First Draft Finished. Now What? The Difference Between Revising and Editing.

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You’ve invested in yourself as a writer. You’ve carved out the time to write, you’ve made it through the blocks, and you’ve set boundaries with people in your life (including yourself). You’ve come to view yourself as a writer, and you have a stack of pages in front of you: your completed first draft. Now what?

Finishing the first draft of a book is a glorious feeling, and after accomplishing this feat, many people aren’t sure what to do next. They think the writing process is behind them because they’ve churned out a draft. The next seemingly logical step is editing, which, in most people’s minds is fine-tuning and polishing, a more late-stage level of editing. Jumping from first draft completion to this stage of editing means missing some very important steps.

Sometimes people confuse revising with editing. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “The only real writing is rewriting.”

Rewriting and revision work hand-in-hand and need your attention
—in stages—
BEFORE you get to the editing.

To create a foundational understanding, for now, think of revision as rewriting: big-picture, broad brushstroke changes to the manuscript. Think of editing as fine-tuning. (Note: There is an early stage of editing called Developmental Editing, which is also about big-picture changes. No wonder it gets confusing! Keep reading…)

If you have a first draft manuscript in hand, here are my recommendations about how to move forward.


Do something special. Buy yourself a few of those titles waiting on your reading list. Eat some high-end chocolate. Take yourself on a date or go out with your friends or your significant other and have a fancy cocktail or a glass of very fine wine. Take a day trip or a weekend trip to your favorite spot to relax and rejuvenate. Honor your accomplishment. This will satisfy the part of your brain that responds to reward and it will help you move to the next important step.

Forget about the book. For now.

You’ve put your brain and your discipline through a gauntlet, so give them a break. Read (unless that makes you think of your own book). Binge watch a TV show you put on hold so you could finish your book. Daydream. Meditate. Bake. Draw. Paint. Crochet. Build model cars. Make candles. Walk around your neighborhood and snap photos. Clean house. Catch up on filing. Whatever it takes to give your brain a break from thinking about the book. This will “scrub” your brain, in a way, so you can come back to your draft with a fresh perspective when it’s time to edit and revise. Give this stage at least two weeks.

Discern the difference between revising and editing.

As Amy Lowell writes in her book, John Keats, “Revising is the act of improving what has been unconsciously done.”

So, what does that mean?

The first draft of your book is like throwing clay onto a potter’s wheel. There’s likely some kind of structure and organization going on, but the goal of the first draft is to get all the parts and pieces of the story or idea onto the page so you know what you have to work with. Terry Pratchett says, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

After you’ve told yourself the story, after you’ve stepped inside the subjective milieu of your story world and the minds of the characters within it, it’s time to step outside and take a more objective view of your manuscript (and why #2 is so important).

It’s time to revise and rewrite.

Revising/rewriting is about cutting sections (killing your darlings), adding sections (achieving clarity and filling in gaps), and moving things around (creating a smooth flow between all the story’s parts, all the book’s sections).

Think top-down. Think hierarchy. Think structure to scene to syntax. This will mean reading your manuscript a few times to address each level of the process. (Details about this in #4 below.) Trying to do it all at once will create frustration and overwhelm.

Complete your own developmental edit

You could take your first draft to a professional editor, but the more polished you can make your manuscript, the better. Not only will you probably get better, more in-depth, feedback, you’ll probably also save yourself some money. (The ability to focus on a clean manuscript allows for more precise reading and commenting. A clean draft could also take an editor less time.)

The development edit is an aerial view of your manuscript. I recommend doing your developmental edit in stages.

Read through your manuscript, paying attention to the following. (You may want to parse these out and focus on only one at a time to avoid confusion and overwhelm.)

  • Structure – Does the structure of the manuscript provide readers with the proper framework to take in the story or information provided?
  • Organization – Are the parts of the manuscript presented in an order that offer a clear unfolding of the story or information?
  • Gaps in plot and storytelling – Are the reasons for the behaviors and actions of the characters, especially the protagonist, clear to readers? Does the protagonist’s deepest desire inform the plot and story?
  • Story arc – Does the story take readers through a natural progression of beginning / middle / end and show a resolution of some kind?
  • Character development – Do the characters have a synchronous relationship with the story arc? That is, do they help drive it and, in turn, are they influenced by it? Do they, especially the protagonist, experience a transformation of some kind?
  • Tone – Is your overall tone, word choice, and syntax in line with your intention and audience?

Complete your rewrite and revisions. Implement the cutting, adding, and moving mentioned in #3 above.

Complete another read-through and edit at the scene level, noting the following.

  • How each scene is structured, how it works on its own. (Each scene should also have a beginning / middle / end.)
  • How each scene moves the overarching story forward.
  • How dialogue (if there is any) informs the reader and moves the story forward.
  • How characters are characterized through speech, movement, and action.

You may need to repeat #4, #5, and #6 a few times before submitting your manuscript to a professional editor.

And you DO want to get a professional editor involved in your manuscript. More on this in the next blog post…

In the meantime, as always, I’m sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing,