Revising Your First Draft: The First Read-Through

Nat RussoBasics, Editing, How-To, Revision, Writing 37 Comments

[Revised 02/10/2015]

What have I gotten myself into?

If you’re in the middle of your first draft, you’ve probably asked yourself that question several times by now. Writing that first draft can feel like running a sprint at times. Your head is full of ideas for setting, characterization, dialog, plot, and interesting scenes. Thoughts are flowing so fast that your fingers can’t keep up. Putting the words on paper is like a mental dump of information. Did you capture it all? Did you get that last thought translated from brain signals to keyboard strokes? You’re not certain, but if you stop to look back you just might miss that next thought that’s bubbling to the surface.

Now you’re starting to get worried. Your “editor’s mind” is telling you that you missed a grammatical error a few sentences ago. And, oh no, was that an evil adverb you used back there? Should you have used walked or ambled? And did you just write “Tom snorted” instead of “Tom said?” Snorted? How the heck do you snort a word? You must be on the wrong track. How dare you call yourself a writer? You should stop what you’re doing, right this minute, and correct those glaring mistakes. You should have known you weren’t up to the challenge. You’re either born with a keyboard on your lap, or you’re not a writer at all. You should just give up now and save yourself the inevitable humiliation.

Whoa. Slow down. Take a deep breath. Now take another. Everything is working as it should.

But what about all those mistakes? How can you say everything is working? Shouldn’t I go back and fix them?

Well…you could. But you probably shouldn’t. Not unless they’re quick fixes that don’t slow you down and make you think (typos, a missed punctuation mark, etc). Editing can be like crawling down a rabbit hole. Just when you think you’ve reached the end, you see that it goes deeper, and so deeper you crawl. The deeper you crawl the deeper it goes. Before you know it, that five-minute fix just absorbed an hour of your time, and your initial train of thought has long since been derailed. Sure, you can hop on the next train, but it might not take you to the same place…and the food car might not be as nice.

As odd as it may sound, that first draft is all about sprinting. Think of it like opening a package of modeling clay. It’s the raw stuff you use to build your novel. You set it on the table and mold it into a rough shape. In short, you’re giving yourself something to work with, not producing a finished product. That’s for later. It’s perfectly fine to go back a few pages, before you begin the day’s writing, and re-read what you have. Maybe make a correction or two. This may help get you back into the proper frame of mind, feeling the proper emotion, hearing the proper voices, etc. But this isn’t the time to stop and rewrite. You do that after you finish your novel.

OK. I just typed “The End”. My first draft is finished. Let’s go!

Two things: 1) Don’t type “The End”. Go back and delete it. If it’s already in hard copy for some reason, burn the page, delete “The End”, and reprint the page. 2) Slow down. You’re not quite there yet.

[Edit 2/10/2015:] To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with the words “The End” at the end of a manuscript. The reason I suggest you remove them is because A) you’re probably a new writer, and B) new writers tend to make some basic mistakes. One of these mistakes is using “The End” as a crutch to let the reader know the story is over. This isn’t good enough. The reader should know the story is over by the way in which you wrapped things up and gave them a satisfactory experience. Using “The End” will not fix a bad ending. Only good writing will.

I know you’re eager. You’ve just spent weeks or months—maybe years—finishing your first draft. You have a list of changes and edits as long as your arms and legs combined. Time to jump in, right?


But what about that “modeling clay” you were talking about, smart guy?

That story of yours is still fresh in your head. You’ve sweated over every line and word, every ellipsis and em dash. Heck, you even know which cup of coffee you were on when you wrote the fifth sentence of the second paragraph on page seventy-six! Put that manuscript in a place you’re unlikely to remember for the next several weeks and take a step back.

Weeks? You gotta be kidding me?

Weeks is arbitrary, true. And a tight deadline may not allow for it. When I completed the first draft of my bestselling debut fantasy novel Necromancer Awakening, I had to step away for several weeks, but I understand that might not be possible in your case. So let’s focus on what you’re trying to accomplish instead of some arbitrary measure of time. Right now, as you finish your first draft, you’re still too close to your work. Let’s face it, you’ll never be truly objective about the stuff you write, but you’ve never been less objective than you are at this moment. You just finished your masterpiece! You’re reveling in how much you’ve learned throughout the course of that draft, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself because you just accomplished something that few people manage to do. You’re an author now! Go celebrate. You’ve earned it.

While you’re celebrating the completion of your manuscript, you need to get some distance from it. Try not to think about it at all, if you can manage that. You’re a writer, right? So write! Start working on your next project and get the old one out of your head. Pick up a book and read. Whatever you choose to do, get away from your manuscript. When you pick it up again, you need to feel as if the words are somewhat strange and alien…like you’re rediscovering something you had almost forgotten. You’ll recognize the work, vaguely, as something you wrote. But you will have achieved some degree of objectivity and distance. You’re in “the zone” now.

When the manuscript is ready (the manuscript…not you), pick it up again and read it through, cover to cover. Don’t stop to edit! On this first pass, you’re the reader, not the writer. You want to put yourself in the shoes of your reader, and experience what that person is going to experience. You’ll never achieve this if your making corrections page-by-page as you go. It’s ok to take small notes. Some writers develop their own shorthand so that they can leave a quick mark on the page, confident that they’ll understand it when they see it again. This is a great approach, and one I’m fond of. Find what works for you, but you shouldn’t stop for longer than it takes to write a symbol or two on the page.

So what are you looking for in this first read-through? Here’s a list of some of the things I keep an eye out for. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s the list I used while revising Necromancer Awakening, and I intend to use it on future work as well.

1. Pacing

Pay close attention to parts of your book that seem to slow down and drag. This is where your reader is going to put your book down. If the problem is really bad, they might not pick it back up. I’d wager that you’ll hear far more readers complain that a book is too slow than too fast.

2. Clumsy Wording

It’s doubtful you chose the perfect words the first time through. Worse, it’s likely you chose words that don’t make any sense at all! Your fingers couldn’t keep up with your mind, remember? So highlight these words/phrases and move on. Jot a replacement down only if you can do so quickly, and without interrupting the rhythm of reading.

3. Cause/Effect

Sometimes, when we’re in a rush to get to the punchline, or busy trying to make a point, we’ll write the effect and forget about writing what caused the effect. This can be tricky, because as the writer you have all of the information in your head. You know the cause that caused the effect. The problem is that your reader doesn’t. Now that you have some distance from your work, you’ll understand your reader’s confusion, because you’ll share it.

As in many things, there is an exception to this: suspense. Take a look at the following two passages and see which one is more suspenseful:

Cause preceding effect

His would-be assassin was back there, somewhere. John raced down the hallway, desperate to put as much distance between them as possible. Another intersection ahead. This was just what he needed. If he could turn enough corners, maybe the assassin would get confused, and John could make his way to the lobby and out onto the street where people were out and about.

He made a sharp right and came face to face with his assassin. He gasped. The color drained from his face, and panic threatened to paralyze him once more.

Cause: “…came face to face with the assassin.”
Effect: “He gasped. The color drained from his face….”

Let’s try this a different way.

Effect preceding cause

His would-be assassin was back there, somewhere. John raced down the hallway, desperate to put as much distance between them as possible. Another intersection ahead. This was just what he needed. If he could turn enough corners, maybe the assassin would get confused, and John could make his way to the lobby and out into the street.

He made a sharp right and gasped. The color drained from his face and panic threatened to paralyze him once more.

He was face to face with his assassin.

I think you can see from this example that suspense can be the exception to the rule. I prefer the second version to the first. It’s like watching a horror movie when you can see the terror on the actor’s face before you see the monster. It builds tension in the reader, and that’s the holy grail because tension is what keeps the reader coming back for more.

4. Section Ordering

This will sound strange at first, but sometimes we write things out of order without realizing it. We have great and wonderful ideas circling around in our heads, but they come out the wrong way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve realized the story would work better if I reordered some of the sections. This is particularly true in manuscripts that employ multiple PoVs and PoV switching. The reasons are as numerous as there are writers, but I’ve found it’s typically a combination of pacing and cause/effect issues that cause section ordering to be a problem.

As I mentioned earlier, the list is far from exhaustive. But whatever you put in your personal list of hot topics, the concept is the same: you’re trying to approach this phase as a reader, not a writer.

One last note about this first read-through: I advise you to print a hard copy of your manuscript, if it’s at all possible. The temptation to revise is just too strong if you’re sitting in front of a keyboard. Try to recreate the reader’s experience as much as possible. It’s worth the time, cost, and effort.

In a followup post, I’ll take a deeper dive into my own revision process and share a checklist with you that I’ve found handy.

There’s a book that I’ve found to be a tremendous help, and you’ll see some of the concepts I merely touched upon explained in great detail.

Revision And Self-Editing (Write Great Fiction)

The book is written by James Scott Bell. You need this craft book in your library! Frankly, I’m a better writer today because of Mr. Bell.

So let me know what you think! Do you have any additional things you look for in your first read-through?

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 37

  1. Hey! that´s a fair bit of good advice there…I´ve taken some of it in because I´m just a new kid on the block; maybe I will get there one day, so I welcome any form of good advice.

  2. Hi Nat. Great article about the writing process. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who, on first draft, writes things down the in wrong order.

    I re-read a short story of mine the other week there and would you believe, I had written a sentence that, although didn’t flag up on Word as being wrong, didn’t actually make sense. I had a laugh at myself and corrected the problem, but it served to affirm how I love this writing thing.

    I hope you are well

  3. Very good advice. There’s also a bunch of slashing that will happen. I get messages all the time from writers saying “finally finished my MS! It’s 100k words!” No. It’s 75-80k. Hahaha

    1. Very true! I may have mentioned in this post that when I finished Necromancer Awakening, it weighed in at 160k words. Several rewrites later it was worse…180k words. It took another full year, but I managed to wrangle it down to 111k. That allowed me to cut right to the heart of my story, and it gave me room to expand some areas that sorely needed it. The final count was around 118k, which is acceptable in my genre (Fantasy).

  4. I am guilty of diving into editing as soon as the first draft is complete. With my latest work I am going to sit back longer and put some distance between me and the first draft — maybe work or another project — before I roll up my sleeves and begin editing. Good article, thanks for the tips.

    1. That’s a great plan of attack, Michael. The more distance you can get, the more ruthless you’ll be in your editing, which is exactly what a draft needs.

  5. How, thanks for this one, almost thought you were writing about me, reading my mind on the first bits!. Just finished mine, wrote it in three days, couldnt stop pouring out. Have read it three times so far, even shed tears and laughed throughout, the characters are just so live!. The fourth time I tried to revise and edit but kept forgetting to as I emotionally slipped again and again into the readers shoes. Am on it now. Thanks for such good advice. This one is for keeps.

    1. One of the best sayings I’ve heard when it comes to writing is this: “Write hot, edit cold.” It’s great that you recognized you were slipping into the emotion during editing. It’s a balancing act, because you want to juggle the emotion enough to feel it without it impacting your editing efforts 🙂

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  7. Thank you for this article it has been immensely helpful with my first rough draft I’ve been wondering what to do with it and I now have a good idea how to proceed. WIth four books in progress all in the health field about both my life and the US health system this is invaluable information I’d offer to anyone who asked me what to do now.

    Again thank you for writing this and I wish you more and more success with your own writing career!

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  8. I finished my first draft a couple of months ago. But, once I read through it I realized I needed more character development. So I have dug in to that and the story is much stronger and better now! The editing is next. I think! This is my first book and I am excited and nervous at the same time about the whole editing and publishing process. You know, the whole “will they think my story is stupid, awful, etc.” thoughts going through the back of my mind. Thanks for all the great advice and helpful hints! I enjoy your tweets very much!

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  9. Thanks for the great advice! I do have a question for you though. You did not mention “support” in the form of a reading team, or a group of people who you let read through your work as well. Do you do this? I am working on my first novel, and I was advised to to this. Thanks!

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      I’ve had mixed experiences with reading groups, Carrie. The best advice I can offer is to research the group thoroughly before getting too involved. Make sure the chemistry is right. Make sure there isn’t a “dominant” member that people follow for no other reason than they’re the loudest. Make sure you’re comfortable with them. And, most importantly, make sure you’re NOT the smartest/most experienced person in the room.

      I do caution against sharing your 1st draft, though. That draft won’t adequately reflect the quality of your story, and the negative feedback you’ll undoubtedly get from readers will only serve to undermine your motivation. That very first draft should be for you and you alone. Share it with a very close friend, if you must, as long as they understand that it’s the first draft, and what the purpose of a first draft is.

      I recommend polishing the manuscript to the best of your current ability. Make sure your manuscript represents the sum total of your current knowledge of the craft. Then share it. The reason I suggest this route is because we should always strive to grow in our craft. One of the best ways to do this is to revise to the best of our ability, and then see the gap between where we are and where we need to be. The magic happens in that gap.

    2. Nat,
      im back..and much closer to being done with draft 1. Last time we spoke…I had asked about beta readers. I was already in the process…and my readers had seen chunks of work. But I now understand the thoughts on “negative comments undermining the motivation”. So next time ill try it differently. My question today has to do with a copy editor….is your advice the same? Polish the work as much as I can before she sees it? Thanks! CBDEEM

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      Absolutely! Polish, polish, polish! Making it represent your absolute best quality makes the proofing and editing experience an educational one. And that’s where the magic happens! 🙂

  10. Hi Nat!
    Thank you so much for writing this. I have a problem with editing as I write and it was driving me bananas with my second book, a crime fiction novel, and I found all your tips very helpful! No I am not done with my first draft yet, but it has taken me too many years to complete b/c of this problem — editing while writing! Even my husband, a NYC Investigator who does some technical writing, has told me to stop editing myself while writing; that I should do as you suggested – edit afterward. I subscribed to ‘Erindor Press’ so that I can gain more writing tips that I may not have learned in my literature classes many years ago. Thank you again for these helpful tips. I will definitely be back on here for more. Much success with your own writing!!!

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  12. Nat,

    Good info, As a nonfiction writer, my writing style differs from yours—I correct as write. But once the first drift is done, I revise looking for the same things you do, plus fact checking. It’s all part of the job.

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      Thanks for sharing the perspective of a non-fiction writer, Jane! I’ll be writing some non-fiction in the next 2-4 years, so this is great to know!

      I would imagine that not only do you have to worry about the artistic nature of the prose, but you also have to worry quite a lot more about fact checking.

  13. Great advice as always. I put my book down after each revision and work on the next book until the first one is perfect, well close to perfect. Ordering is huge problem for so is typing so fast my words resemble the noise a phase cat writhing in death.

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  14. Pacing is a big one. There’s a lot of pressure on writers to get books out as quickly as they can and it’s usually a mistake. It’s always nice to hear a voice for craft over speed. Nice post. 🙂

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      Thanks, Donna!

      I see so many authors rush their work to publication when just another couple of weeks of work (a month tops) would have taken an “ok” work and made it really good.

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    2. When I was writing my first book and struggling with self doubt, I read an interview with one of my favorite authors, Katherine Paterson. She talked about her writing process, and how with each book she’d reach a point where she wondered if she knew how to write a book. … After dozens of books and major awards. I got this sinking feeling that my self doubt would never go away. That I would just have to learn to muscle through it.

      Based on experience and the comments of other writers, I do believe it is just part of being a writer. Which pretty much stinks. But there is comfort in knowing you don’t have to try to banish it. Just keep writing. Turns out, that’s the best solution anyway.

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      You hit the nail on the head, Donna: the best way to deal with this is just focus on the writing. After a career spent writing, one day we’ll look back on our body of work and…doubt it was worth anything. 🙂

      So it’s best to just concentrate on producing that body of work.

    4. Oh no! Not worth anything? I hope not! If I’m deluded, I need that delusion. LOL. 😉 We may not be the next Shakespeare or anything, but I think we can feel our work is worth something to the readers who love it, and to ourselves. I’m at the very beginning of my career and hope to continue to grow as a writer and release many more books. I have high aspirations for myself, in terms of the quality I hope to put out in another 10 or 15 years. But I’m still proud of my first book and think it’s a worthwhile read. That’s kind of what keeps me going. It’s not about bestseller lists and awards. It’s about connecting with readers and being proud of what you write. I think that’s within reach of many, many writers. 🙂

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  16. Most I knew. Some I sensed. I’m about to dive back into a crime novel, and, at the very least, it’s a refresher for refreshing, a phrase I hope is nowhere in the manuscript.

  17. Great post! That “Editor’s Mind” inner dialogue at the beginning is so accurate, haha. When doing my first read through of a rough draft, I make an outline of the scenes as I read them. After I finish the read through, I look back at my outline and adjust it as necessary, shifting scenes around, adding scenes in, or removing them entirely. I then refer back to this outline when I delve into a deeper round of self-editing. Creating an outline of my rough draft helps me catch a lot of problems with pacing, inconsistencies, and redundancy. A book that I would recommend on editing is Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon – very practical and filled with examples.

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      Thank you for that recommendation, Zed! I’ll check it out!

      Also, thanks for sharing your process! There may be a lot of “pantser” types out there who don’t outline up front, but may benefit from outlining the work after-the-fact, so to speak.

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