Your manuscript is complete. Awesome! I hope you celebrated. Depending on who you are, you either want to shove that manuscript away and never look at it again, publish it immediately, or start editing right now. If you’re the “publish immediately” person, slow down. Even if you edited in the midst of writing, I promise you’ve still got work to do! So close that KDP tab on your internet browser, stop uploading your book, and let’s take a moment to breathe and get our red pens ready.
Whatever you’re feeling, give your manuscript some time to sit. Get away for it for a few days or a week or even a month and just don’t look at it. Take this time to relax and read some good books. You’ve earned it, after all! But this time isn’t just for you; it’s for your book, as well. By giving it some time to breathe, you’ll be able to come back with fresh eyes and a fresh brain and look at it from a different perspective than when you wrote it.
Now it’s time to do a read through of your novel. Whether that’s on your computer, tablet, or with a physical copy, you’re going to be reading through this entire first draft, so choose wisely. Don’t edit anything. That’s for later. Grab a notebook or something else into which you can jot your thoughts. Even if you plan on writing in the margins, you’re going to want some separate paper to write big issues down on so you can focus on them later.
As you read, don’t both with grammar and spelling. Seriously. You’re going to end up rewriting large chunks of this thing, maybe even entire chapters, so putting your effort into that is going to distract you from what you need to focus on: your plot and your characters. As you read, write down any problems you see, possible solutions to them, and also take note of what’s working really well in your story.
You should also seriously consider reading your manuscript aloud. Yeah, you might sound like a dork, but it’s going to let you find some awkward spots you would have otherwise missed. So suck it up and do it.
Take a moment to outline what you have.
Now, outline what you want the story to be since you’ve given the whole thing a quick read through. We as writers have a bad habit of changing our minds about plot points and characters in the middle of a story, which can mean that we thought we were going straight from A to B, but we ended up going from A to D to E to C flashback to A and then we got to B, with only one person missing a limb. It’s important to write down at least a general idea of where you wanna go with your second draft, especially if you’re editing or adding plot points to keep it cohesive.
Now that you’re ready to start hacking and sawing at your MS, create a new file for your story where you can do all the dirty work. You might think that those three paragraphs are trash, but if you delete it in your original MS and then later come to find out you actually wanted those, you’re gonna be SOL. So hoard your words, new and old, and maybe invest in the “Track Changes” feature on Word.
When you go through your story, you need to be brutal. You can’t think about this as your baby anymore. From now on, this is a skinwalker who ate your baby and is trying to trick you into caring for it and keeping it safe so it can feed off your insecurity and wandering mind. You need to take a steel machete to that hulking monster, hacking off limbs and tentacles wherever it’s necessary. You might need to get rid of that secondary character you really loved and combine her with someone else because she doesn’t really fit into the story. Does it hurt? Tough. You’ve just gotta suck it up and keep going. That chapter you adore but serves no purpose to move the plot forward? Chop its head off. No one said being a writer was fun.
Check your pacing and ensure there is appropriate build up to the end. Speaking of ends, take a hard look at your ending and see if it’s your stories real ending. If it’s not, that’s going to be Hell for readers. Finding the true ending will help you further develop your characters and plot, as well. Same goes for beginnings. So tinker around with openings and endings until you find the best one.
Hunt down plot holes and inconsistencies and address them immediately. Unless you meant for there to be a loop hole, you don’t ever want a reader asking, “Well, why didn’t Timmy just use the jetpack his father gave him four chapters ago to get out of the well?”
Ugh. Here comes the toughest part, at least in my opinion. When you go through your MS, you’re probably going to notice some big problems with your main characters. Most notably that they’re either boring, under developed, or overpowered. Now that you’re editing, you get the fun task of breaking your characters open, rooting around in their gooey bits, and learning how to make them more interesting, exciting people. Give them flaws, quirks, hobbies – anything to make them more alive – and don’t be afraid to take away some of their powers.
You should really focus on their character arcs. That’s what will tell you the most about them, because you’ll be forced to recognize if your character is actually going through some development over the course of the novel. Let me use Castiel from Supernatural as an example for this. When Castiel is introduced, he’s a no-nonsense angel with a bit of a soft spot for humanity. However, he is above all else a soldier. Over two seasons (4 and 5), his character arc has him evolve from Soldier of God to Rebellious Angel to Savior of Humanity. His arc is well-written over the two seasons and the trail of events that gets him between the three states is obvious, consistent, and makes sense.
Another problem we tend to notice with our characters is that they inexplicably know the solution to every roadblock they come across in the story, or figure it out unreasonably quickly. Let them struggle. Make them ask for help, and see where that can take your story. Not only will it bump up your word count (assuming you need it), it will also make them more interesting as readers see how the characters deal with stress.
There are other strategies for revising these initial issues, but feel free to use this as a loose guide as you’re going through your manuscript.
Here are some more resources for you guys to check out:
What is Editing? – Good exercise for searching your work for plot holes and plot coherency.