There comes a time in every author’s writing career when it’s time to set aside the first draft of your literary baby and get to work on the second draft. As a book reviewer, I can unfortunately attest to the fact that many authors don’t seem to know what to do at this point. Most of the time when I’ve rated a book 3 stars or below on the scale of “how awesome is this book?” it’s because somewhere along the line, the author has failed to invest in a good editor. Trust me on this: the quickest way to a negative review is to fail your second draft. Please: never upload your first draft. Just don’t.
I realize it’s difficult for any author to look at something they’ve slaved over for weeks or even years and edit with a critical eye. There’s something terrifying about cutting out entire chapters and re-wording sentences we long-ago fell in love with—but it needs to be done. If you can’t be critical of your own work, then invest in an impartial editor and beta readers. Regardless, you should know how to edit to some degree, and I’m going to give you a bit of a checklist of things to look for. Save yourself some grief later on and give the list a look. You may not agree with all of the points I’ll make, you may even choose to ignore them completely, but you should take a moment to consider them. You’ll be glad you did later on.
Try to look at each of these points individually. It’s a long list (thought not comprehensive..these are just the basics), and it can be overwhelming if you’re trying to consider them all at once. Example: Don’t worry about your spelling while trying to sort out the punctuation in your dialogue. It’s easier, and a lot less stressful, to focus on one point at a time.
It’s ominous, I know. This is the one part of every story that the author undoubtedly stresses over. You’ve probably read it more than any other part of your work, and it’s been around the longest—sometimes through multiple drafts, unchanged. This is your initial hook. It needs to draw your audience into the story and keep them long enough to surpass any lack-luster parts that crop up before the story really starts to sink in. Because of this, you need to pay special attention to it.
Make sure you have a strong first sentence, if not a strong first scene. Pay attention to the technical side of your writing here; misspelled words, incorrect grammar, or misused punctuation will have your audience putting down your book quicker than you can say the title. Now, all of these things are important throughout your story, but double, triple, even quadruple check the first chapter.
Do not start with backstory, exposition, flashbacks, or the weather if you can avoid it. It’s best if the first few moments of your story give us an impression of the main character, or at the very least show us what to expect from the rest of your story. A reader should be able to read your first chapter and get the general gist of what genre your book fits into, and where the story may lead.
Do me a favor: find your word count, divide it by 2, and find the chapter that sits at the exact center of your story. This is the climax of your story—or at least it should be. If you find that your climax came earlier, or later than this point, edit accordingly. If the middle of your novel sags you will lose your readers. This should be the point in your novel with the most tension. The absolute worst thing that can happen to your characters, should happen here.
There should be a clear end to your story unless you’ve done something horribly wrong. If your story feels like it ends too abruptly, your readers will be confused and unsatisfied. Now, that isn’t to say that you can’t have an open-ending. Cliffhangers are great—especially if you plan on subsequent books—but at least 90% of your story’s plotlines (or everything but the main series arch) should be wrapped up by this point. Too many holes and things left unexplained can be frustrating.
If you’re working on a stand-alone novel, feel free to wrap things up completely, but be careful you don’t wrap things up too neatly. If your story ends with an epilogue where everyone gets married or is pregnant, you’ve gone too far. Having everything turn out all right in the end isn’t interesting, and the world doesn’t work that way. No matter how good your story was, if everything ends in puppies and hugs, your reader will feel as if you gave up in the end. Leave at least one point that doesn’t result in fuzzy warm feelings. It’s okay to have characters regret actions, or have a character end up with an unhappy result. This isn’t to say that your story has to be a tragedy, just don’t make it perfect; it won’t feel genuine.
You should have one. You should also have an overall theme. Take a moment and in one paragraph, try to sum up your entire story. Don’t be too specific:
Plot: A teenage girl, a victim to circumstance, harbors a dangerous secret. When circumstance challenges her to question everything she’s believed about herself and the world she lives in, instead of allowing herself to continue to be a victim, she will fight back, putting everyone she loves in danger for the chance to change her fate.
Theme: Fighting for what you believe in despite the odds, instead of allowing those around you to dictate your fate.
Notice I didn’t name any characters, or specific events. Chances are, at some point, these things will change. Keep your plot in mind as you edit, and do your best to stick to it. If your plot seems weak, it probably is.
You don’t have to stick to one genre, but you should be able to list which genre’s your story fits into. (Have at least one or two dominant genre’s, after that, no one really cares). I know it feels good to be defiant and say your story breaks conventional genre’s, but when it comes to publishing, you’ll need to be able to classify your story in some way. Otherwise, no one’s going to know where to find it in the bookstore.
You should be aware of your genre while you edit and make sure you fit into it. Certain genre’s have aspects that have come to be expected. Erotica’s will have sex scenes. Romance will be predominantly about relationships. Thrillers should have a sense of danger to them. This doesn’t mean that your story needs to be a clone of every other book in it’s genre, but you should be aware of how these genre’s may effect your plot and theme.
Be aware of your audience. If you’re writing a Middle-Grade book, your story will be written differently than an Adult book. Keep the age of your audience in mind as you edit. Middle-Grade books won’t contain sex scenes. If you aren’t sure which audience you want to shoot for, that’s okay! Write your story how you want it to be written, and then classify it later, but once you make the decision, make sure you stick to it.
Each character should have their own personality and motivations. Do not make the mistake of introducing characters whose sole purpose is to show up in a scene, react to other characters, and then fade away into the background. No one will remember their names, and they will come across as one-dimensional. It’s okay if your characters don’t agree with each other, or even make things harder for one another. Characters that have depth will bring your story to life.
If you have trouble, take the time to write a page summary of each character. Talk about their motivations: What do they want out of life? What are their circumstances? What is their personality? How do they feel about your other characters? What is their opinion on the situation at hand? If they were the main character in their own story, how would they handle things?
For example: In one of the novels I’m working on there’s the main character: Khet, and her sister Safiya. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Khet has lived her life as an outcast. Her existence is against the law in her society, and she, and her family have been forced to be secretive about it. This has put a strain on the family as they’re always cautious about how close they become to others in their community. For Safiya, this is particularly difficult. She is Khet’s older sister, and learned at a young age that her mother had betrayed Safiya’s father and had an affair. Due to her anger at her mother, and now her sister because of their forced secrecy, Safiya tends to treat her little sister as a burden, and doesn’t consider her a true relative. She wants nothing more than to get married and have kids of her own, but it seems as if all her life she’s been forced to keep anyone outside her family at bay. When she’s finally given a chance to reach her goals, Khet’s secret is let out, destroying her chances of ever realizing her dreams.
Though in this scenario, Khet is the main character, and the situation is not her fault, from Safiya’s point of view, Khet is the villain. She is an obstacle that stand’s in the way of Safiya’s dreams, and accordingly, she reacts by trying to abandon her sister in an attempt to finally live her life free of these inherited burdens. From Khet’s point of view, her sister Safiya has a caustic attitude and betrays their family, endangering Khet’s life. She comes across as selfish, and maybe even a bit evil—but that isn’t necessarily true. Like Khet, Safiya is a victim of her circumstances.
Your characters should be just as complex. Secondary characters shouldn’t exist just so that the main characters have someone to talk to or argue with. They each have their reasons for what they say and do… take the time to figure out what those are, and then be consistent.
Unless something profound happens, your character shouldn’t change their mind or their personality at the drop of a hat. Your characters will need to be convinced, or forced, to act or think differently. They shouldn’t change just because it’s convenient for your main character or you. It isn’t realistic, and your audience will start to question if your characters have some unknown, secret motive. Your characters should change during the course of you story—they will inherently do so as the story moves along and events and conversations weigh in on their actions, but it shouldn’t happen like the flip of a switch. Think of it as their religion: would you change your entire faith (or lack there of) in a split second? No, not unless something profound forces you to, or circumstances change.
Say it out loud. I’m serious. One trap that authors repeatedly fall into is to write their dialogue exactly like they write their narrative. You can’t do it. Dialogue isn’t perfect, and it’s one of the few places in a novel where you can break most of the rules of grammar. People talk in stilted half-sentences with stops and starts, mispronunciations, accents, and run-on jibber jabber. They swear, they lie, they sometimes even refuse to speak, sometimes, they even interrupt. That’s okay! What isn’t okay is monologues, and poetic one-liners.
Do yourself a favor; it’ll be embarrassing, but find an empty room (or hey, more power to you if it has people in it!) and speak your character’s dialogue out loud, acting as they would act. It takes very little time to spot poor dialogue. If you can’t get through a sentence without cringing, you probably need to get back to the drawing board.
Also: remember that 90% of a conversation is non-verbal. Your character is not a floating head in a black box. They should move, gesture, sneer, even storm out of the room—but have them do something—this will help to anchor them within a scene.
Another thing to look out for: names. Most of the time when people talk, unless they are directly addressing someone for clarification in a group or trying to emphasize a point, they will avoid saying the name of the person they’re talking to. There’s no need to state character’s names in the dialogue if it’s easy to tell who they are talking to.
Your story should be told from the point of view that tells it best—not necessarily what you are most comfortable with. Some stories, particularly personal ones, may be better told from a first-person point of view. Others, particularly those with multiple important characters (especially those that are separated by a great distance), may be better told from a third-person point of view. If your story doesn’t work in a particular point of view, consider switching it. It’s okay if your story is written from the viewpoint of several different characters, and it’s okay if they don’t follow a set pattern of appearance, as long as it’s clear who’s point of view each section of your story is written from. However, please do not switch back and forth between the types of POV. Your story should either be all 1st person, or all 3rd person. You can’t do both. Avoid 2nd person—trust me on this. There is nothing more irritating than having the narrator tell you how you should feel about a story.
1st Person: I picked up the red ball.
2nd Person (present tense)*: You pick up the red ball.
3rd Person: She picked up the red ball.
*2nd person POV is almost always done in present tense – and I best used for choose your own adventure books.
I’m going to piss some people off: Write in past tense. If you’re considering writing in present tense, please, think it over a little more before you commit.
Present Tense: She picks up the red ball. / I pick up the red ball.
Past Tense: She picked up the red ball. / I picked up the red ball.
As much as some people will argue, Past Tense is the natural tense for storytelling, as stories are always told after the fact. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been some successful novels written in present tense. There have—but these are the exception, not the rule. The majority of readers find present tense to be distracting and awkward to read through, we are used to past tense. It comes naturally to us.So go ahead, be stubborn and challenge the norm—I applaud you if that is what you want to do, but do it with the understanding that there will be a large amount of readers who outright refuse to read your work. It’s not something I would suggest you endeavor to do with a first novel.
Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar, Style
Spellcheck. Read out loud. Invest in a good copyeditor. Errors will happen—nobody’s perfect—but you can minimize the damage by checking and re-checking your 2nd draft before you hand it over to be published. There is absolutely no excuse to not catch 98% of technical errors before you publish.
Why read out loud? As the author of your story, your brain is so used to reading it (after all, you made it up!) that your brain has inherently learned to “fill the gaps” and skim over errors. Instead of reading the errors correctly, your brain skips over them naturally because you already know what it’s supposed to say. The best way to get around this is to read out loud. Reading out loud forces your brain to work not only through the visual center of your brain, but the verbal as well. The errors will trip you up, and they will be easier to spot.
Reading out loud also helps you to pick out the flow, punctuation, and basic wording of a sentence. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know it.
Now, each person has a different style of writing, but there are certain things you should look out for. Some of these may include:
Passive sentences: try to keep these at a minimum. Passive sentences aren’t bad per se, but they do make your writing weak. The reasoning behind this is that passive sentences on average take more words than active sentences. The longer a sentence is, the harder it is to follow. There are times when you’ll want to use passive sentences—for example: To fix the flow of a sentence. Sometimes passive sentences sound better, but the majority of your writing should be active.
Don’t be wordy. Wordy doesn’t necessarily mean that you have too many words in a sentence so much as too many words that don’t add anything to the sentence. When constructing a sentences, you want to be as clear and concise as possible. You can always add more words to fix the flow.
Katherine didn’t really care for Michael that much; he had always reminded her of a dastardly cartoon villain, complete with maniacal laugh and white lab coat.
Katherine disliked Michael, he reminded her of a cartoon villain, complete with maniacal laugh and white lab coat.
Words trimmed: eight. Meaning: unchanged.
Vary your sentence structure and lengths (and read everything out loud!). If all your sentences follow the same structure and the same length, your writing will seem boring and dry. It’s good to be concise and get to the point of your sentence quickly, but keep in mind that you need to watch the flow of your sentences. Also, when given the choice, always pick words that mean exactly what you want them to, not the next best approximation. Green != Lime, and Walk != Shuffle.
This is an example. This is not how you should write. All my sentences are short. It seems forced. It reminds me of a drum beat. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
This is another example of how you should not write—even if it seems like a better idea than the previous staccato example, if all of your sentences are long, it can be hard to follow your narrative. After awhile, your reader becomes bored, and there’s more opportunity for them to become lost as the story drags on; the longer your sentences, the harder they are to follow.
This is a good example. It’s okay to have long sentences as well as short sentences. A nice blend of both is imperative to keeping your reader interested in your story without boring them. Your writing should be concise–it’s good to get to the point quickly–but by staggering the length of the sentences, the flow of the story is easier to follow. You can use short sentences to draw attention to important points, while longer sentences help smooth out the flow and clarify the points being made. Got it? Good.
Take the time to learn proper punctuation, and the function of coordinating conjunctions. Chances are, you’re using them wrong. (and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so) These words should never be used to start a sentence. They are used to join sentences. Sometimes, such as in dialogue, it’s okay to make an exception (like I said, dialogue breaks the rules of grammar!), but chances are if you’re using any of these words to start a sentence, you should change your punctuation.
WRONG: Khet liked Leander. But as much as she enjoyed his presence, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.
RIGHT: Khet liked Leander, but as much as she enjoyed his presence, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.
ALSO RIGHT: Khet liked Leander; she enjoyed his presence, but she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.
PUNCTUATION CHEAT SHEET
When in doubt: check it out.
Shows that a thought or idea is complete, and is always used at the end of a sentence. Example: I was homesick.
Use after most abbreviations. Example: Dr. Nevarr
Use after an initial. Example: C. A. Morton
Always placed inside a quotation mark that ends a sentence. Example: “If you think I’m going to jump off the edge of this building, you’re insane.”
The Question Mark:
Used to mark a question. Example: Why is the sky blue?
Place inside closing quotation marks if it is part of the quotation (or dialogue). “Why is the sky blue?” she asked.
Place outside the closing quotation marks if it NOT part of the quotation (or dialogue). Did she really just say, “He’s a jackass” ?
The Exclamation Mark:
Belongs at the end of an exclamatory sentence. Example: Put on your coat!
Should never be combined with any other form of punctuation. Example: What is wrong with you?!
Should never be repeated. Example: Never, ever, do this!!!
Use sparingly. When used often, your writing will begin to sound comical. Example: It is not okay to repeatedly use exclamation marks! It makes things sound silly! The more I do this, the worse it gets! Seriously! Don’t do it!
Used with names and titles. Example: Cary Morton, Author; Jamie Paige, Illustrator
Used after introductory expressions. Example: On average, you are more likely to be crushed by a vending machine than bitten by a shark.
Used after interrupting words or expressions. Example: Khet, who was often left to her own devices, found the event exhilarating.
Used to set off a direct quotation. Example: She said, “Please don’t open the door.” Not that I listened.
Used to set off appositives. Example: The character, Khet, is female.
Used to separate items in a series. Example: cakes, cupcakes, pies, and cookies.
Used to set off words of direct address. Example: The whole event is ridiculous, Leander.
Used to join closely related independent clauses. Example: It’s not bad to use a semi-colon; sometimes they are quite useful.
Used to join independent clauses when one or both clauses contain a comma. Example: Sometimes it’s hard to tell when to use a semi-colon, and so they are left out completely; people find it hard place them correctly, and are often warned not to.
Used between main clauses connected by a conjunctive adverb. Example: Khet wanted to run away; however, she knew it would be pointless.
Used before long, formal quotations.
Used before lists.
Used before part of a sentence that explains what has just been stated. Example: Khet was a mystery: she rarely ever talked to anyone outside her family.
Used to mark dialogue.
Used to set off a definition.
Used to set off the title of a short work, such as a poem, essay, song, short story, or magazine article.
Is used to show a break at the end of a bit of dialogue or sentence, usually due to a sudden interruption. Example: “But—“ she started, but quickly stopped when she realized no one was listening.
Used in specific compound nouns and adjectives. Example: well-known
Used in fractions and compound numbers. Example: twenty-two, one-half
Is used to show a break between phrases and clauses. Example:
Use to show emphasis, such as a sudden change of thought. Example: Safiya was selfish—and beautiful—but she wasn’t outright cruel.
Used before a summary of what is stated in a sentence. Example: Khet wasn’t prepared to leave her family, even if it meant saving herself—she cared about them too much.
Use to show that you have deleted words or sentences from a passage you’re quoting.
Use to show a discontinuation in thought or dialogue. Example: “Leander … seriously?” or “I want … “ She sighed. “I don’t know what I want.”
Punctuation is often a personal style choice (as long as you follow the rules). For example: I use a lot of emdashes (—) and semi-colons ( ; ) when I write. It isn’t wrong—despite popular belief—both can be quite useful; I happen to put my thoughts and dialogue together naturally in such a way that they are used more often than with other authors. That’s okay. You don’t have to use them, but you can if you want to—as long as you are using them correctly.
Whitespace, Paragraphs, and Dialogue Structure
Whitespace is exactly what it sounds like: the white space on a page where words do not exist. The more of it you have, the faster the pace of your story. No one likes walls of text. If your pages seem to have few line breaks, start a new paragraph and give your reader’s eyes a break. Generally the rule you want to remember is: The Rule of One:
One statement per sentence.
One topic per paragraph.
One theme per chapter.
As far as formatting paragraphs and dialogue you should start a new paragraph:
Anytime the speaker of dialogue changes.
Anytime the actor changes.
Anytime the topic changes.
For example, you wouldn’t write dialogue like this:
“Khet?” “Yes?” “Where’s your sister?” “I have no idea.”
Instead, you would format it like this:
“Where’s your sister?”
“I have no idea.”
The same thing goes for the actor. You wouldn’t do this:
“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. Khet arched a brow.
Instead, it should look like this:
“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.
Khet arched a brow. “Yes?”
Dialogue doesn’t have to sit at the front of a paragraph as long as the person speaking is the same person acting. Also, if the same character speaks more than once, you don’t have to break it up:
“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.
Khet arched a brow. “Yes?”
“Have you seen your sister?” he asked, “She seems to be missing.”
Khet stared at him for a moment. “You can’t be serious.” She frowned. “You are serious. Shit.”
…And while we’re on the topic of dialogue and structure, let’s take a moment to discuss proper dialogue punctuation and dialogue tags. Usually, you don’t need dialogue tags half as much as you think you do. From a young age we are taught to slap them on the end of every line of dialogue. To be fair, this is done because as children, it helps us to identify dialogue and remember who is speaking. As we get older, we don’t need quite so much instruction. If dialogue is written well, it doesn’t need a tag. Theoretically you should be able to tell who’s speaking without adding a tag. If you must use a dialogue tag, make sure it’s one that is commonly used (and therefore easily ignored). Example:
“Khet?” Leander asked.
“Hm?” Khet replied.
“Never mind,” he said.
Ouch. Way too many tags, but you get the idea. Instead, it’d be better if we dropped all the tags that weren’t essential:
“All right, all right. Look, we need to talk.”
I didn’t need any dialogue tags here. Now, this isn’t going to happen every time there’s dialogue. This is just one example. In this case, I didn’t need to explain who was talking because the characters had a back-and-forth pattern that repeated, and at one point or another, both of them addressed the other character directly. Dialogue tags tend to slow down the pace and can be quite cumbersome if you let them. Unless you’re writing children’s fiction, it’s usually best to use as few dialogue tags as possible.
So what qualifies as a dialogue tag? Any bit of text that describes who is speaking and the direct manner in which the dialogue is spoken. Example:
What doesn’t qualify as a dialogue tag? Any action performed during or after the dialogue. A lot of people get these confused. Example:
You can’t grin a sentence. You can only grin during a sentence. The difference? Punctuation.
“Khet,” he whispered.
“Khet.” He smiled.
Notice that with the top example (the dialogue tag), the dialogue ends in a comma, and the sentence is ended after the dialogue tag. With the second example (the action), the dialogue ends within the quotation marks, and the action is a separate entity. It’s very easy to get these mixed up, and a lot of authors do.
You can, however, combine the two:
“Khet,” he whispered, a smile on his lips.
The dialogue tag should always come before the action. You can also put dialogue tags and actions in the middle of the dialogue (especially if you need a pause to emphasize what’s being said, or the character has been speaking for a large amount of time).
“Khet,” he whispered, “please speak to me.”
“Leander….” she began, “I can’t. Not now. Not after—“ She gestured over his shoulder. “—that.”
Take note that with a dialogue tag, the tag is always started with a lowercase letter. With an action, it will always start after quoted punctuation and with a capital letter, and end with a full stop. When you interrupt dialogue with a dialogue tag or action, if there isn’t a long pause (and sometimes there is!), you should treat the dialogue as if it never stopped and write the punctuation/capitalization accordingly. Example:
“Khet, “ he whispered, “please speak to me.”
“Khet.” He ran a hand back through his hair, disheveling the blonde locks. “Please speak to me.”
In the second example I’ve added a longer pause, and left out the dialogue tag, forcing solid punctuation between the two strings of dialogue.
Your Characters Don’t Live in a Vacuum—Detail
Your character has senses:
(And Mood! Yes, it counts, trust me.)
You need to use them. It’s easy to let your character float around in a vacuum where all we see is their inner thoughts and their outward dialogue—but that isn’t all there is. Describe things. Add detail. These things are important—just don’t overdo it. Let me introduce: The Rule of Three.
Your readers can only remember three descriptive aspects of any object, person, or place at a time, after that, they skim. Keeping this in mind; you should always try to add detail, but keep it within reason, and for the love of God, make it relevant.
It doesn’t matter that the stop-sign is octagonal or red. We can pretty much guess that’s the case. It does matter that there’s a dead body slumped at the base of it. The same goes for people: try to keep descriptions of characters vague:
Khet was 5’4”, 114 lbs., and brunette. Her eyes were the color of clouded jade, and a spattering of freckles dotted her fair skin.
… That would be going overboard. This is better:
Khet was a petite brunette, with eyes the color of clouded jade.
Three descriptors. That’s all you get. Use them wisely.
As a side note: try not to force your readers into a description. Every character that meets Khet isn’t going to describe her the same way. For example: Leander (who adores her), would probably describe Khet as lithe with a pert chest, and hair that shone the color of amber in the sunlight. Her sister (who hates her), would probably describe Khet as a gangly, awkward girl, her skin mottled with sunspots, and with hair that hung limp in ratted tangles across her forehead. Perception of places, people, and things will be different depending on who is describing them. Let your characters describe your world – don’t describe it for them.
If you can, you should also avoid Info Dumps. Info Dumps are when an author stops the story to describe something, and then returns to the story as if it never happened. It’s distracting, and your readers will get bored. Instead, always try to work your details into the narrative and dialogue naturally. Things should be described as they are noticed by the characters, but never in a huge block. Spread it out, make it relevant, and keep it to a minimum.
These are the basics of things you need to look out for when editing your second draft, but they are by no means the only things you need to look for. I didn’t get into redundancies, incomplete sentences, world building, or choosing descriptive words by the underlying mood (I don’t have all day to get into these things. Pfft.), but hopefully this will help give you a bit of a checklist of things you should keep an eye out for. These are the things that frequently pop up in books I review that drive me bonkers. Do your readers a favor and fix them.
Cary jumped down off her soapbox, sending the audience a quick salute, and then sauntered off into the remnants of blogland.