First Draft to Final Product, Part I (Editing)


A lot of ink has been spilled discussing the editing process. I’ll lay out my method for preparing a first draft to be sent to an editor, but my advice won’t be exhaustive, so if you seek additional tips, you’ll find a lot skimming the search results for “edit” at the Writer’s Knowledge Base.

Preparing a Draft for an Editor

First, let me say that you won’t have a first, second, third, and final draft. You’ll have anywhere from ten to a hundred drafts—maybe more if it’s a particularly complex story. For some authors, the first draft contains only the bare bones of their story, and subsequent drafts are when they put in the real meat. These authors take notes as they write of plot holes they created that they must fix, of events they must foreshadow, of character traits they must bring out in greater clarity. They take perfunctory dialogue and revise it for realism and greater emotional depth. They analyze scenes for whether they service either plot or character, and toss or revise as needed. They flesh out descriptions, revise awkward paragraphs or sentences, and make note of any words they tend to overuse.

It’s up to you to decide where in this series of subsequent drafts to loop in one or more beta readers. Though I know some authors struggle to find a “good” beta reader, it really is a very essential step. As the author, you’ve been so close to the story for so long that you can’t see some of its issues. A beta reader whose eyes have never been on the story can give you the fresh perspective you really need.

A beta reader can warn you if a plot development doesn’t make sense, if a character’s motivation is vague or contrary to how they’ve been portrayed, if a scene is boring or doesn’t seem to have a purpose, or if they simply can’t parse an awkward sentence or paragraph.

If you can manage it, having multiple beta readers is best, especially if they all have something unique to offer in the way of feedback. Perhaps one beta reader is good at questioning character choices while another is good at pointing out poor pacing while another is sensitive to bad dialogue. With their powers combined, you can really knock off a lot of the dirt clinging to your precious story.

Once there’s some meat on your bare-bones first draft and you’ve revised based on feedback from your beta readers, it’s time to do some low-level cleanup. Your objective here is simply to reduce the amount of time your editor will use to fix minor word choice issues, allowing them to spend more time on the harder fixes. The checklist below is what I use, but feel free to toss, add, or rearrange items to suit your needs.

1. Strengthen prose by removing superfluous uses of certain words, such as:

2. Create and consult a list of words you may be overusing. Search for the number of times you used each word in your manuscript. If the number seems abnormally high, consider trimming a few uses. For example, I used the word “exact” twenty-seven times in an early draft of Eidolon and revised down to fifteen uses. Be especially frugal with unique words or phrases. To give you another example, I used “palpate” one too many times and revised down to one instance. While a reader’s eye easily slides over some heavily repeated words without pulling them out of the story, such as “said,” “run,” or “look,” other words will stick out when used too much.

3. Don’t forget about clichés. You can probably get away with a handful of them, but striving to find more original way to say what you mean will improve your writing craft.

4. Comb your manuscript for any misused words. Did you type “lie” when you meant “lay?” Did a character say they “could care less” rather than “couldn’t care less?”

5. When talking about something that saves you from great difficulty, is it spelled “life saver,” “lifesaver,” or “life-saver?” Fix any incorrect compound words by searching OneLook, which will tell you how many times a particular spelling is found across all online dictionaries. The highest number of matches is generally the most accepted.

  • “Life saver” has 10 matches (not including the hyphened version), “life-saver” has 6 matches, and “lifesaver” has 21 matches. We have a winner!

Finding an Editor and Choosing the Level of Editing

Before you scour the internet for an editor, you should first understand what kind of editing needs you have. Maybe you weren’t satisfied with the amount or variety of feedback from your beta readers (or couldn’t find anyone to beta-read your story). In that case, you should consider an editor who does developmental editing. After developmental edits, you would move onto copyediting, which identifies story issues such as confusing prose, improper word choice, faulty grammar and punctuation, and continuity errors. After copyediting, you should consider proofreading, just to catch those tiny typos or missing words that all the other sets of eyes might have missed.

Editorial services should generally cost roughly the same; some editors’ rates charge per word rather than per page or per hour. Be wary of extremely low or extremely high prices. For example, only the quickest and lightest of proofreads would cost less than $250 for a full-length novel.

Some Places To Start Your Search:

Now it’s time to find a freelance editor. A quick search will find you many candidates, but how to choose the one that will put the best polish on your story?

First, make sure they offer the editing services you want. If a potential editor has only done technical editing for non-fiction science books, they won’t be the best option for doing developmental edits on your sci-fi novel. You may also find fiction editors who only do copyediting rather than developmental edits.

Second, check their editing experience. Maybe they’ve done a lot of fiction editing, but it’s all been fantasy novels and yours is a hard sci-fi.

Third, read any testimonials their previous clients have given and/or ask for references. Consult sites like Writer Beware, which also has a blog, and Preditors & Editors to understand what kind of red flags you should watch out for.

Last, if you think you’ve found the right editor but are still unsure, some editors do offer free sample edits, typically about five pages or 2500 words’ worth. If you like how they edited a sample of your manuscript, you have a winner!

Be sure to ask your editor any questions you might have before work begins and payment is sent. Are you working under a very tight deadline? Do you want the chance to discuss certain edits? Do you want to know how much they might charge to offer a second round of feedback after you’ve incorporated their edits?

Of all the expenses in your budget, the only one I wouldn’t consider skipping is editing. Yes, you could DIY a book cover and live with whatever result you make. Yes, you could only go for free marketing options. Yes, you could create an essentially free author website by foregoing a unique domain name and ad-free hosting. But don’t skip the editing step. Readers can and do forgive poor quality covers. They could find you without a big marketing push. They may not care how your site looks. But readers deserve a story that’s been edited, even if you’re offering the story for free. An unedited story will lose you future potential sales, so budget accordingly!