Monday, February 6, 2017

What To Do When Your Book Is Such A Mess You Don't Know If It's Worth Editing

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street. 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, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.

I think every writer has finished a first draft of somethingan article, a short story, a novelonly to reread their work and feel like it's an enormous mess.

When I get the chance to talk to young writers, I often hear something like, "The first book I wrote is such a mess because I didn't know what I was doing. I still like the story, but I'm just not sure it's even worth editing."

When you first start writing, you are growing and changing so rapidly that your skill level by the end of writing a novel is often much different than it was when you started. Especially if this is one of the first times you've pushed yourself to write an entire book, or if it's taken several years to complete it.

So do you have some messy completed drafts sitting on your hard drive that you've been afraid to touch? If so, here are some thoughts from my experience that I hope can help you:

Not every first draft is worth editing.

In about thirty seconds, I can think of nine completed manuscripts sitting on my hard drive unedited. Some of them are books I wrote in my late teens that just didn't work the way I thought they would, and I've lost my interest in the story. But three of them were written in the last few years. Several of them I still love.

But like you, the writing time I have is very limited. Right now I've made the choice to pursue YA historical fiction, so using my writing time to edit the YA contemporary novel that I inexplicably love despite it hardly having a plot just doesn't make sense for me right now.

Only you can answer if your book is worth the time investment that edits requires.

"Not Now" isn't the same as "Not ever."

If you really don't know if the book is worth your time and energy, here's a link to the thought process that's helped me. (See point two on that post.) In a perfect world, I go through this thought process when I'm still in the idea stage. But in my early years when I didn't understand what sold in the market and what didn't, I tended to ask myself those questions after my first draft.

But deciding that now isn't the time you want to work on edits doesn't mean you never will. I once archived a completed second draft of Me, Just Different, swearing the story was broken beyond repair, and I was moving on. But Skylar and Connor wouldn't leave me alone, and several months later I got the broken manuscript back out. Sometimes time away is all we need to renew our enthusiasm for a story.

Editing is a different skill than writing.

You've worked hard to learn how to write an entire first draft. You've studied elements of story structure, developed your characters' backstories, rewritten your opening scene countless times, and invested months, maybe years, into producing a completed draft.

Shouldn't editing be a natural extension of what you've learned so far?

I know it seems like it. While all the work you've done to learn how to write a first draft no doubt will improve your editing skills too, editing a book is a different skill set than writing a book. Just like you had to be patient with yourself while you learned to write a story, now you'll need to be patient with yourself while you learn to edit one. (If you'd like some hand holding through the editing process, you should check out Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Finished Book.)

I know edits can feel intimidating, and that a new, shiny book idea often sounds like a lot more fun. (And there's nothing wrong with chasing the fun. I encourage it!) But like the classic Michael Crichton quote goes, "Books aren't written, they're rewritten." Eventually, if you want your story to read like a book, you'll have to hone your editing skills.

Only take the plunge on edits when you feel the time is right.

Maybe you have family or friends who have been really supportive as you've worked on your first draft. They want to read your story, and you want them to read it too, but not until you've shined her up a bit.

Only now you don't really feel like shining her up. If your first drafts are anything like my first drafts, there are different tenses, hardly any description, flat characters, and loads of other issues that you don't know yet how to fix. And there's this new story idea that you think could be even better...

But what about the people who have supported you? I know it's uncomfortable to say, "Yeah, I invested a lot of time in writing that draft. I got up early to work on it, and when you wanted to hang out with me, I sometimes said, 'I can't because I want to write.' But now I'm not going to edit it. I'm just going to put it away."

If you're not a writer, this can be a difficult thing to understand. All that work, and now you're just going to put it away? But editing is hard enough when you feel excited about the book, and I've yet to see success when I unenthusiastically edit. Unless you've signed a contract and you're on a deadline, I recommend waiting to edit until you feel ready.

"I want to edit my book, but how do I even start?"

Maybe you really want to edit your book, and you're willing to put in the work, but you just don't know how to fix it. Here are some links that I hope will help you along your way:

The Go Teen Writers Book: Jill and I poured our heart and soul into this thing. We talk about big picture editing stuff, drill down into those smaller issues that crop up, and then have loads of resources and worksheets in the end.

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

Editing In Layers series: 

From Jill's #WeWriteBooks series:

Have you edited a book before? Drop a line of encouragement for those who are new to it, and maybe share a tip or two. If you haven't edited before and have questions, leave them in the comments for us!


  1. YES. This is exactly what I needed to hear today, thanks so much for sharing it!

    1. I'm glad to hear my post was timed so well, Jonathan!

  2. For me, when I find a story I love but don't think it is editable, I will read through and collect all the parts I do like and then write the story over with a new first draft. Then I can edit that one and it will be more solid.

  3. I'm in the process of editing the first book of my trilogy, and at first I was extremely overwhelmed. Like, where do I start? How do I even begin to start?? So what I did, is I divided my book up in scenes. (I use Scrivner, which is really helpful) Then I started labeling the scenes, so I know the main point of each one. Then I could easily edit whichever scenes I wanted, move them around, delete, add, you name it. If I want to just do one scene at a time, I can work on that, and if I want to read an entire chapter as a whole, I can just switch to that view. While editing isn't always fun, it can also be enjoyable, once you sort get a plan and are not just running around completely clueless.
    To everyone out there also editing....KEEP CALM AND EDIT ON!!! You can do this!! It'll make your book SO MUCH BETTER and it's one step closer to a completed manuscript!!
    ~Julian Daventry

    1. I'm so glad you've found something that works for you, Julian! I tried Scrivener and loved lots of things about it, but ultimately switched back to Word. Thank you for sharing!

    2. I was really intimidated by the editing process until I tried with Scrivener! It certainly helps me keep track of things. I don't plan to use it for first drafts, however. Good ol' Word is still perfect for that job!

  4. This is so helpful! I'm glad to hear there's nothing wrong with not editing until you feel like it. I'd been feeling a little guilty for ignoring my finished drafts for so long.

  5. This is incredibly helpful for me. The first (and only) two first drafts I've completed I've stowed away and decided not to edit, and that feels so wrong! I feel as though I haven't actually finished them until I edit them. But this post definitely confirms that I made the right decision in shelving them. Now, let's just hope that when I finish my current first draft, I'll still enjoy the story enough to edit it! :D

    1. Kayla, I hope so too! It took me several completed drafts before I finished one that I felt excited to edit. I'm glad this was such a helpful post!

  6. This is so helpful! For a while, I thought that you had to edit everything you wrote or you weren't a committed writer.

  7. This is so helpful, thank you! I think that my main problem is that when I do my first readthrough when I'm about to start editing my first draft, I start thinking really negative thoughts about the story - that it's stupid, that the plot holes are unmanageable, that it's too complex or too simple or too anything. Thus has happened when I started edits on three or four of my first drafts, and I lose all of my excitement and motivation. Its gotten to the point where I know that if I had the idea for Harry Potter or the Book Thief or some other book that I love, somewhere along the road - whether when I first get the idea, wrote a few chapters, or am about edit the first draft, I would abandon the book because it's stupid. But this post gas helped me - thank you!

    ~ Vera

  8. I love editing. Or so I say. It's always harder than you think it is but it is the most satisfying part of being a writer, I think. To run into problems you've created yourself and figure out a way to fix them. It's worth the fuss, I promise.

    1. I so agree! The satisfaction of turning mediocrity (or complete garbage) into something beautiful is worth all the frustration and effort.

  9. Wow, this post came along at the perfect time. I honestly thought I was the only person in this situation. I've written two drafts of my first novel, but it's clearly in need of another, major revision. I shelved it on the back burner and began drafting my second novel and completed my first draft and I'm mid way through the revisions, but my heart just isn't into it. I'm overwhelmed and don't know what to do next and can't figure out what's wrong with my plot. I keep waivering between returning to book number one and finishing what I originally started and writing something new from page one. And you nailed it when you said that non writers, who've supported us along the way, just don't understand why we don't have a completed, published novel by now ... that they can not only read, but they want to see something tangible in the book store or at least for sale on Amazon. We hate to disappoint them. But, for me anyway, I don't want to go the self pub route and publish a book that I'm not convinced is the absolute best it's ever going to be, just so I can claim to be a published author. My heart is with the first story. But, again, like you said, from the time I began writing it, I've grown so much as a writer and I've learned a massive amount of craft skills, plotting technique, and how to write character arcs and it's clearly reflected from the beginning to the end of the book. It's almost as if two different people wrote the manuscript. The only thing that does stand out is the voice and I've tried hard not to quell or tame my true, authentic voice during revisions and rewrites. Any suggestions on that. It seemed much more visceral and raw with emotion before I learned the craft, skills and rules. Anyway, thanks for this very helpful, informative article. It's spot on - what I'm struggling with now.
    Melissa @
    Sugar Crime Scene - A to Z Challenge

    1. Melissa, thank you for sharing so vulnerably.

      I have SO been in that situation. I had an on-again-off-again relationship with Me, Just Different (my debut novel) for four years. I completely rewrote that book three times. It's so hard to know if what you're doing is moving you forward or not. I get it!

      It's also really, really normal to lose your voice for a bit after you learn writing rules. I experienced it, and I hear that from other writers a lot.

      What finally worked for me was to identify what I loved about Me, Just Different and what wasn't working (I kept getting the same feedback about my main character). Once I figured out those things, I opened a blank Word Doc and started again. I wrote it with the mindset of a first draft, so I still had edits to do, but at the same time it didn't wander all over the place because I was so familiar with the story and the characters.

      Hang in there!