How to Edit Your Fiction: Reworking a First Draft

Are You Afraid to Redraft?

First, if you feel nervous or resistant to changing your draft, know that’s normal. But it doesn’t mean you should give in to that resistance or fear!

Having been in writing groups, and having taught Creative, I’ve seen first drafts from many people.  And guess what? We all tend to make the same sorts of mistakes, except “mistakes” isn’t the right word. As I wrote in When the Writing Won’t Come the whole idea of that first draft is to get something down, not to produce a perfect piece of prose. Whatever you write is what’s meant to be written. It’s what gets you started, in the same way that a child floating on her back in a pool is taking the first action towards becoming a champion swimmer.

Taking that swimming analogy further: that child won’t become a champion by floating on her back.  To improve, she’ll keep practising the same four strokes over and over, improving her speed and technique. Imagine if after that first floating session, she said, “It’s hopeless, I didn’t do a 1000 meter sprint. I totally messed it up. I’m never ever going to be a swimmer.”

Or perhaps her coach asks her, as a drill, to swim on her back, kicking her legs and rotating her shoulders.  She says, “What a waste of time! I’m never going to win a medal for rotating my shoulders.” So she refuses to do the exercise.

See how silly those comments seem? Yet while we think it’s okay to take years to master a sport, most writers feel defensive or punish themselves if their stories aren’t perfect first time. Writers often say, “I poured myself into that story.” So it doesn’t just feel as if an ability to do an activity is being judged, it feels as if the person is.  The moment someone suggests an improvement many writers say, “I knew it wasn’t any good. I’m never going to be a writer so I might as well give up now.”

No. It just means you might need to do a few more drills, or maybe practise your best strokes a few times more.

Let’s say you have written a short story. Here’s how it goes for most writers: initial excitement at completing the story, then doubts and fears. Maybe you think you need to show it at a class or critique group, get opinions, to see if your story is any good. This can be a good idea: constructive feedback from others is an invaluable tool for honing your fiction. But unless you are a writer with a book contract (in which case you won’t be reading this) editing your fiction starts and ends with you. Therefore, it’s important to be able to tell for yourself whether what you’ve written is hitting the mark. I’d even go so far as to say that we almost always do know, even if we pretend to ourselves that we don’t.

Set Your Story Aside

After you’ve written that first draft, here’s what to do. Put the story away for a while. I suggest you leave it for a month, no matter how desperate you are to get it up onto Amazon’s Kindle store and make your millions. When you come back to it, you won’t feel so attached, and making changes won’t feel so much as if you are murdering your own baby. Be gentle on yourself first time round because, honestly, the more you write the easier it gets to murder your (literary) babies.
If your story is less than a month old, you might want to bookmark this article and come back in a few weeks. Bring a printed copy of your story and a red editing pen (or a blue or green pen – or even purple! I’m not fussy!)

Instructions For Re-drafting

Read Aloud

Common advice to writers is to read your writing aloud. It’s common because it’s useful so if you want to try that now, go ahead. You may notice repetitions more easily and you may trip over words. That’s a good clue that something needs to be changed.

However, if you feel self-conscious about reading your story aloud even when nobody else is around – you’re not alone!  All over the world writers are blushing away to themselves and thinking, “Who am I to take myself so seriously?”

If you feel this way, start with the dialogue. If you can’t even do that yet, don’t worry. Reading aloud is of even more benefit after you’ve done a bit of editing, so try the rest of my suggestions, and come back to this one.

Prune that First Draft

Whether you read aloud or silently, as you go through your manuscript, in the words of writing professor and poet Basil Bunting, “Cut every word you dare!”

Instead of trying to create beautiful prose, look for repetition or waffle and cut it out. Of course, sometimes repetition adds rhythm to a story, and if that’s the case you may want to keep it in. More often than not, it can go. When you find you’ve said the same thing at least twice in different ways, decide which way works best and cut the others.

Here’s an example to help you get the idea. This is from the opening of a chapter from my first novel, Drawings In Sand.

Here’s the first version:

Macklin was in fine mood, a cracking mood. Man, he was so happy that Disney songs were playing in his head. He was a crazy cartoon of himself, delirious with joy. If he could have, he would have grabbed hold of a creeper and swung from tree to tree. 

In this first version, I say four times that Macklin was happy. In the shorter final version there are only two variations left:

Macklin was in fine mood, a cracking mood. Disney songs were playing in Macklin’s head. If he could have, he would have grabbed hold of a creeper and swung from tree to tree.

The cartoon image wasn’t required because there is already appeal to the senses of hearing – with Disney songs, and of sight  – with swinging from creepers. (When evoking mood, it’s useful to refer to more than one sense.)

Show and Tell

There’s another point worth noting in these two passages. In the first version, I tell the reader several times that Macklin is happy. But I also show it. All the phrases I cut were ones that tell rather than show. If we show something it becomes more alive: Disney songs playing in Macklin’s head give the reader a far stronger sense of character than he was so happy.

“Show, don’t tell,” is almost a mantra in creative writing programs and with good reason, but do remember it’s okay to tell a little now and then. I could possibly have got away with cutting: Macklin was in fine mood, a cracking mood. But because this is the way Macklin speaks, leaving it in develops the voice of his character. Everything you leave in should convey the character.

Kill Your Literary Babies

When I say that with practice it gets easier to kill your literary babies, I mean that after a while you realise all those beautiful or witty phrases you are so proud of are what need to go. I can almost guarantee that if I think something is really clever when I write it, I will  cut it out later. Here’s why:

often “clever” passages tell rather than show

often they detract from the action of the story
they scream, “Look at me.”

I’ve already discussed showing and telling, so let’s take a closer look at those other points.

When clever writing detracts from the story

Sometimes the literary baby you have to kill is a whole chapter, other times it’s a sentence or phrase. Let’s take another look at that passage from my novel, at the sentence I removed: He was a crazy cartoon of himself, delirious with joy. Initially, I thought this was clever, but it detracts from the action. It does this in two ways – it repeats information we already know. It’s also not realistic: Macklin may have imagined swinging from a tree, but he’d be more likely to see himself than a cartoon version.

When writing screams “Look at me!”

Nothing in your story should scream, “Look at me.” Again, let’s return to: He was a crazy cartoon of himself, delirious with joy. When reading that, readers are just as likely to say: “What the heck?” as they are to say, “Wow, isn’t she an amazing writer!”

The writer needs to disappear to allow the reader to be absorbed in the story. I can think of exceptions to this rule, of novels where the writer’s presence is overt, but this not something I recommend beginning writers should attempt. In the same way that Picasso could draw beautifully before he began breaking rules, writers need to master the craft to be able to know when it’s okay to experiment.

Make Your Point

Finally, as you go through your first draft, think about what you want to convey – a novel needs a plot, and a short story needs a point. I’d say that every chapter in a novel can be seen as a short story too – it needs a point. So cut anything distracts from this.

I love comments! If you have any questions or would like to share your experience of redrafting, join in the discussion.
Yvonne Spence has an MA in Creative Writing and has taught adults and children. Some of her short stories have won prizes, and several have been published in anthologies. Her novel Drawings In Sand: is available on Amazon.
Photo courtesty rattigon via Freedigitalphotos



  1. This is a fantastic post. Absolutely helpful and powerful. Sharing all over for writers everywhere and I’m bookmarking myself so I can come back and refer to your wisdom when it comes to publishing. You rock!

  2. I am still struggling with my draft. Luckily I titled it Destiny so, I guess gotta wait up for destiny to make me edit my story…lol

    Loved your thoughts on the above. Gonna share it across and refer it over the weekend when revising a few chapters of mine 🙂

    1. Ruchira, in my opinion struggling can be good – it means you are giving it lots of thought!
      Your title sounds good and your attitude does too – I’ve had times when I couldn’t get on with writing for a while then when I got back to it the story went in a new direction. This happened so often with my first novel because I wrote it when my kids were little! (It took a long time, but I’m glad it did,it’s a far more forgiving book than it would be otherwise.)

      Thanks very much for sharing.

  3. Pingback: When Writing Won’t Come – A Pig of a Post | Yvonne Spence

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.