Editing Your First Draft: How To


Time For Editing

In an earlier post, I wrote about the anxiety that can accompany writing and how you can overcome it with some simple steps designed to jump start your drafting. In this post, I’ll tell you how to get from the first draft to the finish line. The key to this: editing.

So you’ve got a first draft. Congratulations. A first draft, no matter how rough, is cause for a minor celebration (coffee, maybe, not Cristal). A break helps you make the mental transition from writing mode to editing mode.

Editing is how you get your rough draft to the finish line. Your mileage will vary here, but I’d say a typical first draft is somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of the total effort required to make something publication-ready, blog-worthy, or boss-approved.

Editing does not mean using the spell check or grammar check functions in Word. Proper editing involves restructuring, rethinking, rewriting, and reworking – all of which require critical taste and judgment – followed by some rigorous copy-editing. It’s intellectually challenging and creatively stimulating, but comfort yourself with this thought: The heavy lifting of your first draft is done.

Step 1: Climb the Mountain

Editing does not begin with polishing words. It begins with structure. You want to climb the mountain and get the big picture view. So start by reading through the piece as a whole without making any changes whatsoever.

This is harder than it sounds. I usually can’t resist the temptation to rework something on this first editing pass, but it’s better when you don’t. Your soul goal now is to determine if your piece is structurally sound – with the right flow and level of detail – before you dive into the details and polishing. Are the pieces you’ve assembled in roughly the right order? Are there obvious holes in terms of content or transition? Does the piece mirror your expectations in terms of content and length?

It’s useful to remind yourself of the broad-brush goals you outlined before you started on Draft 1:

What am I trying to do with this piece?

What do I want the reader to do or feel?

What’s the best vehicle for accomplishing this?

If you’re lucky, you’ll still feel that your original answers are largely correct. But even the last question, about the structure or genre of your project, may need revising in light of what you’ve written.

Think of your piece as a series of steppingstones that can take a reader across a river without getting wet. The reader can get from A to B to C, but not from from A to C in one jump. So you make decisions, informed by the whole of the piece:

This paragraph doesn’t go here.

This section needs to be higher in the document.

This chunk really isn’t that relevant to this project.

So you move things around to get the structure right. There’s no need yet to make the transitions fluid. When this step is completed, you’ll have a new rough draft – and it’s possibly even rougher now than when you completed your first draft.

This is not a sign of failure.

Au contraire: A better, rougher draft is the definition of progress. And now you can edit to make those rough edges smooth; to make it flow.

Step 2: Make it Flow

What is the essence of writing? One word leading to the next. One sentence leading to another. One paragraph leading to another paragraph and so on.

Writing is about flow that creates the illusion of connectedness.

When you edit for structure – when you are moving ideas, paragraphs, or whole sections – you are changing the flow of your piece. When you edit for style – when you edit line by line and word by word – you are improving the flow.

You must start at the beginning of your document to “make it flow.” Your lead is, by definition, steppingstone #1, and it’s essential to establish a firm launching point to ensure your reader can get from the first stone to the second in the journey across the river. Too big a gap, and the reader could lose your train of thought. Too small a gap, and the reader could get bored.

You improve flow by bridging thoughts and ideas with the connective tissue that will enable the reader to discern your meaning. This means adding sentences (or subtracting ones), or linking clauses with “ands” or “buts” or punctuation (the colon is your friend).

Make it clearer. Simplicity and clarity are always worth pursuing when it comes to writing. You can get away with being difficult if you’re writing a novel; you can’t if you’re writing for a company or an institution or your own blog.

Here’s where rewriting is such a critical component of editing: If you encounter a difficult, opaque sentence or paragraph in your draft, your very first response should be to rewrite it. Don’t even bother trying to fix it, because most problem sentences are doomed. Start anew.

It’s easier to rewrite something than to fix it. Your thinking during the rewriting phase will be more refined. And writing something a second, third, or fourth time almost always makes it more fluid, more clear, and more succinct.

I rewrite like this: I skip a line and just start retyping the sentence or paragraph again. If the problem is density and opacity, I’ll unpack the ideas into their simplest components, making each idea into its own sentence. Then I rewrite. It feels like alchemy sometimes. All I’ve done is rewrite something, often without much more thought than “this needs clarity.” But it works. Don’t fix. Just do it again.

In fact, if you really want to be a writer, try this sometime: Write the first draft of whatever you need to write and trash the document. Start over completely. Your new first draft will take far less time than your actual first draft, and the product will be substantially better.

Make it more powerful: When you are in this stage of editing, you should always be looking to mine the rhetorical power of your prose. Ask yourself:

Is this expressed strongly enough?

Will the reader grasp its importance?

Have I missed an opportunity to strengthen or add insight?

The search for power is always helped by rewriting. Try saying the same exact thought in a different way, with a different structure or using a different example. You’ll nearly always have a sense of which is better. Rewriting for power is a mental muscle that responds well to exercise, and you’ll also discover that your original drafts get more powerful as you gain experience.

You might need to “rinse and repeat” with this stage of editing one or more times. If you get stuck, just take a break and start at the top. Progress begets progress. Engagement generates benefits. Writing is iterative.

Step 3: Get Into the Weeds

At some point, either because you believe fervently your draft is ready, or because someone is very eager to see it, or because you can’t bear to spend one more second with it, your work is still not quite done. You need to copy edit and proofread your project. This is getting into the weeds, but it is essential for anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a writer.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a copy editor and perhaps even a proofreader to help you with this step. But even so, that doesn’t preclude your needing to understand how to perform these tasks. Done well, copy editing and proofreading add professionalism to any document, and reflect well on the creator of that document.

If you doubt this for more than a second, wait until you give a boss or (worse) a client a 10-page document that you’ve slaved on for a week only to hear, “You misspelled ‘its’ on page three.” Ten solid pages, a couple of thousand well-chosen words, and many hours of your working life have just been reduced to a missing apostrophe. You will make mistakes in writing, of course, as in life, but avoiding these kind of trivial mistakes should be a no-brainer, particularly when the stakes are even the least bit high.

It’s beyond the scope of this piece to provide a complete guide to copy editing, but you are looking for:

The right words (particularly the ones spellcheck won’t flag)

Correct punctuation

Proper references to titles, company names, and organizational nomenclature

Thoughtful attention to language that might be offensive to some readers

Of course, you may not be a natural copy editor, especially if your writing experience is limited. So start making yourself one (this skill is always welcome in any setting). If you are the least bit unsure of something, flag it and look it up. If you make mistakes repeatedly, keep a file that contains them so you will know to look for them and you’ll start learning how not to make them. (If it’s v. its is your personal bugaboo, then search your document for both before submitting it to your boss or client.) Better yet, start your own personal style guide.

But all this effort is worth it because – at last! – you have a first draft. Off it goes, and then, about 9:30 p.m., you get pinged:

This is perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.

This. Never. Happens.

But that’s OK. If you hear back, “Good first draft. We can work with this,” you’ve nailed it. Next we’ll talk about how to deal with comments, criticism, and changes.

Emotive Brand is a brand strategy firm.

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