Monday, August 29, 2016

Editing for the first time? 5 Thoughts To Help You Make Sense Of It.

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Rachael wrote to me and said, "I'm 9k into my second draft, and it's taken me a year to get there. I feel like I'm trying to edit everything all at once--so much so, that it's almost like writing a first draft all over again, except this one isn't supposed to be bare bones--and I've gotten really discouraged. So my question is this: how do you know what to edit in the second draft, and what to let go for now? How do you keep it from being so utterly and completely overwhelming? There will always be another draft, but I don't know what to focus on for this one. Characters? Plot? Beginning/end? Everything seems vital, but it's too much to handle all at once."

Oh, Rachael! Hugs!

I'm sure many other young writers nodded along as they read your words. This might not make you feel any better but I nodded along! Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. It's okay to rewrite.

When you are a young writerwhether you're literally young or just new to writing novelsyou are learning a lot very quickly. Even if it doesn't feel like it. I never edited the first few complete manuscripts I wrote because by the time I finished them, I could see that they had serious problemsincluding that I was too bored with the story and characters to care enough to fix them.

Eventually I wrote the first draft of the book that became my debut novel. I rewrote this book three times because of what I learned during the process. Sometimes the best thing to do is just open up a blank document and try again.

I don't know if this is encouraging or discouraging, but even after you've been writing for a while, some first drafts just come out messier than others. That's true for my current work in progress. I wrote the draft last year, when I was pregnant and had inconsistent work time.

On top of that, I normally write my stories in first person with one narrator in good ol' Microsoft Word. But I wanted to try Scrivener, and I thought I would need multiple point of view characters, so I decided to write in third person.

I was about 20,000 words into the book when I admitted Scrivener didn't work for me, and that my voice loses something when I try to write in third. I eventually finished my first draft, and the result was a poorly thought out story that wandered here and there before ending in a very jarring way. And I've been a published novelist since 2009!

When it came time to edit that book, I just opened a new Word document and started over. I could still use a decent amount of my material from the first draft, of course, but I found it easier to just copy and paste bits of scenes rather than trying to fit all the new material around the old.

2. Embrace the mess.

I was recently helping my eight-year-old daughter clean her room. She's a sentimental, artistic type of kid, which leads to moments where I pull a bin off her closet shelf and find it contains a school assignment, a rock, a cup from a party 6 months ago, a crazy straw, and the fancy necklace she was given for Christmas but never could find.

To really clean McKenna's room, we have to take out all the bins, sort all her belongings into piles, and then distribute the piles. In short, we have to make a big mess.

Editing is similar. To do the job properly requires making a mess. I've tried again and again to be so organized about my first draft or the editing process that the mess never happen ... but if that's possible to achieve, I've yet to figure out how.

I think the smarter approach is to just embrace that editing is a messy process.

3. Editing is a skill

I've said this before, but editing is its own skill. You've learned how to craft a story, how to stretch it over the course of thousand and thousands of words. If you're like I was as a young writer, maybe you've written tons of story beginnings, or you've made it all the way through a book a time or two, but you've never edited one before.

Editing a novel is different than editing an essay or an article. It's possible you will read your first draft, know that it needs to be fixed, but not really know how. This is one reason why we encourage writers to learn about story structure and to analyze the stories you take in. Understanding components of stories that resonateand stories that miss the markwill help you identify problems in your own manuscript.

As an example, I wrote a book in my late teens/early twenties that I pitched several times to agents and editors. They would like the sound of it, but no one ever read more than a chapter. "The book just didn't work for me," or "There wasn't enough of a hook for me to sell," are the responses I remember.

I didn't know what to do. I believed them that something was wrong with my book, but I didn't know what, so I definitely didn't know how to fix it.

Several months later, I was reading a book that I just couldn't get into. Then I realized a similarity between that opening scene of that book and mine:

This author's book opened with three friends meeting up at a bar after work to have a drink together. The first scene was mostly just their conversation.

My book opened with two friends meeting up at a coffee house after school. The whole scene was just these two friends having a disagreement. I had thought the tension of the dialogue was enough to hook a reader, but when I saw it play out in the other author's book, I could see that it was boring.

So if you read your manuscript and you have trouble pinpointing what's not working, you might eventually figure it out by reviewing story structure or reading.

4. Prioritize problems.

Chances are that you know at least some things that need to be fixed. Jill wrote a great post on Wednesday about the "macro edit," which is that first big picture edit. This would be a great one for you to read if you haven't already. We also wrote the Go Teen Writers book to help writers through edits, so that can be a good resource too.

Since Jill talked about this in depth on Wednesday, I'll just summarize briefly. The instinct for most writers is to edit their book from start to finish. But if we try to edit for everythingplot, characters, theme, grammar, sentence structure, consistencyall at once ... that's a lot to try and hold in our heads.

So I read through my first draft and make a list as I go. Things that need to be researched, story questions I raise but never answer, character motivations that seem thin, and so on. Then I divide my list into bigger issues and smaller issues.

Big issues that I will tackle in a second draft might be, but aren't limited to:
  • Something I didn't bother to research in the first draft that could make a big impact on the story. 
  • A major character who I don't understand very well yet. I will usually take time to write a character journal if I haven't already and then rework scenes from there.
  • A villain who is too convenient/too obvious/shows up too late in the book to feel satisfying. Often I need to add scenes early on to help with this.
  • A beginning that drifts too much before the real story starts. I'll figure out what can be cut.
  • A twist that I don't set up properly, or one that doesn't feel as twisty as I'd like.
Further down the list I usually have a list of questions I want to process. These are things that usually don't impact many scenes, but my gut says that I need to take the time to answer them. Some examples are:
  • Why does my character choose to go to this place? I never explain that.
  • What is my villain doing during the off-stage time?
  • I say this character is going to be gone for two weeks but they're only gone for one.
  • My character knows a piece of information before they're told. How can I rearrange this?
After I've made the list, it's time to dig in. I always save a "first draft" version of the manuscript so that as I'm working on edits, I know there's a back up of the original version should I need it.

5. Someone out there knows how to fix your book.

It amazes me every time.

I will be struggling with a story problem. Like, "Why did the mother steal the necklace?" I'll roll this question around for a few dayswhile I'm brushing my teeth or walking my kids to school. I might come up with an idea or two, but nothing that feels like I've landed on the right solution.

Then, I'll send my writing friend, Roseanna White, a message. "I can't figure out why her mother steals the necklace. It's driving me crazy."

About 30 seconds later, Roseanna will write back something like, "Did she need the money? Does it have sentimental value? Was it for revenge?"

Within a few minutes, Roseanna will have helped me come up with something that I love and can't wait to write. There's something about her distance from the manuscript that makes her amazing at solving the problems. She's not the one who has to do the hard work of revisions, and she's not limited by the rest of the plot because she only has a loose idea of what it is.

Maybe you don't know why your opening scene isn't working, or how to make that action scene more exciting. But somebody you know does! They don't have to be a writer, either. It's great if they are, but I was 22 before I made my first writing friend.

Rachael, I know edits are difficult and overwhelming, especially that first time. I hope something in this post was helpful to you!

If you have other thoughts or encouragement for Rachael, leave them below!


  1. 1. It's okay to rewrite
    Coming from a girl who literally wrote her first book twice and will soon have to split book two into books two and three (because it's twice as long as it was supposed to be), I can say that this is true; there are just some things you can't know until you pump out those 100,000+ words and realize it's just not going to work. And from that standpoint, I can also tell you it's a royal pain and the work seems never-ending. However, it teaches you to deal with change and think creatively, so it will be well worth the trouble once you get through it, Rachael!
    Thanks for the tips, Mrs. Morrill! If you can't tell, it really struck a chord with me.

    1. Mrs. Morrill, I had a question regarding the contest, which you said would open on September 14. Do you know how long you will be accepting entries? I will be on a hunting trip from September 13 through 19, and I definitely don't want to miss the opportunity to submit my first chapter and synopsis.

    2. "There are just some things you can't know until you pump out those 100,000+ words and realize it's just not going to work." YES. This has been my experience as well. I never want it to be my experience, and I often go to great lengths (plotting, etc.) to try and avoid massive rewrites ... and still have to do massive rewrites. It's nice to know I'm not alone!

      Regarding the contest, sorry about how slowly we're getting info out! Jill and I both had hectic/unpredictable summers, and we're just now getting our feet back under us. More details are coming soon, I promise! But to answer your question, the contest will be open for entries for two weeks.

    3. Two weeks? What a relief.
      I can definitely sympathize with a hectic summer. I got a taste of the real world this year when I got my first summer job. It was nice getting paid, and I liked the work, but it makes it harder to do other things, like writing, editing, working with 4-H animals, and...well...writing. :) Thanks for offering this contest in spite of your busy schedules. It encouraged me to finally get a synopsis written for my second book. :)

    4. Praise the Lord. Lol. I thought they were only due the 14th. >.< I was panicking slightly because I have class all day and I wasn't sure when/if I could get it submitted.

  2. I know exactly what you mean!! I've been writing and rewriting this story for awhile and don't want to give up.
    I'm in the 7000 ish word section of my second draft. I feel like I'm repeating myself and not changing anything. I write first drafts by hand so I'm practically start again. I really related to Rachel.

    And what you said about your friend gave you story advice, that so true. Just this weekend I was reading my story to my writing friend and she said "is [the antagonist] even [a word that means she has a special power]?
    And I started screaming at her about how she had changed the entire story and that was amazing. For the rest of the weekend I brainstormed how to incorporate it into my story. I was so amazed.

    1. At a conference, one of the teachers said, "I am a perfect parent. I have no children." She isn't tired, she isn't stressed, she isn't on the hook for the results, etc. so it's easier in a lot of ways to see issues and give advice. She then used this as an example of how when you're not the writer of the book, you're the perfect author. I think there's a lot of truth in there!

    2. Definitely. This isn't the first time she's done this

  3. I've rewritten a book before, but I luckily was able to do so after having only written half of it originally. At that point, I was able to see that I was bored with my main POV and that my voice comes out better in multiple POVs. So I started over with a different lead and added two more POVs, which made it so much better.

    When editing, I never been able to make it through a quick read-through. I always stop about ten chapters in because I am so frustrated at skipping over problems just to fix them later. So instead, when writing the first draft, I make a list of things I know have to fixed in the second draft. Then I start from the beginning, fixing things as I go. By the end, I will have another list of things that I had pinpointed needed to be fixed but would take more effort. Those I tackle in the third draft.

    1. I love this! I might try that the next time around and see how it works for me. I'm all about learning faster ways to do things!

  4. I could definitely hear my own thoughts in Rachael's message! I've done a little bit of editing, but I currently find myself in the midst of my biggest project to date. I actually re-plotted and am now rewriting the entire thing, because there were parts that I liked in the first draft, but there's a lot that needed to change and be added to. It was nice to have a place to start from, though. It made my outlining process much more cut-and-paste, which was helpful. :D

  5. Thanks so much Stephane! Coming back to writing after a long break, and I needed this. Editing was something I never really learned how to do. I'm hoping with some encouragement/accountability from a friend + maybe some kind of reward system will help the part of my brain going 'EW, this part feels like work.'

    1. Reward systems are good! :)

    2. @ Olivia--yes! I figure a reward system is a good way to motivate myself through revisions! I just feel like it needs to be something other than chocolate, for obvious reasons. :P
      @Stephanie--it's good to be back! I've missed writing!

  6. This is fantastic advice! I feel like I've been editing my current novel for forever, but I'm learning a lot and the story is so much stronger for it, so I'm hanging in there!

    One thing I find reassuring to remember when editing is that all the problems you run into are going to help you further down the track. By figuring out how to fix problems in one story, you can avoid them in future books.

    1. That is a GREAT point, Kate! I have definitely found that to be true in my experience with editing.

  7. This is a wonderful post! Thank you so much, Stephanie! After reading this I feel like I have a better idea of how to move forward. Learning to embrace the mess of it all is something I needed to be reminded of. It takes a lot more courage and sweat to edit than I think I was expecting!

    1. I think we all have that moment of panic the first time we edit, Rachael! I'm glad this was helpful. Keep us posted on your progress!