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In today’s blog post, I’m going to try to discuss the entire writing process from first draft to publication- or submission-ready. Where you are in the process should give you some clues as to what type of editing assistance you may need to get to the next step.
Step 1. First Draft
This is the part of the writing process where the writer composes ideas into sentences, paragraphs, and scenes. They may work from an outline, a vague plan, or just start writing from an inspired scene and later figure out where it is in the overall story. But it has to be written down. No one can edit an idea. Editing can only happen to words on a page/screen.
Plotters vs. Pantsers vs. Plantsers
There’s a great deal of discussion about how much planning is “best” for a writer. The bottom line is whatever process gets the first draft on the page is the best process for you. The following is NOT mine, but it’s a great graphic to use to discuss the nuances of plotting vs pantsing vs planning:
Is it complete?
In the simplest form: a first draft is complete when the story the writer wanted to tell is on the page with a beginning, middle and end.
There are genre conventions that can detail this further. One step up from BME is the 5-point plot:
- rising action
- falling action
Save the Cat, The Hero’s Journey, Romance in 3 (or 4) Acts
Each of these plot structures are ways to organize the “beats” of a story according to the expectations of readers of that genre. Each was developed from detailed studies of hundreds of genre books and movies to distill down the writing process into something a writer can follow to meet reader expectations. Literature majors love finding patterns, grouping unique ideas into “trends” or “tropes” in order to analyze its structure – and consequently, whether it is effective storytelling or not.
Going back to the beginning of this post, my advice remains: if it works for you, use it, do it, follow the path. However, I think there’s something even more basic that every story must use to be well-structured: cause and effect. If you want a particular outcome, something or someone needs to cause it to happen. No matter how many steps or what kinds of decisions are made, if the logic of cause and effect isn’t followed, the story will not hold together – and it will not hold readers’ interests.
A. Give characters goals
Give your characters choices of ways to go after their goals that are “good”, “poor” or (deliciously) “absolutely terrible.”
B. Then frustrate the characters as they try to reach their goals
The character who wants that promotion? Ruin their key presentation – it can be something small like a faulty projector lamp, or something big, like a rival stealing or erasing their thumb drive. It can also be in between, something that panics them for five minutes but they do fix it and go on.
When they have achieved their goal – or the goal has utterly gotten out of reach, never to be attained, and the character will have to set a wholly new goal, THEN the story currently being told has reached its end. This does not mean that a larger goal can’t drive a series, but the journey to chase THIS central goal of this ONE story has been completed.
If you are struggling with the first draft, there are a few options:
- Alpha readers
- Beta readers
- Developmental editor
The alpha reader is someone who might be a writing critique partner. They read the story as it is being written. This is the easiest way to check for cause and effect, because they’ll say “um, if you want him to be able to do karate to kick the bad guy’s butt, you need to show him learning it, or hint there’s awards for learning it in his past.” Alpha readers will also point out characterization inconsistencies or ask “wait, you foreshadowed this happening, and it should have happened already.” Alpha reading is an “exchange economy” option: “you read mine and I’ll read yours” and that often makes it free.
The beta reader is someone who is a reader of the genre. They read the story after the writer thinks the first draft is finished. They are not looking for grammar issues. They look for story problems. Places where the story doesn’t logically fit together – but having the whole picture of the unfolding plot, unlike the alpha reader, they can often say where the missing detail will fit best.. They’ll definitely address character inconsistencies or setting problems, or story timeline mishaps, because these things make a reader scratch their head and go “huh?” and the beta reader is a reader-advocate. They may offer solutions, or they may just go “you’ve got this problem here.” There are paid beta readers and there are unpaid ones.
You’ll want more than one beta reader, whatever way you go, because what one reader suggests is a problem, may be not a problem for another and you need to address only the most consistent problems. Not every book is going to appeal to every reader, but if they’re all noting the same issue, then it’s not a matter of taste, but a true problem.
The Developmental Editor is a story development and genre expert. They will always offer solutions to structural problems they find. This is based in objective analysis of the story’s structural elements and the genre’s expectations. A good DE will not suggest the ways THEY would do it, but suggest options that fit your style, your story’s voice, and genre and characters. The DE won’t just say “this information needs to be here” but they’ll suggest it be presented in so-n-so’s point of view, or as dialogue, or as internal narrative, or as a scatter of sentences throughout the scene or a single paragraph “here.” For more about developmental editors, check out this post.
Step 2. Second Draft
Once the alpha and beta readers have been through it, and a developmental editor has had you write new scenes, remove old ones, what you have is a second draft. This has to be checked for consistency in character and conflict development, tone and style. Because a writer will have written new, early-in-the-story material to fill a plot hole, there’s almost always a problem with character consistency. Here’s why: the writer has already written the character growth. The character matured or changed as a result of the broad strokes of the plot issues. This means that they are not the same person that started the story. BUT if the writer isn’t extremely careful, in that newly written scene will be this more mature character’s actions and not the lesser mature actions that should be there.
In a simple example, are you the same person you were at 5 that you were at 10, and now at 25? Of course not. For one, your language abilities have changed. You think and speak in more complex sentences than you did at 5. That means that the earlier narrative and dialogue in a story will show the inexperienced, unchanged person, not the one who has learned a few more ways to solve problems or even thinks about different things as problems.
Beta readers are good for second drafts too. Someone different than before is best. You always want new eyes – who haven’t seen the story before – so they can truly evaluate what’s on the page now rather than what was there before.
Developmental editors will also work on second drafts. Usually done as a “second pass.” They’re keyed to look for those turning points in characterization and make sure that the before/after developments are present.
Step 3: Grammar, punctuation, voice, and style
Once the story is complete and checked twice, the writer can begin to ask if the grammar, punctuation, voice and style, are accurately conveying the story. This accuracy is sometimes termed “readability” or “flow” and refers to how easily the written words are conveying the ideas the author has so that the reader is getting the same story the writer wanted to tell.
Awkwardly constructed sentences, misspelled or misused words, and punctuation that breaks the flow of ideas in weird ways or causes a reader to have to re-read to get the meaning clearly, are the domain of the copy editor, Generally whole sentences are not added, but words or phrases may be reordered to make a story idea more clear. Commas and periods are a big deal, as are misspelled or inconsistently spelled words.
In the United States there’s a style guide that governs most fiction writing – The Chicago Manual of Style. This, however, requires skill to use effectively. Some rules are indeed breakable when it comes to narrative flow. A fragment (normally a no-no) may serve best where a full sentence would break the character’s tone or slow the pace of a scene. And, of course, in dialogue, most grammar is about characterization. A character’s education, or lack of it, or the region they come from, becomes clear through their word and grammatical choices. For more on what a copy editor does and how to pick one, visit this post.
Step 4: Proofreading
As close as copy editors work on a manuscript, they are only human. A line editor and/or proofreader – usually looking at the story in pre-print layout – is the final check that everything is as it should be. A proofreader makes edit suggestions (they do not do the changes themselves, only suggest a comma, period, or replace a missing letter). They will also check for formatting errors, such as, special characters that didn’t transfer when you changed the font, or weird spacing when you have “full justification” set. Or a single line from a paragraph or word from a sentence left alone on a page (called a widow or an orphan). A proofreader should receive a file that is as close to the exact print or ebook layout as eventually intended for publication.
Is that all?
Beyond this point, your story should be done with editing. The remaining parts of the process to publication are about formatting and typesetting. Services like ebook formatting, print layout, book jacket or cover design and content are all part of formatting and typesetting.
While some companies that provide formatting and typesetting may also offer editing services, not all editors offer formatting or typesetting. Some book formatting services are actually vanity presses. Read contracts carefully and don’t sign away any of your rights. A book formatting service should never claim any part of your copyright. They are only supposed to format the files and return them to you so that you can upload, publish and distribute them where and how you want, with your copyright and your ISBN, etc.
So there you have it, an outline to the writing and editing process. HMU with any questions.