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How to improve your first draft (and second draft and 7th)

OK so this post is assuming that you have competed first draft of your book. It is going to take you through the next few steps that you need to take to move your first draft into a better book. ​


Step 1:

Get a hard copy (printed) version of your book in your hands. Yes. Paper.

You are going to print your entire manuscript out (MS), single-sided and get it bound or stapled. Do this at a printer and get them to bind it with a plastic ring binder and put a clear plastic cover on it. Make sure you have page numbers on your MS.

Never do a read-through or edit on your screen - this will NOT work and is a totally different brain process.

Step 2:

Sit down and read your entire book from start to finish ONCE. You need to do this read-through once, and do it thoroughly. There is a limit to how many times you can read your own work. Your single task is to focus on making all the notes that you are going to action over the next few weeks.

Your biggest challenge?

This is going to be to STOP YOURSELF from making ANY of these changes on your typed manuscript. Whatever you do, DO NOT dash to your computer and try and fix any problems until you have read the entire thing and followed all the steps. You will try and fix something in Ch. 3 that may have no relevance to the overall story arc.

What are you doing as you do the read-through?

  1. You are simply making NOTES on the document.

  2. You are reading like an editor and looking at the big picture of the story.

  3. You are looking at things like pace, structure and story flow.

  4. You are noticing character, where the story lags, where there is big plot holes, where you lose the reader.

  5. You are looking at where dialogue is missing, characters are missing, odd things happen, information is missing, backstory is being dumped.​

  6. You are looking for chapters that are irrelevant to the story NOW, or chapters (or second plotlines) you can now add.

  7. Make copious notes all over the manuscript. These can be huge structural changes, copy edits, typo’s, inconsistencies or anything you notice. My notes look something like this “BORING, BORING, BORING this section lags.” “OK remove this entire chapter” “Change this totally!” “Rewrite whole section as dialogue” “Repetition” “Who is this person?!…. No introduction to them at all’ “Move this to the end of the book” “This feels preachy” ‘Red hair! Said it was black earlier’. “SLOW down no clue what is going on.” :Bored here” “All characters sound the same.” “Plot does not make sense.” “Find this guy obnoxious” “There is no drama or conflict”. “Ooooh lovely – more of this kind of pace.” “WTF is going on here…. confused” “Talking heads – anchor in body language.” “Loads of cliché’s here – take them out.”

  8. Keep a series of left-hand side (blank) pages where you keep notes of bigger stuff – general impressions, big mistakes, structural changes and overall mood and pace ideas. Make as many notes as you can and as detailed as you can.

  9. Use different coloured pens for different notes (structure vs. tone). Add post it notes all over. This should end up looking like a very colourful document. Think of yourself as an engineer. You are going in to fix a project so make all the notes you need to do that.

  10. Try and keep all your notes in this single document - don't keep another little notebook.

  11. Be absolutely sure you write everything down as it comes to you. Your notes will go through a series of self-assessments, but note down any impressions, big or small. You can ignore them later.


  • Correct spelling or grammar. That is something you will do at the very, very end of the edit process once you have finished Draft 4 or 7. You grammar fanatics – turn a blind eye now.You will waste your time with that.

  • Sweat the small stuff. Including the above point. You don’t want to suggest new dialogue in your read-through – you simply want to note a bigger change eg “this entire scene interior monologue. Need these facts but rewrite with a 2nd character and make it a dialogue’. So the changes you are looking for are the BIG, STRUCTURAL and story ones.

  • I repeat – do NOT sit down at the screen until you have done this process fully. There is no point in fixing the clear errors you see in Chapter 1 when they will dovetail through the whole story. You may cut out Ch 1 in fact. Rather have an overall plan before you sit down to edit and rewrite sections.

If you had a manuscript appraisal or a beta reader (depending if you are on a mentorship / bootcamp that facilitates that buddy process) you are also going to incorporate possible buddy notes into your rewrite so wait for those. You will notice if you get a MS appraisal that the appraisal is a separate document (not edits on your text). It is high-level and asks you to fix / rewrite at that level. The small stuff we leave till later.

Read. Think. Make notes.

Then edit like a surgeon.

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