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.


[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?

Writing Update, and How to Keep Going

I’m directly on track with my novel! I’ve edited 800-ish words every day for the past two weeks. From past experience, however, this is the most dangerous time for me. Once I feel satisfied with myself, I’m much more willing to slack off. After slacking off, I’m in danger of giving up altogether.

The solution?

This time I only let that satisfaction sink in for a few minutes. First I crowed gleefully like Peter Pan (well, with words and not actually any crowing); then I moved on, calculated word counts, and planned tomorrow’s quota. 


  • August: edit 40k (25k finished, 15k to go!) 
  • September: write 15k
  • October: write 15k
  • November: write 10k

How’s writing coming for you? Successes? Struggles?

How to Overcome Self Doubt: Writing Tip of the Day

Have you ever looked in the mirror so long that you started loathing your own reflection? You notice each flaw. Your nose isn’t shaped the way you’d like. Your skin tone is less than perfect. Those pimples just keep popping up again, no matter what you do. 

I do this all the time with my writing. I examine it so closely that it seems deformed. The sentences are awkward and stunted. Word choice is less than ideal. I’m not even sure if it makes sense anymore. 

How do you fix this loathsome level of self-doubt? Here are my tactics for regaining confidence:

  • Pick up some light fiction to free your imagination from typo hunting and word gathering. Stop over analyzing and relax. Remember why you enjoy writing in the first place!
  • Set your story aside for a little while and engage in someone else’s imaginative vision. They can help rejuvenate your own muse. A day or even a week away from your story can help give fresh perspective.
  • Come back ready to be entertained. When you read through your work again, come with the mindset that you brought to the light fiction. Remember those horrible sentences that you loathed a little while ago? Now you can either appreciate them more, or understand how to improve them. 
  • Resist the desire to edit immediately. Sure, make a few notes in the margins, but don’t rip it up right off the bat. Give your muse time to breathe and engage in the story. Your story. That fascinating product of your own imagination. 

If you stare in the mirror and just focus on your nose, of course it’s going to look funny! But look around. Shocker: everyone else has noses. If you just stared and analyzed theirs, they would look funny too. 

There are times to analyze, but if you get stuck on that side of the pendulum, you’ll find yourself doubting your own muse. Back away from your story and enjoy it once in a while. It’ll give you the perspective and encouragement you need to move forward. 

Do these tactics work for you? How do you overcome self doubt?