The Four ‘R’s of Editing Your First Draft: Rereading, Revisiting, Revising and Rewriting

So, you love writing, you have a killer idea, you write the thing down, and some weeks/months/years later, you are holding the complete, first-ever rough draft of your story. It was fun, exciting, and exhilarating to write. The ideas just poured out of you onto the page, and suddenly your story has become alive. But, you are aware that, amazing and awesome as your story is, it could probably use a tiny bit of tweaking before it reaches perfection. So now you are ready to edit it, polish it off, and publish!

Most of you are probably reading this and saying, ‘This girl is crazy! A tiny bit of tweaking?! Has she even written a story before?’ If you are not saying that, and are instead nodding and saying, ‘yah! Sounds great!’, then you are in for a nasty surprise.

In fact, if you have written anything before, or know anything about writing, you know very well that the step between draft #1 and the final product is an extensive and arduous process, one that is very time consuming. The first write of the story (for me) is the easiest. Every thought and idea just pours out. The ideas can come out however they want to, and you don’t even have to worry about wording it right because you can go over it in the revision. The first draft is just about getting the ideas down, not about getting them right. So it is not a huge challenge.

After the first draft though, you need to get into serious editing mode. You have to be willing to examine everything you wrote and toss things out right and left! Whole characters, ideas, scenes, dialogue and concepts that you love (and ones that you don’t love) will have to be deleted, or seriously changed. As I mentioned earlier, this is not a simple process, and should be taken seriously if you want your story to be the best that it can be. To help understand the process of editing your first draft, I have broken it down into four ‘R’s. Rereading, Revisiting, Revising, and Rewriting. Now I know that some of those words mean basically the same thing, but there are subtle differences, I promise! So let us begin with Step One…

Step One: Rereading

This step is fairly self-evident. But is the first step all the same! Reread your rough draft. Do so with sticky notes (if it is a hard copy), and lots of paper and pens/pencils (regardless of what kind of copy!). Leave the highlighters; I know they are exciting, but they are more useful in later drafts. Trust me. Now, sit down, and read. It is tempting to get caught up in correcting errors and editing your sentences to make them perfect, but you have to realize a lot of what you have will change so much that your editing may just be wasted effort if you decide to toss the entire scene you spent hours perfecting later on. So for this first read, don’t get to gung-ho. Read it, and make notes. For instance, maybe you will notice a certain scene doesn’t flow; write down the page number reference, and your thoughts about it. A good thing is to write down a list of questions that you still need to answer, particularly questions you have concerning story flaws. Why does this person behave in a certain way? Should this scene take place at this point in the story, or a different point? Etc. You will find there are no end of dilemmas you need to solve, so keep track. Write down the things you love and want to keep, the things that obviously don’t flow, and the ideas that have changed since you first began writing and no longer make sense with the story you presently have in mind. (In other words, write down whatever you feel the need to write/that is important to you!)

Be careful not to go overboard on this part. You can bypass the smaller problems for the bigger ones. Right now, you need to focus on central ideas. Look at the concepts/characters/plot points/etc. that hold your story together and critique them. Also, try to keep an outside perspective. I know this is your baby, and you wrote it just the way you wanted it, but don’t be afraid to challenge what you have. Which leads us to step number two….

Step Two: Revisit

You have read through your rough draft (at least once) and have given considerable thought to what you have. So now it is time to revisit your ideas. If you are at all like me, your story evolves while you are writing. Ideas you have when you start might have changed by the time you reach the end. Things are constantly evolving and changing as you work on your story, so some of your initial inspiration/ideas might no longer have a place in your story.

So revisit! Revisit everything! Characters, ideas, setting, etc. By revisit, I mean this. Look over them, carefully evaluate what you have, and start reconsidering those ideas/characters/etc. Start finding solutions to the questions you asked in the last step. Revisit the source of the problem, and do some serious brainstorming! Let me give you an example. My sister is working on a graphic novel, and she got me to read through her first draft and give her my thoughts. We spent the better part of the afternoon picking apart the story’s problems and thinking up solutions (which is actually my inspiration for this post). It is gruelling work sometimes, pulling out your hair and pacing back and forth while you try to wrestle through a problem, but it is necessary, and rewarding.

For example, one of the problems in her story was where the main character (an orphan) lives and who with (distant relative, foster parents, etc.). We spent close to an hour coming up with solutions, and then discussing that solutions strong points/weak points. We discarded numerous ideas that were flawed for one reason or another. It took a long time to come up with a solution, but because we were picky about it, we found a solution that not only worked, but actually fit well and enhanced the story.

So don’t be reluctant to revisit those ideas, figure out what doesn’t work, and then brainstorm a new solution. And don’t be afraid to be a little hard on yourself at this point. Don’t work yourself into a panic or anything, but be hard on your core ideas. This is the time to set your story right. If you leave major idea flaws, they will come back to haunt you, no matter how much you cover them up. And the further you go in your story, the more difficult it will be to make changes to those flawed ideas, not to mention, the more work/time you will lose if you have to delete scenes you have spent a lot of time on. So now is the time to be harsh with your ideas, find out what is wrong with them, and get them straight. Don’t get me wrong, there will be lots of editing/idea changing along the way, but this is an excellent opportunity to work out the biggest problems.

Once you have revisited your ideas and reconsidered what you want to do with them, you will find that your big changes will cause lots of the story to no longer make sense. Which brings us to step three…

Step Three: Revising

Time to revise! This is (according to my personal dictionary in my head) a different thing then revisiting. Revisiting is going over your major ideas and going over the major problems you encountered in your reread. Once you have done this, however, you have to revise the rest of your story to fit the idea change. For example, going off of the example with my sister’s graphic novel, once we decided on a good solution for where the main character should live and who with, we needed to revise a lot of her other ideas. Because her main character was living in a different place under different circumstances, the scenes in the story that include her being home or mentioning her home and so forth needed to change to make sense with the new idea. A lot of small things will have to be added, deleted, or changed to make sense with the major changes you make.

Once you have decided on what you need to change (the big things in the revisiting and the small things in the revising), it is time for the final step…

Step Four: Rewriting

This goes without saying. But, now that you know what to do, it is time to actually do it! Write down in point form all of the ideas and changes you have come up with so you don’t forget, and then sit down and rewrite your story! By rewrite, I don’t mean opening up your last file and editing your changes in, I actually mean ‘rewrite it’. You may not like this, and if not, then go ahead and open up your word document and make your changes… but if you want my suggestion; start a new doc. Use your old one as a reference, even copy and paste it one chapter at a time onto your new doc so that you can look back and forth easily. But even if you are retyping word for word what you have in the copy and pasted chunk below on your page, it is still a good idea to make yourself type it in again, every word. This forces you to work a little fresher, and instead of just editing the major changes and keeping the rest, you actually have to work your new ideas into the whole story. I find this very effective, but that is my personal opinion!

And from there? Keep up with the editing! This is only one step to editing in the long run. You will have to continue to revise your story as you go, and it will be a long process, make no mistakes! But these are my guidelines for your very first rough draft. I hope they help, if you are indeed reading this, and if you indeed are a writer, and if you indeed have a rough draft you are wondering what to do with!

Well then; time for me to say goodbye again! So to whoever you are, wherever you are, should you happen to be reading this, I wish you the best of luck with your writing and editing, and I hope to see you back at my humble ‘writing advice’ section again!