Editing the first draft of a novel


I am in the latter stages of a first draft (fiction - my first novel length book). Before editing, the draft will be around 100K words.

How do people usually start the editing process - on screen (I am using Scrivener 3 - Windows Beta) or by marking up a
printed manuscript?


I duplicate the entire draft, label the copy as a first revision and go through each file in a split pane view – changed text in the left, old in the right pane. I also use Revision Mode to colour my changes, I remove the colour once I’m happy with the changes.

I repeat that process for every revision, so I usually end up with five »old« drafts that I park in the Research folder.

Having said that, I know that printing out your manuscript and working on it on real paper is much better. I’m usually just too lazy to do that.

Good luck with your second draft!

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… In a variety of ways, each to their own (often evolving) needs.

I’d suggest compiling to PDF before trying to print the whole thing out, using one of the manuscript compile formats. Then maybe print out one chapter and give that a go editing on paper before you commit to hundreds of sheets of paper. Some people use a big iPad + “pencil” and a good PDF app for annotation instead of a massive stack of paper, but as an amateur author, I can’t justify that expense.

The way I would do it now, if I had a full first draft to work on would be the following:
Compile the whole thing to PDF. Name it “my fancy novel, 1st draft.pdf”, and then take that pdf and import it into my research folder for reference. Before anything, I’d do a read-through, just to get the shape of the story as it is before changing anything.

I’d do a mass-assignment of “1st Draft” statuses (expand all folders, select all) to all the documents in my novel. I’d do a named snapshot of every document at once, naming it “1st draft”. I’d be sure to have another status created for each stage in my editing process, but wouldn’t be using it right away.

Then I’d start reading it, one file (chapter or scene) at a time, taking notes on 3 levels: Plot problems. Character problems, and Misc problems (I forgot about this minor character! I made a big deal about this magic wand, but it never comes up again…). I’d also start assigning keywords for every character in the chapter (and every character mentioned in that chapter), every location, and every significant object (gun on the mantle). And finally, I’d start a dossier on each character and each location, where I noted things about them that I mention in the book (eye color, mysterious locked door, extreme near-nearsightedness, termites, catch phrase …).

As I said, “each to their own (often evolving) needs”. I need a lot of help making a story coherent, so I use a lot of tools within Scrivener to do so.

Thanks for the encouragment and tips. Instinctively, I want to hold it in my hands and work manually, but I see the logic in using Scriveners revision functions.

Thanks for the PDF idea and detailed description of how to do the revision. I have a Surface with a pen, hopefully I can do the same with that.

Since you’ve written a lot of words and, by now, know quite a lot more about writing a lot of words than when you started, I highly recommend reading bits of Stephen Koch’s, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.

To answer your question, you only need to read chapter 7: Working and Reworking, although you’ll probably read the rest at some point. It’s only 200-odd pages in total, but dense and absent of bullshit. imo, it’s the wrong book for anyone who hasn’t written a lot of words. That’s not you.

Why is it worth your time? Everyone who sets out to write a novel knows they need a first draft, although they don’t really know what that is, so they write a beginning and an ending and fill up the space in between, and declare: my first draft done! In reality, what they probably have is a lot of words, some characters – who are now known to the writer as people, and some arcs: character and story (or narrative, if you like).

Now what? I’d read Ch.7, as mentioned above.

I’ll quote one sentence from The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop:

Thanks, your answer is very helpful and that’s a good description of where I am.
I’ve been looking around for books for help with revision. I’ll definitely look at Koch’s book, it seems well regarded.

If I learned anything in 30 years as an editor, it was No two writers are the same.

That being said, I wouldn’t edit a first draft on paper. First drafts are by definition a mess; I’d leverage Scrivener’s reorganizational strengths, its ability to cut and paste (without using, as we did in the Olden Days, actual scissors and actual paste) and its ability to drop digital Post-it Notes (aka Comments) wherever your readings suggest an infelicity in need of addressing: Wait, didn’t Griselda have green eyes in chapter 1? How can Lord Dumbello fire that pistol with his left hand if in Chapter 3 he was adamantly right-handed? Would these endless pages of expository dialogue work better as a sort of executive narrative a la Jane Austen’s free indirect style? When all your Comments have been addressed, then that is your second draft.

In the digital age, the writers I worked with who needed the least intrusive editing from me did their final edits on-paper, not their first or second or third drafts. It’s that final edit, in a new media, that benefits most from a leisurely read, with paper in lap and blue-pencil in hand. Then–especially if you’ve left your draft to simmer unread for a few months, and you’ve forgotten your deathless prose–the ways you wished you’d said this or that become self-evident.

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Conceptually, I think I would prefer a written printout to work from. But practically, that means running through a lot of ink and paper, so I grit my teeth and bear it-- doing it electronically. I’m itching to see my book printed out somewhere though. I’ve got around 400 pages (+/-, depending on page dimensions) and would love to see it in “book form”.


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