Picture this: you’ve typed The End on your manuscript. Maybe you won NaNoWriMo, or you’ve just been working quietly to your own schedule. You want to stand on a mountain top, fling your arms in the air and shout to the world, “Yes, I’m finished!”
Celebrate! It’s a huge achievement. Only a small percentage of the people who long to write a book ever start; a much smaller percentage finish. You have done an extraordinary thing.
But also… you’re not finished. The End is not the end, it’s just the beginning of the adventure.
What you’ve written is a first draft. If you want to write your very best book, there is a lot more work to do before you’re finished.
Because I’m a book editor, I know that some writers submit their first draft to a publisher, possibly without ever re-reading their work. I actually think this is naivety, rather than laziness. People just aren’t aware of the process, and if they are new writers, why would they be?
So here is a brief outline of an effective writing process for you, to help equip you to be the best writer you can be.
Phase 1: The first draft
This is where you just let go, and get the words out of your head and written down.
- Some people work to a structured outline and know exactly where they are heading with each chapter. Others write in a stream-of-consciousness manner, where the book unfolds before them and even surprises them. Either is OK. Non-fiction usually requires an outline before beginning, but even then, some people write it without an outline, and if it works for you, that’s OK.
- Some people re-read and edit each chapter as they go. Others wait till the whole first draft is finished, and then edit the whole manuscript. Either is OK.
- Some people work in big chunks, writing thousands of words in a weekend, and then nothing for weeks. Others write on schedule every day. Either is OK.
Phase 2: Distance
This is where you get away from the book for a while, to allow your mind to recalibrate. Then you can come back and look at your book in a more objective way.
- Time is the best Distance, and the more of it allowed by your deadlines, the better. A day, a week, a month, or even a year.
- If you don’t have the Time luxury, get Distance other ways. Work on something else for a while. Get out and spend time with people. Watch a movie. Anything that can help get your manuscript dislodged from the loops running in your mind.
- Another way to get Distance is to see your manuscript differently — physically differently. Print it out and read it on paper. Convert it to .mobi or .epub through Scrivener or Word and read it on your e-reader. Read it in another room or another building or under a tree or at the beach. Read it aloud. Get your computer to read it to you. Ask another person to read it to you. Read it aloud yourself and record it on your phone, then listen to it while you’re sitting on the train or cooking dinner or flea-combing the cat.
Phase 3: Self-editing and rewriting
This is where you roll up your sleeves and get stuck into the renovations. It’s a big stage. Allow several weeks for it, if you can. Longer if possible.
Big Picture issues
- Are the themes working? What is the one big message of your book? How do the sub-themes relate to it?
- Is it tightly written, where every word carries meaning and builds the picture? Or is it full of waffle that needs to be pared down?
- Is there enough description to create vivid images in a reader’s mind? Is it groaning under the weight of too much description?
- If it’s fiction, are the characters plausible? Are there holes in the plot, or anything you’ve hinted at early and then forgotten to tie up?
- If it’s how-to, are the instructions meaningful for a beginner? Do the steps come in the right order? Does it have real-life illustrations? Is it inspiring and encouraging as well as informative?
- If it’s memoir, is it engaging? Will anyone care what you did, and why? How have you made it relevant to the reader’s life, and the hopes, fears and passions of the reader? (Check out my article on How to write a memoir that people actually want to read.)
- Is your spelling and punctuation correct and consistent?
- Do the sentences flow from one paragraph to the next, linking the thoughts, building on ideas, and leading the reader through?
- Are your paragraphs divided according to nuggets of meaning, or do they just break haphazardly?
- If you can’t tell if you’ve got the technical stuff right, that’s OK, some of the best storytellers need help with this. Who could you ask? Could you join a writers group or do a course in writing and grammar at the local community college or online?
- Could you read a book about it? There are lots of books to improve the technical side of your writing. A favourite of mine is My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?). It takes a dry old subject and makes it understandable and even fun. You can check it out on Amazon or Book Depository.
Phase 4: Feedback and critique
*Note: Some people do this as Phase 3, before the big rewrite, and that’s fine if it works for you… although I have found over years of trial and error that it’s more powerful to rewrite BEFORE feedback if you possibly can.
This is where you ask other people to read your manuscript, and give you useful feedback. You are so close to your book by now, that you can’t see the proverbial wood for the trees. You can probably recite it in your sleep! You need someone with more Distance than you, preferably someone who has never even read your book before.
I’ve written a series of articles about writing feedback. Start with this one: What is a beta reader and why do I need one?
To get that information (and much more) in a more convenient package, try Use the Power of Feedback to Write a Better Book. It’s about how to find “beta readers”, get the right kind of feedback, and then how to apply it to your manuscript — which (spoiler alert!) does NOT mean doing everything your beta readers tell you to do.
I also have a section of this website devoted completely to writing feedback. Check it out for useful instant downloads and other articles and resources.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m a fan of writing feedback. That’s because I’ve seen the power of it, up close. My approach is based on 20+ years as a developmental and structural book editor, and tweaking the feedback process while writing my own books. (Traditionally published since 2000, self-published since 2014 — different processes, but they also have similarities…)
Don’t leave the feedback phase to the last minute, if you can help it. Expect several more weeks of work after you receive the feedback reports!
Phase 5: Re-edit and rewrite
This is where you respond to the comments and suggestions of your beta readers, the people who have read your manuscript and provided a critique.
Some feedback will be minor. I’d put these in the “minor” category:
- Character names that are confusing and need to be changed (that’s what Find/Replace is for!)
- Occasional grammar and spelling glitches that you need to watch out for
- Minor corrections and suggestions for the flow or meaning of small sections of the book
- In a novel, loose ends that you have forgotten to tie up.
Some might be larger:
- Consistent and widespread problems with basic writing technique
- In a novel, viewpoint problems which means you are “head-hopping” between 20 characters in every scene
- In non-fiction, consistent and widespread problems conveying information in an accurate and understandable way.
All of them are fixable. If you love your book, take a deep breath and dive in.
Being a writer is a continual learning curve throughout your life. My own beta readers have identified several things I needed to work on in my manuscripts, and some of them were major. I took a moment to recoup and eat comfort food, and then got on with the renovations. You can do it too.
Phase 6: Completion
The shape of this phase will vary depending on your publishing path.
- You may seek further feedback after you have done all your rewriting, to check how well your solutions have worked. Another self-edit would follow that further feedback, hopefully smaller than the previous self-edits!
- If you are self-publishing, you will probably seek a professional edit and proofread, before publishing. (Yes, these are different stages to the feedback you get from beta readers.) Sometimes the professional editor will suggest something else you will want to change, and so a little more self-editing or rewriting will follow.
- If you are submitting to a publisher, they may ask for still more changes. Feel free to feel sad for a day, eat your comfort food of choice and then… soldier on!
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: If your book is needing a lot of re-editing and rewriting as you receive feedback, you might start to feel like you are a hopeless writer and should give up. That’s normal. We all feel like that. But it isn’t true. It’s often like a wrestling match for even the best writers. As your book is being refined you are learning new skills, and developing into a better writer. Better and better and better. Persevere!
Where are you up to in the process of writing your book? Have you finished the first draft, or are you somewhere else along the journey? I love to hear your news. Scroll down and leave a comment!
An earlier version of this article was published in 2013.