You've written your first draft. You've brought out the red pen. Now what? If you're like a lot of beginning writers, you'll go through and mark your spelling and grammar errors, maybe change a couple lines to something even more brilliant. But what if your manuscript needs more? Are you asking, "What more is there?"
Let's categorize edits into four types:
1. Plot revision. Major overhaul. And perhaps one of the hardest because that means you have to chop your baby up and duct tape it back together. Your best preparation for this is to read plot books. Screen writing books can be your best friend here because they completely ignore craft and focus solely on story. Apply what you've learned by watching movies, reading books, plot-editing friend's manuscripts, then finally plotting out your own ms (cards, charts, bullet points). You have to step waaay back and objectively decide if all your plot points lie in the right places. If you have an unshakable plot, the other stuff will be much easier to play with.
2. Character revision. If you've been getting feedback along the lines of, "I like the concept, but I'm not connecting with your characters," you may need to concentrate only on characters. Step back. If your main character is you, you may want to step way, way, way back, as in start something new until you can analyze your work dispassionately. Every character needs to be unique: in the way they dress, talk, act, think. And each needs to be necessary to the plot. Take each character and describe him or her—especially do this with your main character—if he/she can only be described in cliché terms or by the things that happen to him/her, you’ll need character revision. Each character needs quirks, a way of speaking and thinking so that even readers with nothing in common can relate.
3. Continuity. This is more of a last edit and can be done by a critique or writing partner—many beginning writers mistake this for the next edit they do after the first draft. You can do it at the same time as other edits, but try breaking them down. For continuity, check dialogue—do each of your characters have their own language and stick to it—time lapses are coherent, plot points follow each other, names and special words keep the same spelling, format, chapter numbers, etc, etc. Dedicate a portion of this edit to ensuring that every scene and every character has their own arch.
4. Line, grammar, spelling edits. Usually, the simplest edit. It also acts like blinders for writers unused to editing—instead of focusing on the big stuff, the hard stuff, the rip-out-your-heart stuff, writers concentrate only on this simple stuff. You’re doing a disservice to yourself, and your writing/critique partners if you keep your blinders on.
Editing takes just as much practice as writing. being able to recognize and fix problems in other people’s work, and recognizing and fixing problems in your own are two completely different things; skills that take equal time to cultivate and master. The best advice you can take is to step back, prepare yourself with how-to-guides, practice with friends, and practice on yourself.
Vickie Motter is a literary agent with Andrea Hurst Literary Management, based on the west coast. She acquires all genres of YA as well as Adult Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy. Visit her blog Navigatingthe Slush Pile for more information and writing tips.