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The Dos and Don’ts of Editing Your First Draft

I’m not going to lie, I really want to say don’t edit your first draft no matter what, but that’s not possible for most of us. My rationale behind wanting to give that advice is that editing kills creativity. Worry about getting all your words out, not how perfect they are.

Yet again, I know that’s an extremely hard task for any adult writer, so instead, I’ll provide you with a few dos and don’ts to help you minimize the effort you put toward editing your first draft.

Do: Use brackets to note where more information or research may be needed. Think of these bracketed notes as placeholders for you to revisit on your second time around. Be as specific as you can with these notes. For example, maybe you need to know the name of a nearby town, but you have no clue what would be a good fit. You can note it this way: “Columbia was only [xx miles from a city an hour away], so I knew he had to be lying.” Researching can lead to rabbit holes that will distract you and even deter you from writing that day. Stay focused on the words you do have and revisit unknown information later.

Don’t: Focus on grammatical editing if it doesn't affect the meaning of your text. Grammatical editing, like placement of commas or colons vs. semicolons or even run-on sentences, are errors to catch later. This type of review is called technical editing because it focuses on sentence structure along with writing style guidelines, which are different across content pieces. For example, bloggers and industry writers normally lean on the Associated Press (AP) Style Guide, while published authors follow the Chicago Style Guide. Both provide guidance around tone, word usage, formatting and other guidelines that readers of that material are familiar with. But again, there are many rules with both, and unless you are familiar with those standards, don’t get hung up on those edits.

Do: Read aloud your words to catch necessary edits like missing words or awkward sentences. Finding these edits and addressing them in your first draft helps maintain your thought and storyline. The human brain is amazing, so much so that it will add words to sentences that you thought to put in but neglected to actually type or write. Omitting words can happen to anyone. Maybe you’ve been writing for too long or thinking faster than you can type or just simply made a mistake. Regardless, reading sections aloud ensures it makes sense both to you and to your story. This is an easy way to get ahead of round two edits because you can also remove unnecessary sentences from your manuscript.

Don’t: Over use the thesaurus the first time around. Similar to the bracketing technique, make a note next to that word with a (th) as a reminder to go back and look into other word selections. The thesaurus is one of my favorite resources, but if you’re like me, you can spend days plugging and chugging through different word options. This is another way to kill your creativity. By leaving a note next to the word, you are stating that you’re not happy with that option and will look into others later.

Do: Set aside a budget for a good technical or development editor so you can focus on letting your words flow. As you learned above, technical edits will handle your writing style guide edits. A developmental editor will go further and look at your story structure, helping you find gaps and giving you direction on how to enhance your storyline. Both are not cheap, but they are a worthwhile investment. There are options out there, ranging in price and expertise. Get to know the editor and ask them to review a few pages to give you an idea of their editing style before investing in that expert.