The Editor’s Hat – 11 Tips for Your Second Draft

Your first draft is done.

Wait, it’s not? Then go away and don’t come back until it is. This is not the post you’re looking for.

The rest of you can stay, but only if you promise not to make fun of the people who aren’t finished with their first drafts yet. Because you were like them once. And I still am.

Okay. [I know. There’s no need for “Okay” here. It’s superfluous. I should just get right to the 11 tips. But I’m keeping it. “Okay” is an intentionally overused aspect of my subtly ironic faux-conversational style. What, you thought I didn’t know I overuse it? I do. Also? All this bracketed content would be meaningless without it.]

You wrote a novel. Sure, it probably sucks in its current condition, but so does so much published work, am I right girlfriend?! [For the record, I am not directing this comment solely to my girlfriend. First of all, I don’t have one. Second of all, I don’t have one.]

The good news is that you’re already done with the hardest part: you completed a novel. The bad news is that you still have to do the hardest part: make it good. [Yes, I said “hardest part” twice. On purpose.]

So then, here are 11 tips to help you get there from here.

1. Walk away from the novel. Celebrate the finished first draft with a bucket-sized margarita and then forget about it for a while. At least a week, preferably a few. You will need some time to transition from writer to editor. This transformation is not immediate like the way Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk. Additionally, your rage usually doesn’t come until after the transformation.

2. Put on your editor’s hat. [I mean this figuratively, but some of you probably would do well to interpret it literally. Especially if you haven’t washed your hair since you started writing the novel.]

3. Print out your novel. Or send it to your Kindle or other e-reader device. Reading the work in a different format than the one you used to create it will give you a much-needed fresh perspective.

4. Pretend you just bought this novel with your own hard-earned cash. Read it. Have a pen nearby (and also a notebook if you’re reading it on an e-reader), but don’t plan on making a ton of notes this time through. If you come across something obvious – a big-picture issue or inconsistency or obvious error – go ahead and make a note of it. But mostly, just read the novel.

5. Walk away. Again. [Yes, it’s true. I’m doing this because I don’t think you get enough exercise.] Give the book time to settle into your subconscious. It’s amazing just how much of the stuff you think is fine reveals itself to be not-fine when you’re not actively staring at it. [There might be a psychological explanation for this phenomenon, but I prefer to believe it’s some editorial faerie alchemy at work.]

6. Pick up your red pen (or turn on track changes in Word) and start going through the novel again. This time, mark (or change) everything you see that doesn’t feel right. Look especially for the stuff I’ll be noting in the next four items on this list. [If I were a list purist, I’d include those four items here, since they’re really a sub-point of this particular item. Usually, I’m all about making sure lists are pure in their parallelness. But not this time. I committed to 11 items and this is the only way I’m going to make that number.]

7. Look for redundancy. Also look for things that you repeat. [Predictable? Yes. But you expected that, didn’t you. I’m here to please.] By the way, I don’t just mean repeated words. Those are pretty easy to solve. I’m also talking about repeated ideas. For example, if your protagonist complains about the impertinence of his boss on page nine, we probably don’t need to read about that again on page 18, and 48, and 93. Readers are smart. Once you reveal something, they’re likely to remember. Also, watch for repetition in descriptions. If we learn that Roscoe is a “giant of a man, towering over Lucy like a giant” on page seven, don’t tell us he’s huge the next time he’s in the room. (Unless context demands it.) Also? You probably should work on your similes.

8. Listen to your characters. Sometimes it’s helpful to read through the book focusing solely on one character at a time (especially their dialogue scenes). Yes, this can be time consuming, but it may reveal inconsistencies you wouldn’t otherwise have noted. Also, listen to the things characters aren’t saying on the page. It’s important that the unwritten stuff between one scene and the next is logical and purposeful. For example, is the protagonist’s surprise on page 88 warranted? Or did you reveal so much on page 58 that she wouldn’t even blink when her mother says, “I’m a vampire. And also, I watch Wheel of Fortune every day.”

9. Stop telling me a character’s thoughts about what he’s going to do just before you reveal the same thing through his actions. I know I’ve said this a million [exaggeration] times already on this blog, but this may be the one thing that bugs me most. A good scene doesn’t need the “telling” if the “showing” is well-written. Don’t tell me what Jeremy is pondering every time he’s about to do something. Sure, some pondering is fine – and probably integral in understanding Jeremy. And if your story is more of a telling story, then tell. But most of the time? Just have Jeremy act. We’ll see his intent, we’ll read and understand his motives in both the action itself and the result of that action. When you include both, you make readers feel stupid.

10. Kill your pets. [Please don’t call the ASPCA. I mean this one figuratively. Also, be thankful I didn’t quote the more commonly used “kill your babies.”] You’ve heard this one many times, so I won’t elaborate except to say, those “pets” aren’t just favorite words or phrases, they can also be the way you set up a scene or the way you describe a character or setting. If every character introduction begins with a detailed description of his/her eye color and height and favorite Starbucks drink, it’s time for some serious killing. Of figurative pets. Not literal ones. [Don’t forget to spay or neuter your pets. And hug them often (except goldfish). Especially after spaying or neutering (also, except goldfish).]

11. Be tough on the writer. Notice I didn’t say “be tough on yourself.” The editor’s hat grants you the right to challenge everything the writer put on the page. Don’t hate the writer (that will only lead to more therapy). Just be honest with him/her. If you do find yourself being especially brutal, that may be due to the fact that your first draft was especially sucky. Or it could simply be that your editor’s hat is too tight. [This is how I excuse the excessive red marks on every project I’ve ever received back from an editor. People really should learn their hat size.]

Oh, and when you think you’re finished with the editing, repeat the process. No, I don’t know how many times you’ll need to repeat the process. And yes, it’s possible to overedit your own work. This is where crit partners and professional editorial services come in. [Steve: don’t forget to produce a clever, yet humble commercial touting your own editorial services and then insert the link here. It would really suck if you just left this reminder instead.]

That’s all for today. I’ve got some editing to do.

Now, where did I put my hat…

28 thoughts on “The Editor’s Hat – 11 Tips for Your Second Draft

  1. Hey, I like okay. And hey. And so. So. What do you have to say ’bout that, Stephenerino? And I picture you in either a Fargo winter flaps hat or a late 60’s smack hat.

    And (I like starting sentences with and too because I like being rebellious also) I like your brackets.

  2. So I want to know what your hat looks like. Is it one of those swanky English things like Terry Pratchett (and, alas, my dear old nana) wears? [Wear? Do you count the subject in the brackets too?] Or it is a beret tipped rakishly to one side? Or a beanie that your pretend girlfriend knitted for you and the colours are grotesque but you wear it anyway because you love her? Or a white cowboy hat because you’re one cool American dude? Shall I stop asking questions now so you can either answer them or else roll your eyes and delete this annoying comment?

    PS, my own hat is a dark, triangular scarf tied tightly at the back of my head, because I am a real Russian grandmother to myself when it comes to my writing. (And no, that’s not a nice sweet cheery old lady with lollies. You’ve heard of Baba Yaga?) Stopping now. Really.

    1. I think it would be the beanie that my pretend girlfriend knitted for me. [Because I pretend love her.] But tipped rakishly to one side. [Because I’m a bit of a rebel and ever so slightly more English than American, despite my birthplace.]

      And do you really kidnap children when you write?

      I’m more like Russian nesting dolls when it comes to my writing. I have to remove lots of outer layers before I find the really good words.

      1. Yes, I really do. I kidnap them, lock them together in a small bedroom, and give them sugary food and a heap of uneducational toys to occupy them for at least an hour so I can get a few words down for my webl- I mean my manuscript. Needs must. What I really need is a wife. Then I could get all kinds of real work done.

  3. Thank you for helping me replace the hideous phrase–not to be mentioned hereafter re: babies–with “pets.” Bless you, bless you, bless you. As always, a great read.

    Shhhh, I haven’t written a novel…but I stayed anyway. I learned this trick by sneaking into the drive-in in the trunk of a car. Old habits die hard…like using too many elipses…

    1. Ah, drive-ins. I remember them well. Never snuck into one, though. Maybe because I was always the driver…and I drove a station wagon. (Gotta love hand-me-down cars.) I will admit to overusing ellipses though…because…well…it’s kind of hard to deny that when it’s right there on the page.

  4. my story has a lot of dialogue. most of the stuff inbetween is like scene changes with characters entering etc.. or time changes like “the next day” or “that afternoon”.. it makes for a pretty fast pace. I’m so parinoid of the story “lagging” and the readers “losing intrest” that although I enjoy writing prose, reflection,and descriptively, I am having hard time finding a balance..can you address this?
    thnks!

    1. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right pacing in a story when you’re in the middle of writing it. That nagging “is it lagging?” fear is pernicious. Of course, the opposite problem is just as real – too much action or dialogue strung together can exhaust or annoy the reader.

      Try to write compelling “between” scenes that are more about showing than telling. Use description or reflection only if it moves the story forward or if it helps the reader get to know the characters better. Don’t just put it on the page to create space between dialogue scenes.

      And while a fast pace is a fine thing (if that’s what the story calls for), there’s wisdom in giving the reader a moment to breathe here and there, too. Just try not to bore them.

  5. That was most entertaining! And perfectly timed since I just started my second draft of my first attempt at a novel this week. I’m printing your post out for future reference, okay? Okay. Thanks! :o)

    1. Always glad when a post entertains. That’s my goal. Any educational value in them is purely coincidental.

      Have fun with the second draft. And once you’re done with the printed-out post, be sure to recycle it. I recommend folding it into a party hat. You just can’t go wrong with party hats.

  6. Okay. Thanks. I attempt to reveal more about my main characters little by little just the way we get to know people in real life..when we meet someone we don’t instantly know everything about them..Thanks again

  7. Thank you for this. I’m almost done with the second novel I’ve ever finished and the first one I don’t hate, and even though my aunt has already offered to help me edit, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. Now I have a much better idea!

  8. I’m almost finished my second draft though I’d like to do a little more before sending it off for beta reading.

    Do you know of a program that can show me how many times I’ve used words in my MS, an option to count all words (without counting the joining words and/the/that etc) and give you an idea of what is overused? I’m also interested in a program that can search your writing for common phrases in the english language and pick on up descriptions etc I’ve used more than once.

    Would help with the self-editing me thinks!

    1. I’ve searched for such a program, too, so far to no avail. If I ever find one, I’ll certainly mention it on the site. If you find one first, could you come back and tell us about it? Thanks. Meanwhile, wishing you good editing.

      1. Thanks for the interesting post – very helpful!

        Speaking of helpful, you should try Scrivener. It’s an amazing writing program that, among other awesome things, can show you how many times you’ve used every word in the manuscript.

        Free 30-day trial here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

        I’m not affiliated with or paid by the Scrivener folks in any way; I just love the program. It helped me write my first novel… and hopefully many more to come. :)

        1. I bought Scrivener recently, but haven’t really invested much time in learning it yet. I think I’ll do that with the next novel. In other words: it could be a while. Thanks for the kind words.

  9. I so enjoyed reading this post! I am dreading the second through millionth draft of my yet unfinished novel. Your post really helped me plan the process and inject some much needed comedy into the whole idea! I love sarcasm…

  10. My apologies for posting twice but i just read the previous two posts and Im sure Word has a find feature that can find all instances of a word in the document. I think that may be what your looking for?

  11. Thank you so much, I have recently completed the first draft of my first novel.
    I did do some things you have mentioned ( I found them in “On writing” by Stephen King).
    Entertaining post, okay? :)

  12. I found your blog via Joanna Penn’s 2.0 Blueprint; she is a wonderfully honest person about her experiences as a first time writer back in the day, and…the fact that she used you for an Editorial review says volumes about your abilities, considering her success. That said, I have a first fiction novel finished, along with the second, both need a good going over, I am scared to ask, but is this something I can afford without mortgaging the house and how does this begin? If it doesn’t, I still think your humour about all of it is great and reminds me that I need to laugh more about this stuff since I am pushing an age when things are not as funny as when I was, say, 25. Best regards – Linda

    1. Thanks for the kind words. There’s info about the editorial options/process right here on the blog. Click the “Editorial Services” tab above and you’ll learn all you need to know.

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