Menu Bar

Practical Tips for Editing Your First Draft

Computer with pen and colored sticky notes for editing first draft of novel

When you finally reach the end of your novel’s first draft, one huge weight is lifted from your shoulders – only to be replaced with another.

Because as uplifting as it is to lay down those final few words in a manuscript, doing so also means that the editing phase is waiting just around the corner. There’s no avoiding it, but it is possible to make it a little less of an overwhelming prospect.

So here are a few practical tips to help make editing your first draft a pleasurable experience, instead of a frustrating, table-flipping nightmare.


Print and mark up a physical copy

In the first instance, print your manuscript and sit down for a few solid reads, marking problems that you need to return to. Mark these up in the margins, and highlight the text with a range of highlighters. You could also use different colored sticky notes to organize your thoughts based on a coding system.

Here are a few ideas for labels to use:

  • ADD – Use this when you notice that a scene or plot point requires more detail. Perhaps you’ll need to add more description, a call-back, some extra dialogue, or an entirely new scene.
  • CUT – When you’ve noticed that something has no real reason to be where it is, mark it for cutting. (Yes, this is sadly the most ruthless part of editing!)
  • CONF – Use this to mark points of confusion. Perhaps a block of prose doesn’t parse correctly, and what’s going on in the story isn’t clear. A confused reader is an upset reader, so make sure to mark any points where the prose is confusing.
  • MOVE – Often, you’ll notice scenes that would be better placed elsewhere in the story – for pacing reasons, for example. Make a MOVE mark to remind that this section will need to be relocated.
  • REP – Use this to highlight repetition. Say, for example, if certain characteristics of characters are pointed out too often, or you read a passage and notice you’re using the same word over and over again.
  • FACT – Use this to remind yourself to perform fact checking on real-world references. Details such as dates, professional terms, scientific formulae, and historical events will all need to be carefully checked to ensure you got them right.
  • IMP – Use this to mark a passage for improvement. Maybe it reads well but isn’t quite as impactful as you’d hoped it would be. If so, flag it for a re-write with an IMP marker.

If you come across something that will require more investigation than could take place in a simple margin, note down the details of these in a separate notebook – there, you can keep track of the larger things and mark your progress in resolving problems.

There’s nothing worse than highlighting a passage and then coming back later and wondering what exactly was I thinking when I marked that? To get around that, jot down your thoughts in your notebook as you go – for example, “Pg. 45, CUT – Is this scene telling us anything new?”


Focus on one thing at a time

For your editing to be an efficient and stress-free experience, it’s essential to stay focused. Each time you approach your manuscript with your editor’s hat on, do it with the intention of tackling one particular element.

For example, on one complete pass, look out for filler words that you can eliminate. On the next, focus on dialogue. After that, follow the threads of your character arcs to make sure they’re organic and believable.

You don’t have to do things in that order, of course, but choose one thing to tackle and do that before moving onto the next. This helps in avoiding overwhelm, which can set in very easily once your attention starts jumping all over a page as you highlight this, that, and the other problem – and the next thing you know, you’re stuck in a spiral of procrastination.


Use Beta Readers

When your first editing pass is complete, enlist beta readers to provide you with feedback. Reach out to followers on social media and engage with others in your writing groups – it’s important to ensure that the people you bring on board to help you are not close friends and family.

Those closest to you often feel under pressure to stroke your ego and provide you with only the positive aspects of their thoughts on your work. Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly helpful at a vital time for your manuscript – brutal honesty is what you need, and the more disconnected you are from someone, the more likely it is that you’ll get honesty from them.

Create a questionnaire/feedback form for your readers, and provide it along with the book. Ask them to fill it in and let you know any questions they have that aren’t answered in the story, anything they find confusing, any plot holes they’ve discovered, or questions about character motivations.

Once all your feedback has been received and compiled, you’re ready to move on to draft three!


Take it easy

Remember to give yourself a break. When you reach the milestone of a completed first draft, it’s the result of many, many hours of hard work and sustained mental fortitude.

Be kind to yourself – give yourself some time to wind down and relax. When you start editing, take it at a comfortable pace instead of putting yourself under pressure.

Stepping away from your manuscript for a while will also let you come back to it with fresh eyes and a clearer perspective, making your editing that much more effective.


Use AutoCrit for the line edit

Alright… we just have to squeeze this one in there. Want to avoid drowning in pages and make editing faster, simpler, more efficient, less hand-cramp inducing, and a lot less like work?

Well, when your markup is done, and you’re ready to start all the cutting, shifting, and tweaking, set the pen down and do it with AutoCrit – and enjoy your editing being just as interesting (and as much fun) as the writing.


What kind of approach do you take with your first edit? Do you find it valuable to print your manuscript, or do you stick entirely to digital? Do you have a coding system or some other way to keep track of what you need to change? Share your methods in the comments below!


Join the Discussion on “Practical Tips for Editing Your First Draft”

  1. Jarm says:

    Excellent advice here. . . I’m bookmarking it for future reference. Thanks AutoCrit!

  2. Blossom Saphash says:

    While editing, I just go for it. I don’t usually take it as critical as this, and I find myself making more errors while editing. I’ll be sure to take note of this from now on. Thanks ?

  3. Rachael says:

    Agreed. This is EXACTLY the sort of advice I’ve been looking for–I need a step-by-step “what to do next” guide when it comes to editing, and this is perfect. I found I already had an instinctive attempt at coloring coding (yellow was to highlight scene markers I had an idea for but hadn’t yet written, red was for continuity errors, and blue–well, frankly, blue was just for sentences I’d written that I really liked, the sort I might highlight in someone else’s book if I was reading it on my Kindle–they reminded me that I did have something worth keeping!), but this gives me lots more ideas!

  4. Maureen Ross says:

    This turned up in my inbox and confirmed the way I work:
    The Japanese term Kaizen translates literally to improvement, but it’s a term that has come to mean gradual, continuous improvement of a piece of collaborative work. It’s most commonly associated with manufacturing operations, but I think it has general application to almost everything, including writing. In companies that implement kaizen, workers look continuously for small improvements that can be implemented immediately. The philosophy was developed to adjust the work process from its traditional practices, back when making a new iteration of something was laborious and had to be done all at once. But now that writing can take place digitally, kaizen effectively removes the idea of the draft from the work process. In Kaizen, there’s no need to finish a draft before you can go back to the first sentence and start revising it again. There are no drafts. There is only kaizen. After some duration of continuous work, the piece is done. And that finished piece is the only artifact of all that work.

    Now I have a big bold KAIZEN written on my desktop and above my keyboard. It works for me. I am editing what I hope will be my final draft. Always Kaizen, Grammarly, Hemingway, AutoCrit, print and repeat, more AutoCrit and more AutoCrit – then I will let someone read it if I can find the right person. Until then everyday is Kaizen.

  5. Jennifer Cornell says:

    Awesome advice! I put a timeline up on the wall on cheap wrapping paper with color-coded post-its for each character. That way I can see my whole story and how much each character appears, as well as the overarching points and when they occur. I needed the visual!

  6. I mainly write recipe books for both healthcare institutional use & the public, but have also written technical books – procedures & processes, implementation, diet manuals, & education & training. This system is similar to the one I’ve used for years not realizing it’s a ‘system’, and worth a try. I edit recipe books at least 7 times and carefully read the first proof twice (I’m 100% DIY self publisher so no editor).

  7. Ron Warren says:

    This could not have come at a better time. I finished my manuscript two days ago, and I am starting into the editing part. I am printing this article out and using it. I also like the color coding and sticky notes. It will be used. Thanks for this Article

  8. I loved the practical help on editing with labels! I am finding that it is beneficial to have one more edit pass…the READ ALOUD edit. I am learning over the course of my writing process that, over time, your mind begin to gloss over tiny problems that the read aloud process highlights.

  9. Ian Miller says:

    This is particularly for non-fiction, but may be more general. I think the first cut should be to ensure that everything progresses at an even pace, with more space given to that which is more conceptually difficult. There is nothing worse than belabouring the obvious, then jumping across the difficult. This is not quite the same in fiction, because the difficult might be a clue the author wants to put in e.g. in a mystery) but hopes the reader does not pick it up easily, nevertheless it is important not to slow down the action over the trivial, and tear through the important scenes, which often happens if the author has not developed the skill to write such scenes. Don’t skip them – keep working on them.

  10. Kenna Shaw Reed says:

    I have two drafts I am actively editing Professed Love is 10k and The Intern is 78k. Both were put through AutoCrit and for my first edit run I’ll focus on the following. Because I like editing in Word, I used Find/Replace and turned all ‘was’ into WAS** so it stands out during editing. I did that for all words I need to work on:
    Autocrit – First draft fingerprint: 70.41
    Pacing – half the number of slow paced paragraphs – from 13.23%
    Dialogue – halve my high volumes:
    – Kissed
    – Laughed
    – Commanded
    – Replied

    Common mistakes (Professed Love) The Intern
    Cull a few adverbs
    – ALREADY** (8) 57
    – QUICKLY** (8) 32
    – Especially (6) 15
    – Clearly (5) 23
    – Certainly (4) 17
    – Barely (4)
    – Really (50)
    – Surely (24)

    Cull 147 passive words and from The Intern – 1365
    – WAS** (206) 1797
    – HAD** (116) 927
    – Were (47) 314
    – Have 322

    Showing v Telling – remove at least 8 and from The Intern – 471
    – THERE** (41) 261
    – COULD** (39) 310
    – Know (30) 197
    – Get (21)
    – It 1008

    Generic descriptions – don’t let the reader see
    – GOOD** (18) 114
    – Large (5)
    – Special (4) 29

    Half the sentences start with a name or pronoun (she, he, it). Mix it up to keep the writing fresh. Same with The Intern
    50 sentences start with a ‘ing’ word – be careful of repetitions

  11. Vivian Armstrong says:

    I’ve just finished writing the book. It has taken four years to research many aspects of life in Guiana in 1810 then put it into fiction. I started editing from the end using grammerly. I’m loath to read my book from the beginning but all of AutoCrits advice is really helpful so I’ll try the ideas. Thank you!

  12. Al Rhodes says:

    Maybe I am a little strange but I love editing. When I start getting close to completion of the novel I start the editing process. I don’t start at the beginning of my novel my first edit concentrates on chapters that need working on i.e. too short or I know there is too much telling rather than showing. The editing process normally helps enhance my work and starts to connect some of the chapters that are hanging. It also refreshes my memory making it easy to conclude the story. Sometimes I start editing if I have hit writers block and again it normally gives me the lift I need. Once the novel is complete I then go through it from the beginning and edit it all again. I can edit the same chapter five or six times before I am totally happy. Once I am satisfied I always send it off to an editor for final read through. If they spot something then you have guessed it I will rewrite that section and edit again. It is so important to get the editing right before publishing .

    1. AutoCrit says:

      We’d probably be first to say there’s nothing strange with coming to love editing. It’s where you feel yourself getting better. You’re constantly learning lessons, seeing things with fresh eyes and realizing for yourself why something isn’t working. It’s pure refinement, and if you can appreciate that in yourself, you’ll naturally come to love it. Edit on, Al!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.