, he taped a piece of editorial advice next to where he wrote. It read:

“Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%. Good luck.”

Non-fiction writers can also use this formula.

Say goodbye to needless metaphors, adjectives and adverbs. And get rid of those unnecessary clichés.

For example, instead of:

“I wrote my first draft like a boss, quickly and easily.”

Try:

“I wrote my first draft in forty minutes.”

If you’re struggling to reduce your word-count, ask yourself:

Is this sentence confusing?

Does this paragraph bore me?

What’s the weakest section in this draft?

Then, remove or clarify what you can, because if you felt bored or confused, your readers don’t stand a chance.

I know it’s hard to ‘kill your darlings’, so store your cuttings in a leftover file on your computer. This way, you could use them later on for another article.

Tip: Hemingway app will also help you identify adjectives, adverbs and clunky language you can cut or clarify.

Grab your readers by the eyeballs

Famous advertiser, ruthless editor

The father of advertising, David Ogilvy, once said, “Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.”

His advice holds true today.

It’s your job to hold your readers’ attention from the first sentence to the last, just like an advertiser.

After all, we’re not in the business of writing literary fiction.

You’re writing for an online audience that has a dozen notifications clamoring for their attention.

And the quickest way to lose them?

Long, windy paragraphs.

So, while editing, break up anything longer than 100–200 words. Typically, a paragraph addresses a single idea or topic.

These days, it’s fine to have one sentence paragraphs provided you vary the length of subsequent paragraphs.

Ideally, your article will find a natural rhythm.

If you’re struggling, study the writing style of James Patterson. Whether or not you like his stories, he’s a master of the short paragraph, and his readers pay attention to him.

James Patterson vs. Jonathan Franzen: Spot the master of short paragraphs

Make a little small talk

Now, work on each paragraph so that your paragraphs blend into each other and your readers don’t notice time passing.

And the secret?

Transition words.

They bridge one sentence to the next and connect different ideas.

They’re kind of like small talk before a difficult conversation. There are hundreds to pick from, including:

  • Moreover
  • Initially
  • So…
  • And yet
  • What’s more

For example, consider:

“Last night, Bryan Collins did the one thing you should never do at a party: he got drunk and called the hostess by the wrong name. And yet, she didn’t throw him out.”

If I remove “And yet” from this sentence, it’s still understandable, but the writing is more awkward.

Of course, eye-catching paragraphs aren’t enough.

You must…

Captivate your readers with intriguing sub-heads

The job of a sub-head is to invite scanners to read your article before they move on to something else… and then to hold their attention from the first word to the last.

Think of them as mini-headlines.

Pamela Wilson from Copyblogger sums it up:

“They draw them down the page and through your content, letting them know they’re moving toward a conclusion.”

So, while editing, break up every three to five paragraphs with a compelling sub-head. There are many different types. You could:

  • Write a mini-headline (see the sub-heads throughout this post)
  • Ask a question e.g. ‘What Should You Do if You Don’t Have Time for SEO?’
  • Use your ideal reader’s words, e.g. ‘Help, the Google Keyword Planner Mystifies Me”
  • Call out your reader, e.g. ‘Before You Press Publish, Wait!’
  • Number your subheads, e.g. ‘Tip #1:…’

And so on.

Many new writers are content with bland and boring sub-heads like “Editing tips” or “Keywords advice”.

While editing your article, turn each sub-head into something more specific, emotional, or unusual.

For example, instead of this bland subhead:

“Ways to Get Website Traffic Through SEO”

Try:

“The Deceptively Simple Way to Increase Website Traffic Nobody is Talking About”

Getting subheads right is an art in itself, but Gary Korisko provides a fantastic guide over at Smartblogger.

Get your introduction and conclusion right

You’re probably wondering why I’m covering editing your introduction and conclusion so late into this article.

Consider their purpose:

The former explains or sets up what’s about to happen and hooks the reader.

The latter wraps up what you just said, leaves your reader feeling good about themselves, offers closure, or calls them to action.

But, how can you do this if the body of your article isn’t quite right?

You’ll save a lot of time if you edit the body of your article first.

Leave these sections until last and be ruthless while editing them.

As a rule-of-thumb, the word-count of an introduction and conclusion shouldn’t comprise more than 10–20% of your total word-count.

Why?

Well, you don’t want to write a 600-word introduction for a 1,500-word article, as it will feel unbalanced.

In your conclusion, summarize what you said in your article, give your readers a takeaway, or call them to act.

The secret sauce to getting your introduction and conclusion just right

I know introductions and conclusions are tough to edit. So, rather than reinventing the wheel each time, consider using a copywriting formula.

Copywriting sells products, services, and ideas.

And your non-fiction article is built on a big idea, right?

There are dozens of proven formulas for hooking the attention of your readers.

The Problem-Agitate-Solution formula is my favorite, as new writers can use it for opening almost every type of article.

Here’s how this three-part formula works:

[Problem]

Introduce a problem your readers are experiencing.

[Agitate]

Use emotional language to intensify the problem.

[Solution]

Present a credible solution to the problem.

Now, let’s put this formula in action:

[Problem]

Do you sometimes wonder why nobody reads your blog?

[Agitate]

You spent hours getting your blog post just right, and it’s a pretty good piece of writing, too. But every time you publish a post, it’s just crickets. What’s more, when you visit the websites of other authors, their posts have hundreds of comments. Do they know some secret that you don’t? It’s enough to make you want to quit blogging altogether.

[Solution]

Don’t worry. In this article, I’ll reveal exactly what you need to know about getting your author website ready for Google so you, too, can attract hundreds of new readers to your blog. The good news is, it’ll only take an extra fifteen minutes… but the pay-offs are massive.

Later, in your conclusion, summarise what you said in your article, give your readers a takeaway or call them to act. I like to elaborate on how the reader knows what to do to solve their big problem and then remind them it’s time to stop reading and act.

(I also sometimes ask for a share or encourage the reader to join my email list).

For example:

Now you know the basics of keyword research and why it’s not so complicated. You also understand that if you do a little bit of extra work upfront, Google will reward you with new readers later.

So, before you publish your next blog post, spend just ten minutes researching the right keyword to use. Then, work this keyword into your headline and your blog post.

Got questions about keyword research? Hit me up in the comments section below.

If you enjoyed this post, show it some love by liking it on Medium.

‘Help! I still need an editor’

So what should you do if you’ve spent hours editing your first draft, but it’s still not quite right?

There’s a good chance you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

At this stage, getting help is the only way you’ll improve your draft.

Consider the curious case of author and entrepreneur James Altucher.

He presented a version of a near final manuscript of his 2013 book Choose Yourself to marketer, editor, and writer Ryan Holiday.

This man edited his book over sixteen times. (credit)

James wanted Ryan to help him with an aggressive marketing plan to promote Choose Yourself.

Instead, Ryan insisted on sixteen more rounds of edits over the following six months including a restructuring of the book, the removal of four chapters, and the addition of two more.

Ouch!

In the end, Choose Yourself sold over 600,000 copies and USA Today called it one of the twelve best business books of all time.

Now, books require more rounds of editing than articles. However, if you want your writing to succeed, it pays to enlist the help of your peers.

In his 2017 book Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts, Ryan Holiday explains:

“Nobody creates flawless first drafts. And nobody creates better second drafts without the intervention of someone else. Nobody.”

So, send the draft to your editor for critical feedback and explain where you’re stuck.

He or she may be able to give you a new angle, or point out what you should remove or expand on.

Alternatively, give the draft to an early reader or close family member and ask them to be honest about what works and doesn’t work.

You can also use professional editorial services to improve your work.

Tip: Kibin provides copyediting and proof-reading services for students, but non-fiction writers can use it, too.

Overcoming the nasty vice of perfectionism

Many new writers ask, how many rounds of editing is enough?

Typically, I edit a first draft at least three times.

First, I edit the overall structure of the article. Then, I edit the individual parts of the article. Finally, I polish the piece in question.

For you, a single round of editing may be enough. Or it may take five passes.

Remember: fix the big problems first, then work on the small ones.

That said, please don’t allow a pursuit of perfectionism to stop you from pressing publish or submit.

Anne Lammot offers a cure for perfectionism. She writes:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

There will always be a gap between what you want to express and what comes out on the blank page. The legendary American copywriter Gary Halbert sums up how to close it:

“…what you do, is rewrite the rough spots and read the copy out loud again. And, what you do, is you keep repeating this process until your copy is completely smooth and you can read it without stumbling at all.”

Reading aloud helps. Printing out your work helps. And so does editorial feedback.

Learning how to self-edit, like cooking, takes practice. So put your time in, and your readers will keep coming back for more.

If you enjoyed this article, then please hit the big ‘ol clap button and recommend it to your followers.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Bryan Collins

Written by

Author of The Power of Creativity - Lives An Hour Outside Dublin - Always Over-Caffeinated - Find me at http://becomeawritertoday.com - http://bryancollins.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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