The biggest mistake in book proposals

How to revise the first draft of your novel / manuscript

A checklist for your rewriting process

So you’ve written your first draft novel (or other manuscript). That’s great. Congratulations. It’s a big moment. (Post is by pro novelist and writing tutor, Emma Darwin. Full bio below.)

But now you need to make sure that your novel draft works on other readers as you want it to. Maybe you’ve just about managed to tame your novel, but now you’re facing A Big Revision or Rewriting of your first draft – so where on earth do you start?

Before you edit, revise or rewrite anything, here are some pointers.

Step 1: Read through your book

First, I suggest, you need to do your own appraisal, trying to read your first draft novel straight through, and as much like a reader as you can. I call this “problem-finding”, and by far the best way to do this it on paper, with a pen in your hand.

Using track-changes and comment balloons on screen is a poor second, but possible; either way, you’re trying to record your reactions, as a reader, to the story, not start problem-solving: that comes later.

Also note any wider thoughts that this reading throws up, but don’t then just dive into the most urgent or least frightening job. Because so many decisions and changes will affect all sorts of other things, it’s terribly easy to lose track, get diverted, lapse into fiddling and tinkering, and generally get into a worse muddle than you started in.

Step two: organise your thoughts

So, first bring all the different feedback you’ve had together, make an enormous pot of coffee or your working-drink of choice, and start sorting it out into rough categories.

  • Problems that run all through the story: the order you’re telling the story in doesn’t work; a character is cardboard, or vanishes, a lost-letter plot’s in a muddle; the narrative voice is dull.
  • Problems with particular sections: a saggy middle; that scene where the dialogue is flat as a pancake; the too-confusing opening; the crucial but oh-so-difficult sex, or battle, scene.
  • Problems of continuity and consistency, such as paragraphing, how dialogue is punctuated, or how you represent dialect.
  • What I call “bits”: individual corrections and tweaks, from typos, to one-off clunky paragraphs, to missing research.

Once you have the overall picture, you can sort it out into a to-do list, and decide on the order to tackle your rewrite. The temptation here is to plunge straight into the revision process . . . but you need to resist that. Before you start to edit, revise and rewrite like crazy, you have a little more organising to do.

Step 3: Work from Big to Small

One possibility is to look at p.1, do everything it needs, then move on p.2, but that’s probably not the best way to tackle it.

As with totally renovating a house (only this one you don’t have to live in at the same time), it’s not wise to do the whole of one room, from damp-course to top-coat, before you start the next. You neeed to make sure the structure is solid and the roof waterproof, only then get the electrician in to move lights and install heating, and only when all that’s done, do you paint the walls and lay carpets.

Whichever order you do things in, any major change probably has ramifications elsewhere. Get into the habit of not galloping off to follow up now, but make a note on your To Do list to tackle it at a logical point.

And although every writer is different, this I suggest, would be a good order in which to tackle things:

  1. Big structural changes. Don’t worry about the close-detail of stitching the sections into their new places, just do the rough carpentry.
  2. Any all-through-the-story things which need shrinking, changing or enhancing.
  3. Individual work on scenes and sections, now that they’re all in the (probably) right place.
  4. Consistency and continuity things which are most easily done when you put on the right glasses and deal with that issue all together: a character’s taste in clothes, say, or the punctuation and paragraphing of dialogue.
  5. Just work through from the beginning of your manuscript, and any other mark-up by your readers.

Step Four: Work in Layers

As much as you possibly can, tackle any particular problem working forwards in the story, so that you stay in touch with how the reader reads. It’s super-important for plots which depend on who-knows-what, about what, when. But it also matters for things like characterisation and setting, because the reader is encountering this person or place in stages, through time: make sure you’re in control of how that knowledge develops.

If it helps you, work through the novel focusing on just one layer: Aunt Anita’s character arc, let’s say, or the way you build a picture of 1940s Manhattan. Ignore anything else (good or bad) if it doesn’t pertain to those exact issues.

I know it feels inefficient to “go through the book” so many times, but believe me, you save far more trouble than you spend, because you don’t get in a muddle, duplicate work or cause muddles elsewhere without realising.

Step 5: Re-read the entire text

If you follow the advice above, you’ll have far less work to do once you get to the last stage:

  1. Do another straight read-through-like-a-reader, in print or on screen. Use this to pick up any darning-in of the big structural changes that’s still needed, and anything else you might have missed. This also is a very good moment to read it aloud, pen in hand, if you haven’t already: it’s brilliant for picking up typos, and more generally getting outside the novel to read it as if you didn’t write it. Just have a big jug of water to hand.

Step 6: Stay positive

If all this sounds as if it’s more work than writing the first draft was – you’d be right.

All authors know that writing is rewriting. Revising the first draft of a novel isn’t easy.

True, some rewrite each page or even line, until it’s perfect, then move on, while others hurl a whole first draft down on the page, spelling-mistakes and all, and only then go back and start to hammer it into shape. Still, most would say that they spend perhaps three or four times as long on that rewriting of a page or novel as they did on putting the first version of those words on paper.


Emma Darwin’s debut novel was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year awards, and she is the author of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. Her blog is used for writing courses around the world. For more on these and a host of other writerly topics, click through to resources via my blog.

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