7 Mistakes To Avoid When Editing Your First Draft


Congratulations! You've written and completed the first draft of your manuscript. That's a huge deal.

It takes courage and discipline to finish a body of work the size of a novel. It also requires dedication and self-belief to 'turn up at the page' day-after-day, committed to your story's plot and characters.

Let the feeling of achievement wash over you. Enjoy it, bask in it. Hold on to that high you're riding while you can. But don't forget that the editing process is still ahead of you.

Let's take this opportunity to look at 7 mistakes to avoid when editing your first draft.

Mistake #1: Beginning The Editing Process Immediately

Unless you already have a contract with a publisher and must meet a deadline, give your first draft time to settle before you start the editing process. We'd suggest at least two weeks, preferably four.

If you can, move onto something else or completely take a break from writing. Reconnect with friends and family. Have some fun!

Having that break will give you the distance and perspective you need to edit your first draft. It will also help to ensure you don't burn yourself out – on the hectic roller-coaster ride that is novel-writing, it's important to rest and take care of your physical and mental health.

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Mistake #2: Expecting Your Manuscript To Be Perfect

Once you've had a break and you're ready to get started on editing, don't expect your manuscript to be a masterpiece. It's just not possible.

In fact, it's almost guaranteed that your first draft won't be great. It'll be clunky. You might realise some of your dialogue is on-the-nose, your plot pacing isn't quite right, and your characters need further development.

This might leave you feeling a little deflated. But don't beat yourself up!

First drafts are about getting all the messy words onto to the page so you have something you can polish and build upon.

As YA fantasy author Shannon Hale says:

"When writing a first draft, I have to remind myself constantly that I'm only shoveling sand into a box so later I can build castles."

So don't be too hard on yourself. Come to the editing process with fresh eyes, renewed energy and the understanding that your manuscript isn't perfect.

The magic happens when you edit.

Mistake #3: Letting Anyone and Everyone Read It

Writing and finishing a novel isn't easy. Most people – especially non-writers – will be impressed that you've done precisely that.

Your friends and family will be proud of you, and are likely to express their excitement by asking if they can read your first draft.

Don't do it. Your first draft is sacred. It's at a vulnerable stage. Do not let just anybody and everybody read it.

If you feel that you absolutely must show someone your first draft, make sure it's someone who has your best interests at heart, with an equal measure of honesty to provide you with useful feedback.

(Alternatively, you might like to look into working with beta readers. This can be done after your first draft, after you've completed your first round of self-edits, or both.)

Mistake #4: Editing Without A Plan

Rather than diving in head-first and seeing what happens, create an editing plan to keep you on track and give structure to your approach.

Work out how much time you'll dedicate to the editing process. Will you set aside one hour per week or one full day? Then work out manageable chunks of the editing process.

Put your plan down in writing. We recommend treating yourself to a new, thick notebook for the editing process, and outlining your plan on the first page.

For example:

I'll edit one chapter per week OR I'll dedicate three hours of editing time to each chapter.
This means I'll have completed all chapter edits by (insert date).

To meet this deadline, I must sacrifice the time that I usually (insert activity).
Once I've completed my edit, I'll reward myself by (insert reward).

If you're really in need of some accountability to stay on track, have your plan witnessed/signed by someone else! This person will be your 'accountability buddy'.

Then it's time to sit down and read your manuscript as a whole before you start editing.

Rather than doing this in your working document, we recommend either printing out the manuscript and reading it in hard copy, or loading the doc onto a tablet or e-reader.

Read your manuscript with a precise focus on structural elements first and foremost.

When you get down to the nitty-gritty later, you can also work on improving things at a sentence level (copyediting) – but don't get bogged down in this to the detriment of a proper structural edit.

Here are some questions you might like to keep in mind as you read:

  • In this scene, whose point of view am I writing in? Does this make sense?
  • Can I improve on the pacing in Acts 1, 2 or 3? Do any parts drag on or feel like they've been skipped over?
  • Does the inciting incident still work? Does the story start in the right place?
  • Is my climax good enough?
  • Where did I lack detail?
  • Does each scene have a purpose? Does it advance the plot and/or contribute to character development?
  • Are the stakes high enough? If not, what do I need to change to raise the stakes?
  • Have I rushed the ending?
  • What is the overall theme in my first draft? Is it clear enough? Is it too clear (i.e. not subtle enough)?
  • Are my characters fleshed-out and complex? What emotions do they make me feel?
  • Which characters might need to be cut, or relegated to the background?
  • Who needs to come forward? Do I need to introduce a particular character earlier?

These are just some of the key elements to consider in the editing phase. For a more in-depth breakdown, check out our ultimate guide to structural editing for your novel.

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Mistake #5: Reading Without Taking Notes

So at this point, you've created your editing plan, had it witnessed by your accountability buddy, and read through your entire manuscript.

But you don't want to just read your manuscript without taking any notes. It's best to jot things down as they occur to you, and highlight any areas you know are going to need work when the real edit begins.

This is where a hard-copy read-through can be handy. Have an arsenal of stationery at the ready (sticky notes, different-coloured pens, highlighters) and go to town on your manuscript.

You can also use your new notebook as an editing bible, writing down all your thoughts to prepare yourself for the upcoming edit.

Mistake #6: Not Murdering Your Words

Once you've completed your read-through and taken all your notes, it's time to dive in and begin the actual editing process. And to do this, you need to be ready to commit murder.

Word murder, that is.

It sounds harsh, right? Killing the offspring of words you've figuratively given birth to. Murdering words, sentences, paragraphs that you've agonised over.

But this is what's required of you during the editing process.

Slay writing that comes across as preachy or flowery.

Dispose of dialogue that's more exposition than character-driven.

Get rid of clichés. Not only the clichés in your writing itself, but in your character profiles, too. You know the ones: the retirement-aged detective with a drinking problem, and other such tired tropes.

Allow your darlings to live and thrive in your first draft – then set them free. They've served their purpose of showing you where to improve your writing. Thank them and move on.

There's no place for darlings in your second draft, particularly if you want to submit it to a publisher.

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Mistake #7: Not Having Your Audience In Mind

It's easy to get so caught up with the mechanics of editing that you ignore what your target market is looking for in a novel. By this we mean both readers and potential publishers.

Let's say, for example, the protagonist in your first draft is a middle-aged woman who goes swimming in the ocean but almost drowns. While under the waves, and close to death, she experiences another realm where she can hear and talk to all the creatures in the ocean.

It's an exciting idea and one you've enjoyed writing – which is why you have a word count of 200,000. But the publishers you've been looking at submitting your manuscript to very rarely publish novels of this size.

That means you need to decide how you'll edit. Will you reduce your manuscript's word count to submit to your preferred publisher? Or will you look for more non-traditional methods of publishing?

Even if you do the latter, it's important to consider what readers are looking for, too. Are they really likely to take a chance on a debut novel that's 800+ pages long?

Take the time to research and understand the audience you're targeting with your manuscript. It will give you a better chance of getting published and/or finding success with readers.

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Working out how to proceed after finishing a first draft can be daunting.

But if you avoid the above mistakes, you can rest assured that the magic of editing will transform your rough first draft into a second-draft gem.

Flavia Young

Flavia is a freelance writer based in Tasmania. She's previously worked in corporate marketing, PR and communications. Has a B. A. in Business, Advanced Diploma of Arts: Professional Writing and Editing, and a Certificate of Freelance Journalism. Flavia now dedicates her time to writing full-time and helping others realise their own writing dreams. Flavia is considering resurrecting a long ago shelved first draft manuscript. Flavia is a cat person.

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