always surprised when an aspiring writer finishes a draft, runs it through spell check, and then sends it out. I’m not surprised when the writer gets a rejection.
Revision is as vital as the original writing. You write the first draft as a process of discovery—even if you’ve got a detailed outline. There’s a reason it’s called “re-vision.” You’re considering another “vision” of the piece. The first draft is about passion and creativity and flow. The edits (because in most cases, at least until you’ve got a list of bestselling books under your belt, there will be more than one) give you the chance to work on structure, language usage, layer in settings and senses, and make the difference between a decent manuscript and a great one.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a layered editing process that’s served me well for short stories, plays, novellas, and novels. It’s also served my students well (students who want it badly enough and survive my difficult classes tend to have a high rate of publication).
Now, I’m going to share the process with you. These steps are done after your initial draft, but before you show anything to a Trusted Reader.
“It is important to reread your draft objectively, as though someone else wrote it.”
Step 1: Objective Reading, Taking Notes
It is important to reread your draft objectively, as though someone else wrote it. The only way you can do that is to put your draft away between the time you finish it and the first round of edits. If you finish the draft and immediately start editing, you won’t catch the details—you’re still too close, and the brain will automatically switch to what you thought you meant, not what’s actually on the page.
I like to put a novel aside for two weeks (if I’m on a tight deadline) to two months (ideal) after the draft, before the first revision. Short stories and plays are put aside for two days to two weeks and novellas for about a week or two. Sometimes, I have to compress my process, if I haven’t gotten the first draft out fast enough, and my deadlines are looming.
During that time, I reread Strunk & White’s Elements of Style from cover to cover. It takes approximately ninety minutes and saves me hours of editing time. I’m always surprised by how much I’ve either forgotten or misremembered.
Once the draft has rested, I sit down for an undisturbed period of time and read a hard copy straight through in one or two sittings. It doesn’t work if you read it in dribs and drabs over a week. It has to be done as close to straight through as possible.
At that time, I take notes, as though I was reading someone else’s work and reviewing, editing, or mentoring it. I make copy editing and minor corrections in red ink, on the draft, and more general notes on a separate sheet. Doing this on a hard copy rather than the screen is very important. You won’t catch errors as accurately on screen. Spell check and/or grammar check will not catch them either. You must know. It is part of your job as a writer to be fluent in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and structure.
“The multi-colored draft opened our eyes to a rainbow of colorful writing. I learned how whiskey while writing equals more rainbow.” ~ Killion Slade
Step 2: The Multi-Colored Draft
A day or two after you do the initial read-through, you take your hard copy draft and sit down again. This time, you have three colored highlighters with you. You will designate colors for the following:
Color A = passive/past perfect (Ex: The victim was shot by the cop.)
Color B = adverb (Ex: hurriedly, quickly, wrong, fast)
Color C = qualifier (Ex: very, quite, somewhat, more, less)
Read through the draft again, in one or two sittings, using these colors to mark each type of language use. For your own purposes, keep track, at the end of each chapter, how many of each type of color you have and the totals for the whole book. This is useful to track your progress from book to book and figure out where you overuse particular types of words and phrases.
Put this aside; we’ll use it in the in-depth edits.
This exercise meets initially with resistance, but it turns out to be a student favorite. Diana Holdsworth says, “I am a much stronger writer because of the multi-colored draft exercise. Having to hunt through three hundred pages for passive voice, adverbs, and qualifiers, I came face-to-face with the number of times these villains show up in my writing. The lesson stuck. I’m always on guard for these beasts. By writing several drafts to set my story and then add layering, I can grow my novel in a holistic fashion and save time.”
And Killion Slade adds, “The multi-colored draft opened our eyes to a rainbow of colorful writing. I learned how whiskey while writing equals more rainbow. Seriously, after highlighting an entire novel, we have since learned to draft our writing without the use of qualifiers, adverbs, and passive [voice] as much as possible. This exercise alone improved my business writing, as well as editing content submissions from my staff writers. Get out your blues, pinks, and yellows, baby—you’ll never regret you did.”
“Every scene has to have a specific purpose in the overall plot and story, or it needs to be cut.”
Step 3: The Character and Scene Purpose Sheets
The character and scene purpose sheets are pages you create to provide an overview of each of your characters and story scenes. These can be done simultaneously.
The character purpose sheet is simple. As you read the draft again, you list every character—even walk-throughs and characters that are little more than scenery—and list the purpose of the character in the overall book. The protagonist’s best friend’s purpose can be twofold, for instance: a confidant for the protagonist, but also a driving force in one of the subplots, forcing the protagonist to make a difficult choice near the climactic sequence. If you are building a series, the character purpose sheet will help you enhance and refine the ensemble for your series and is a great foundational building block for your series bible.
The scene purpose sheet is a little more complex. For the scene purpose sheet, it is vital that you understand the difference between a scene and a sequence. Far too many authors dilute the power of what should be a focused scene by the aimless wandering that turns it into a deflated sequence. If you don’t know the difference, the scene purpose sheet won’t do you any good. If you know the difference, it is one of the best tools you can have in your edit.
Beats build scenes. Scenes build sequences. Sequences build chapters, which drive both the plot and the story, including character arcs. Every scene has to have a specific purpose in the overall plot and story, or it needs to be cut. To create the scene purpose sheet, for each scene in your story, you list it; write a key phrase describing the scene (if you can’t distill it into a short phrase, you don’t know the scene well enough yet, or you don’t need it); the purpose of the scene; each character in the scene; and each character’s desire, resistance or conflict, and result (even if it does not resolve the desire or conflict).
Mini-scenes/bridges and their purposes are also listed. At the end of each scene, you do a summary sentence, which helps you decide whether or not to keep the scene.
D = desire
C = conflict
R = result
For instance, in the first draft of my novel Heart Snatcher, the first few scenes of chapter two look like this:
Example of Scene Purpose Sheet
Scene—interior detective squad room, NYPD
Purpose—catalyst for Max, introduce cops and squad setting, murders
Max Olsen: D=time off after undercover op complete C=needed for the new murders R=agrees to talk to Grace Kent
Joe Ruiz: D=give Max a hard time C=Max can give as good as he gets R=glad to have Max back from assignment
Philip Keneally: D=protect Max from news of Morton’s death C=not supposed to keep information from his partner R=Max not happy about it, but understands
Frank Torrance: D=solve the murders before anyone else is killed C=low manpower R=Max and Philip step up, as usual.
Derek Iolucci: D=not to lose his lunch due to grisly crime scene C=gruesome possibilities R=relief that Max steps in
Ria Boston: D=help Grace C=Grace’s story doesn’t make sense R=Max will see what he can get out of Grace.
This scene is necessary to set up relationships, subplots, and serve as Max’s catalyst.
Possibly could use some internal cuts. Need to add Beau Hansen, minor antagonist, to this scene.
Mini-scene/transition: Max getting a glass of water for Grace
Purpose: Give Max time to plan approach. Get Max logically from one place to another.
Max: D=buy time, think about how he’ll approach questions C=lack of time R=continues into room
Gets him from the squad room to the interrogation room in a couple of sentences. Works better than a jump cut in this instance.
Scene—Max and Ria question Grace
Purpose—learning about the murder and getting a sketch of the harpy
Max: D=find out what Grace really saw C=Grace’s story is unbelievable R=Max gives her the benefit of the doubt.
Ria: D=help Grace C=Grace’s story is unbelievable R=escorts Grace downstairs to her roommates
Grace: D=have someone believe her C=what she saw doesn’t make sense, even to her R=relief that she wasn’t called crazy
Scene sets up dynamic between Max, Ria, Grace; reveals aspects of all three characters; and shows Max willing to look at all angles, even unusual ones.
I do this for the entire book.
Step 4: Physical Rearrangement
Taking your general notes from the first pass and your scene purpose sheets, now is the time to take the draft and set it out on the floor, with yourself in the center. Either set out each individual chapter, or if you have a lot of jump cuts within a chapter, each section. Using your notes, see if you need to rearrange any sections of the book, and make sure you keep careful tracking notes of how you do this. This will not work on a screen. It must be done in hard copy.
Step 5: The Chapter-by-Chapter Layered Edit
Now, you have assembled the general notes, the multi-colored draft, your character purpose sheets, your scene purpose sheets, and your rearranged manuscript. You’re ready to edit.
Start at the beginning, and work your way through the book, referring to your various notes as you do so. I like to work in batches of three to five chapters at a time, so that it doesn’t feel too choppy.
Work through your draft, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene. Does every scene adhere to the internal logic of your fictional world? If not, does the detour make sense?
As you hit the words or phrases you highlighted earlier, re-read the sentence out loud without those highlighted words. Is there a better, more active way to say what those words or phrases said? What can you cut? Is there anything you highlighted that you miss and can’t live without? If that’s the case, put it back in, but investigate the other possibilities first.
Is your setting vivid? Do we, as readers, understand both the physical and emotional geography? If you’re using a real place, is the description accurate and in context with other recognizable landmarks? If the reader can’t trust you on the placement of Central Park in New York City, the reader won’t trust you on anything else either.
Are you making full use of sensory detail? Do we know the textures, the smells, the sounds, the look, the taste? Does a character’s intuition ever kick in (especially if we’re in that character’s POV, point of view)?
Are the POVs strong and clear? Have you avoided head hopping? Are your transitions smooth? Are your characters’ cadences consistent? Are your tags clear? Do we always know who is speaking and why? Have you married words and actions, only using single-sentence paragraphs carefully to build tension, or are you giving us a laundry list of single-sentence paragraphs that merely give us a headache, and we have to backtrack to figure out who is speaking and what is going on?
Are you using specific language? Have you avoided the dreaded “setup sentence” at the beginning of a scene or a chapter that tells the reader what the scene is about, instead of integrating the information in the scene and showing us? Do the characters grow and change? Are they three-dimensional human beings instead of ciphers?
Are you consistent in spelling character names, places, and other proper names? Have you checked that you’ve spelled well-known names or pop culture references correctly?
Have you found plot-hole potholes? How have you filled them? Have you found scenes you want/need to cut? Have you found sections that don’t work, and you had to rip them out and rework them entirely?
Have you discovered tangents, pulled them out, and set them aside for use in other pieces down the line? This often happens with supporting characters that catch our fancy. Their tangents can be cut and used in other pieces, where they can serve as protagonists. Or sometimes, at this stage, you find that the individual you thought was the primary protagonist is actually a supporting character, and one of the supporting characters is actually the protagonist.
This stage is where you get to dismantle and rebuild your book. In the ideal situation, it takes four to six weeks; although depending on your publishing schedule, it might need to take less time (if contracted) or more time (if uncontracted).
Put it aside again for two to three days.
“Now is the time to be ruthless.”
Step 6: Cutting
Once the reassembled draft has rested for a few days, I go over it again, wielding the red machete, and I cut. I’m thrilled and delighted by the layers I added into my story, the sensory detail, the setting, and all the rest.
Now is the time to be ruthless. If you fully explore every sensory and setting detail in every scene, the book will bog down. You need to pick and choose only those that serve that particular scene and that scene’s purpose in the overall book. You want it rich, but not overdone.
Read through the draft again, making those cuts.
Step 7: Trusted Readers
Once you’ve made your cuts, you reassemble the next draft and proofread it for spelling and punctuation errors. This is the draft you give to your Trusted Readers for comment. By now, you are thoroughly sick of the book and can’t look at it any more.
While your readers take their two weeks to read and comment on your manuscript, you clear your palate by working on something else. Do not even look at this manuscript while it is out with readers; you start second guessing yourself and driving yourself crazy.
This is a good time to work on something short and sweet and completely different or research markets.
Step 8: Post-Reader Draft
Once you get comments back from your readers, read through them and put them away for three days. The first time you read them, you will focus on the negative and not notice the positive; and you will read some of the positives as negatives.
Thank your readers for their time and attention, whether or not you intend to incorporate the notes. Do not get snippy or defensive.
After three days, you will have some distance. Reread the notes. Decide what serves your vision and what does not. Use what serves your vision; don’t use what doesn’t. Don’t give it to too many people or rewrite it in-between each individual’s comments to suit them. Send it out once to a finite group of people, and decide what serves your vision from there. Until you are contracted and paid to write to someone else’s specific vision, you are under no obligation to incorporate her notes.
As complicated as this method seems, it works. Says KT Wagner, “The revision stage of writing a novel is overwhelming, especially for those of us working on our first novels. Devon’s approach helped me navigate the path up and over that seemingly insurmountable mountain. I am very happy with the result.”
“Unfinished projects drain creative energy.”
This draft is the one that gets you closer to the draft you will use to create your submission packet materials and query letters—it may even be the one that does! Either way, it is an important next step.
The post-reader draft may be the one you submit; or perhaps, it will need to sit for a few weeks before you take another look. In any case, it is important to work through drafts and finish them, even if you create a temporary ending and put it aside for a few weeks or months. Unfinished projects drain creative energy. Finish what you start; and eventually, you’ll have a body of solid, submittable work.
Devon Ellington is a full-time writer, who publishes under a half dozen names in both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches writing all over the world. Her Jain Lazarus Adventures are handled by Solstice Publishing; and her romantic suspense novel, Assumption of Right (as Annabel Aidan), is out with Champagne Books. “Sea Diamond,” featuring Fiona Steele, is included in the Death Sparkles Anthology, released in fall 2012. She’s published hundreds of stories, articles, speeches, and scripts throughout her career. Visit her blog on the writing life, Ink in My Coffee,
and her website.
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