Editing: The 4 Draft Breakdown

How often have you tackled a manuscript draft, only to meet with overwhelming discouragement? No matter how long you spend on that scene, you can’t seem to fix everything. The dialogue won’t pop, and the descriptions still don’t jump off the page. However much you tweak, something always needs fixing. Recently, my perspective on the editing process changed incredibly. The person who changed it is Reyna Grande from a UCLA Writers Faire panel.

Grande’s advice is simple and practical. When approaching a 2nd or 3rd draft, focus on one element. Just one. Don’t try to edit everything at once. First, look at the big picture to check that everything makes sense. Once the essentials are in place, then you can get to the fine tuning. Each of these 4 elements often deserve a draft of their own:

  1. Consistency. Your main character’s blue shirt can’t inexplicably turn plaid by the end of the scene. And where exactly is 12th street? How did it jump locations so quickly? Personally, I find it horribly easy to mix up these details, so my first editing spree will be to double check for consistency.
  2. Character growth. Fine tune your character’s gradual changes. At what point does he or she show maturity? Courage? Loyalty? It shouldn’t just appear with the snap of your fingers. Weave it into the fabric of your story so that the change feels natural and satisfying.
  3. Dialogue. If you had a hard time pinning down your characters’ voices on your first draft, listen closely this time around. How do they talk? Any slang or jargon that they should use? Get to know them on a conversational level.
  4. Descriptions. Once you have the plot and character essentials taken care of, start delving into the background. The atmospheric sights, smells, and sounds. Give texture to your world. Imagery draws your readers in, giving them more ways to connect emotively with the story.

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[Above: My edits from 2008. I put so much work into this page, and it doesn’t even exist in my story anymore! Ah, silly younger Sarah. Was that really just five years ago?]

I’m sure that you’ll need more than 4 drafts, but these are enough to get you started. After each draft, you’re closer to your goal of a perfectly sculpted manuscript without adding the stress of scene-by-scene perfectionism. Any other elements that you think deserve a draft of their own? What does your editing process look like?

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