The Complete Guide to Going from First Draft to a Finished Novel
Reading, editing, restructuring, re-writing, and everything else you need to do before sending your manuscript to a publisher.
If you’re an author who’s managed to complete the first draft but haven’t gathered the courage to start working on it again, know that you’re not alone. Most writers hate their first drafts. The process of turning the first draft into a book is tough. But I discovered that if you follow some steps, the journey toward making it readable isn’t as hard as you think.
In this article, I’m going to share my story of how I edited my manuscript even though every instinct in my body screamed otherwise and ended up with a full-fledged book. I’ll also outline the steps that lie between completing your first draft and having a complete full-length manuscript.
When I started working on my first full-length novel in February 2020, I was brimming with enthusiasm. Fueled by an adrenaline rush that came from knowing the huge potential my idea had, I started writing. But, it turned out the ideas that sounded so amazing in my head didn’t translate to something of equal calibre on paper.
Forty thousand words in, and I started losing motivation. I felt I couldn’t do justice to what I’d started. The voice inside my head told me it would save me a lot of pain if I gave up and started something new.
In moments like these, this quote by Jodi Picoult was the only thing that stopped me from throwing the manuscript in the trash:
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
So, I kept writing.
I knew my writing was bad, but I kept putting one word after another, slowly watching my WIP (work-in-progress) grow. There were days when I wrote 8,000+ words and others when I barely managed 500, but I didn’t let a single day go by without writing. I told myself that the first draft was not about being perfect; it was about transcribing my thoughts onto the page. In the words of Neil Gaiman:
“For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important. One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed…For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.”
It was April 21, 2020, when I completed the manuscript. At 28 chapters and nine interludes, the first draft stood at 87,548 words.
It was an overwhelming feeling. More than excitement, I felt relief that I no longer needed to push myself to write, to work on a project I felt was no good. That I could finally let myself relax, watch some movies, and do anything other than work.
I thought writing the first draft meant 80% of the work was done. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Editing, re-editing, and re-writing whole parts of a book can be tough. It’s easy to get lost if you’re a first-time author working without guidance. Writing the first draft was only the first hurdle.
1. Take a Break
Keep your first draft safe in a folder (preferably an online folder so you don’t lose it if your computer malfunctions) and forget about it. I know it’s tempting to pick it up and start editing sections, but resist. Take this time to discover your other creative outlets. Maybe write something else or pursue a hobby you’ve been meaning to for a long time.
When I was writing my first draft, I found myself unable to read fiction. No matter which book I started, I felt so lost, I had to abandon it right away. After the manuscript was complete, I could finally delve deep into novels of my genre (psychological fiction). I read Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Elif Shafak’s “40 Rules of Love”— two brilliant books that gave me a lot of ideas on how I could make my prose and characterisation better.
I also binge-watched a four-season psychological thriller series on Netflix. It was my way of rewarding myself for all the months of hard work. I started writing short-form fiction, poetry, and articles. The goal was to get the novel thoroughly out of my system so, once I got back to it, I could look at it with a fresh perspective.
After all, editing demands objectivity — a quality impossible to muster if you jump straight back into your manuscript after completing the first draft. To make the subsequent rounds of revision more effective, you need to put at least a month between you and your novel.
Like me, if you get emotionally invested in your characters and tend to write scenes with tears blurring your vision, make the break two months or longer.
2. Wear the Editor’s Hat
The two months after completing my WIP were the most productive months of my life. I read 8 books and wrote 60+ articles, two stories, and 12 poems. I also did a series of interviews with other authors and recorded several videos for my YouTube channel. By June 2020, I’d put sufficient distance between myself and my WIP, and it was safe to start the second round.
Again, tempting as it might sound to start editing right away, the second round is all about being an editor, not a writer. I proceeded with mine in the following three steps:
Before you start reading, make a list of the things you know need to be added. This can be character traits you forgot to include, scenes you believe will add value to the narration, or dialogues that will make the story flow better. You can also include items in this list that demand major structural changes, for example, different pacing in some chapters, more action in the climax, stretched tension scenes before the final resolution, etc.
I sat with a journal one evening in June and wrote out the following list. Note that you can include all the ideas that come to your head, including minor plot details.
The next step is to wear your editor’s hat and read. I knew that if I read my manuscript on my computer, I’d be tempted to edit parts that I believe weren’t good enough. If you fall into this rabbit hole, you’ll start editing every other paragraph without making any significant progress overall.
To avoid this, take a print-out of your manuscript and leave a lot of white spaces so you can highlight, underline, and leave notes on the margins. Start reading the physical copy as if it’s an actual book.
Since June was in the middle of the pandemic-induced lockdown in India, I could find no shops open to print my book. So, I decided to download it on my Kindle and start reading.
At this point, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Which parts feel slow as if the story is dragging?
- What are the scenes that need more dialogue?
- Are there plot holes that need to be fixed?
- Which scenes don’t have enough tension?
- Does the story feel overpopulated? Maybe you can consider fusing two minor characters into one.
- Does the story have a well-defined three-act structure (build-up, conflict, resolution)?
When I started reading my first draft, it was harder than I thought it would be. I felt my writing was terrible. That there was no flow to the story. The instinct to discard the whole project was stronger than ever. If you feel the same, remind yourself that there’s still a lot of work that will go into the WIP before anyone else reads it. Have patience, be strong, and carry on.
One psychological trick that helped me was that I didn’t read like I was the writer. I read it like I was an editor — as if my only job was to point out mistakes. When I detached myself from how valuable the writing was, I found I could spot mistakes easier.
I made chapter-wise notes about all the things that needed change. This was written in blue ink. Since I didn’t want to be discouraged by just how much editing was required, I also left myself small notes of encouragement in red ink. This turned out to be a smart move. Because when I started working on these notes later, the ones in red made me smile. They made all the hard work feel a little less burdensome.
2.3 Write three-line chapter summaries
This might be the hardest (and also the most important) step in the second round. As you finish each chapter, write a three-line summary of all the important events that happen in them. You can write them in sticky notes and paste them on a story-board. Or you can also do them in digital form. Trello is a great free software you can use for this purpose. Since I wrote my novel in Scrivener, I used the built-in chapter overview feature to write the chapter summaries.
This might sound like too much work, but it will come in handy after you’ve finished the novel (more about that in the next step).
3. Structure and Plan
Reading the first draft will take time. Go easy and give yourself as much leeway as you need. Read each sentence mindfully and make detailed notes. It took me more than a week to complete the reading, and when I was done, it was almost July. After that, here’s what I did:
3.1 Work on your story-board
Keep your notes aside for now. You won’t be needing them until the next step. Instead, sit with your story-board and read the chapter summaries. As you know how the story ends, ask yourself variations of the following questions:
- How can I change the structuring of events to add more weight to the final revelations?
- Which scenes would work better when narrated from a different point of view?
- What events can be written toward the beginning of the story to make the reader more invested?
Move the sticky notes (or chapter tiles — if you’re doing it digitally) around—fiddle with the sequence of narration and re-structure the whole plot. Think from the point of view of the reader and try to add as many elements of surprise for them as possible.
3.2 Re-establish motivations
While writing the first draft, it’s easy to get carried away and end up with something different from what you’d originally planned. Now, since you’ve taken a break and read the entire manuscript, you know where your characters are at the start and where you want to take them by the climax.
Whether your characters have a well-defined goal or are merely going where life takes them, make sure you know exactly what’s motivating them to take action. The why behind any what should shine through your writing and be apparent to the reader.
3.3 Start writing
This is when you can finally open your computer and start editing your manuscript. Keep your notes alongside as you go about. Take a chapter at a time and make it the best version possible. Then, pick the very first list you made in 2.1 and check off any points that you can change in this round.
Then, move on to the next chapter.
One aspect I struggled with was deleting. I knew some passages added nothing to the story, but I was loath to delete them because I’d worked so hard on them, and I felt they deserved to be read. But then again, a book is never about how it makes you (the author) feel. It’s always about how it will make the reader feel. And if a reader stands to gain nothing from a paragraph, a chapter, or even an entire sub-plot, remove them.
“Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.”
— Anne Lamott
My first round of editing turned out to be more about removing the excesses than adding anything new. I also ended up restructuring the novel so much that I added a new character about halfway through the novel who plays a vital role in the climax. I also changed the occupation of my protagonist and made her go through a lot more pain than I’d initially intended to (I’m evil that way).
While I’d taken care of the notes I made while reading, I didn’t get the opportunity to check off all the items on the list I’d made in 2.1. That’s when I realised this draft might need further rounds of revision.
3.4 Go for another round
There are basically two rounds of editing you must absolutely not miss.
- Content editing: Where you restructure the plot, add tension, and make the conflict more intense and the resolution more satisfying.
- Line editing: Where you work on your language — fix grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and make your prose stronger. I recommend using an editing app to aid you at this point (Grammarly is fine, but Pro Writing Aid makes some truly valuable suggestions). In this round, also take care of the tone of the story — is it too grim? Is the language too bland for readers to keep reading? Are you repeatedly using the same words or phrases?
While all the writing courses I’ve taken make it sound as if these two rounds are separate, I often found the boundaries blurring. When I set about editing the tone and flow, I also found myself improving the language and vice versa. It’s OK to do both as long as you’re making progress.
I started with another list of items I was certain should be added or removed. I added these to the list I made in 2.1 and was very strict about adhering to it as I checked off the items one by one.
This time, I edited as I read, and it worked for me. If you find yourself not making any progress, you can have separate reading and editing rounds as you did before. When you’re done, you probably still won’t be sure if the WIP matches the level of awesomeness of your initial idea.
Go for another round.
Then another. And another. I must have read my manuscript five times and made several changes before I was confident enough to let another pair of eyes see it.
4. Beta Reading Round One
I spent the whole of July and half of August editing my manuscript. No matter how many times I read the chapters, there was always something new to add, something more to remove. But after a while, once I’d done content and line editing several times over, I felt it was a good time to get feedback from readers whose opinions I trust. This is called Beta Reading — sending your manuscript over to a trusted few before formally releasing it into the world.
It doesn’t matter if your beta readers aren’t professional writers. People who read in your genre can provide infinitely valuable feedback. Be very careful of the kind of questions you ask them so you can get the most out of their feedback. Here’s a sample of the email I sent to my beta readers:
I was terrified of others reading my story, but I knew their comments would help me improve. And I wasn’t wrong. I sent my novel to three beta readers:
- One is a seasoned reader
- Another reads about 20 books a year
- And the third barely reads books but takes great pleasure in watching movies
They covered the entire range of the spectrum of my target audience. Their answers to the questions above gave me a lot to think about.
Because beta reader comments are so valuable, it’s easy to go overboard and try to address every concern. Keep this advice from writer Joanna Penn in mind:
“Be careful about involving too many other voices. YOUR voice is the most important in your project, so beware of ‘writing by committee’ which might just drown your voice out.”
Working with beta readers takes time. I was lucky to find beta readers who were invested in the novel enough to want to read the entire manuscript several times over just to make sure the changes I’d incorporated matched their comments. Either way, if you work with three beta readers, you’ll need at least three rounds of revision. As you go through your novel during each of these rounds, feel free to add more changes from your side. Polish the prose and tighten the plot as much as you can.
This final step in the editing process needs you to take a fine eye for detail. It’s better if you edit for several short periods of time rather than all at once. If you spend hours working through the manuscript, you tend to overlook details. Here are some aspects you can look out for in this final stage:
- Spelling, grammar, sentence construction.
- Ambiguous statements and unchecked facts.
- Character consistency (do they maintain their idiosyncracies until the end, or did you start with a character trait and abandoned it mid-way?)
If you find yourself skimming over content, a great way to get past this is to read your manuscript out loud. This will help you identify the places where you mixed your “and” and “an” or your “the” with “teh”. You can also use free text-to-speech software to have your book read out loud to you.
After this, your manuscript will be ready to send to a publisher. But before you do that, getting an opinion from a professional editor will work wonders. As of October 2020, I’ve finished all six steps for my WIP, but I’m still looking for an editor whose tastes and views match mine. Once I find someone suitable, I’ll probably do another couple of editing rounds and then start hunting for publishers.
After at least ten rounds of editing and comments from three beta readers, my manuscript stands at 74,342 words. I’m sure an editor might be able to bring down the word count even more drastically. Till then, I’ll pat myself on the back and be happy that I accomplished such a herculean task and finished writing my first full-length novel.
The process I outlined in this article worked for me. But before you start, remember that no two writers function the same way. You may wish to make several small edits over ten drafts or major edits in two drafts — it depends on your workflow.
The important point is to take things one step at a time. If your plot is in shambles, there’s no point in trying to improve your language.
Define your own game plan. Understand that no matter how many times you read through your novel, there’ll always be parts you wish you could change. If you prioritise edits as per your game plan, you won’t feel lost.
No matter how bad your first draft is, you can still improve it. It can become a full-fledged novel, but you’ve to learn to be patient.
It will be hard. But it will definitely be worth all the time and effort.
“To become a proper writer, you have to forgive yourself the catastrophe of the first draft.”
— Alain de Botton