In the excitement of typing ‘The End’ on your completed first draft, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re all set to start sending your work out to literary agents (many students on our creative writing courses have fallen into this trap). But I would always recommend you go the extra mile (or indeed the many extra miles) to polish your novel to a brilliant shine and make it as good as you possibly can before you start submitting it – otherwise you’ll be kicking yourself later when the rejections start coming in.
Our 6-week online Edit & Pitch Your Novel course is aimed at giving you our best advice on how to edit and rewrite your novel and then how to pitch it to agents. And I’m extremely aware that lots of people will be more interested in the agent’s pitching tips than my beautifully honed editing advice. But never underestimate the importance of the editing and rewriting process. For writers who are serious about their craft, ‘The End’ really is just the beginning.
The editing and rewriting process starts with your first read-through. It’s worth taking care with this, and here are some tips to help you get the most out of it:
1. Don’t start straight away: Resist the urge to read through your novel as soon as you’ve finished writing it. You need to steady yourself; to be measured and settled, and achieve as much distance as you can. I’d say it’s good to wait around two weeks before you start your first read-through. Some people may want to leave it longer than that, but there’s a fine balancing act between leaving it long enough to gain perspective, yet not so long that it goes completely cold on you. Definitely don’t let yourself start to read the novel for at least a week after you finish it.
2. Format your work properly: Sort out the format of your novel before you read it through. Get it right now, at first draft stage, even though you’re not yet ready to show it to anyone else and are only doing it for yourself. So that’s: Numbered pages and your name and title in the header, 1.5 or double spacing between lines, a simple unfussy font eg Times New Roman 12 point, dialogue properly set-out and paragraphs indented (as they would be in a published book). Make it all look beautifully crisp and professional right from the off – it will make your read-through more pleasant and will enable edits and note-taking to happen much more easily.
3. Print it out: We work on-screen more and more these days, and many of us do all or most of our reading on-screen too. But don’t do this read-through on-screen. Print your novel out on paper, old-style. When you see your words on the printed page, as opposed to on screen, you see them differently. It will help you feel more like a reader than a writer, which is important for this first read-through, as I’m about to explain …
4. Read as a reader: I spend a lot of my time telling students to learn to read as writers, but for this read-through you need to try to enter the mindset of a ‘normal reader’ and do your best to see your novel from the outside, as though it was written by someone else. This is tricky – perhaps even downright impossible – but have a go. The more adept you become at being able to shift your mindset – moving from writer to reader to editor and back, the better equipped you’ll be for the rewriting and editing process.
5. Don’t read the whole novel at once: Another temptation, when doing your first read, is to burn your way through it in one go. Try your best not to do this. If you sit for a very long time, sucked into a kind of novel-vortex, you’ll lose that sense of distance that I’m banging on about. If possible, spread your reading across several days – and particularly if, as you read, you start to feel that you’re either a genius writer or the worst writer in history. Don’t go into the light! Put the typescript down often and do your best to switch off your front brain – by which I mean don’t consciously try to problem-solve. You’re trying to be the reader here – the problem-solving comes later.
6. Jot things down as you go along: Read with a pen in your hand and make notes in a notebook and on the typescript, but don’t worry about the minutiae at this stage. I’d say this isn’t the time for correcting typos and fiddling with fine detail. I don’t even think this is the time for trying to figure out whether specific scenes are working – tell yourself it’s fine to leave that until later on. This first read is about the big picture, and about your broad readerly reactions. For example, you might write: “Rachel is unsympathetic – an awful moaner” about a character who’s getting on your nerves – or, “story gets really slow in the middle” or “ending feels trite”. And don’t forget to write positive notes too when you feel things are working!
7. Don’t Despair: Whenever I’ve done the first read-through of my novels, an awful sinking feeling has gradually descended on me – and by the time I’ve reached the end, I’ve decided the whole thing is irredeemably awful. I call this THE PAIN (always in upper case), and it’s a very common phenomenon. All I can say to you, if you feel THE PAIN, is that you are far from being alone, and that you can work your way through it and out the other side. The next stage in the editing process is to sit back from the typescript again – perhaps for another week or two – to allow it all to swill around in your back brain. Read over your notes and jot down further thoughts. You’ll probably find that the general despond will start to form up into some specific shapes and ideas, and you’ll begin to understand what the key issues you need to fix are, and to glimpse a way forward. That’s when it’s time to return to reading closely through the text again and starting to plan your rewrite …
You can find out more about the next online Edit & Pitch Your Novel course here.