Drafting and Editing a Manuscript : My Six Stage Approach

The following is a condensed summary of my own process for drafting and editing a full novel-length manuscript. The stages would vary a little depending on whether you’re working on a film script, a stage play or a short story but the essential features of the sequence would remain the same. I can’t promise that the six stages I follow would work for you but I thought I’d share an approach that has proved useful for me during my writing career.

Please note that there is a preceding set of stages concerning planning and plotting and world-building but these would need separate blogs (essays, books etc) in their own right to explain in more detail.

Stage 1 – First draft of individual chapters on the screen. I now habitually write the chapters for my books as separate electronic documents. I find this is easier to manage with the scrolling and the navigating around the screen. Trying to work with an electronic manuscript of over 100k words starts to slow your system down. I like to drop in key plot and story markers in square brackets, a few ‘seed’ sentences here and there that occur to me on the spur of the moment and then I’m away. Sometimes I even start at the beginning and work through to the end!

Stage 2 – Edit the first draft of each chapter on screen. This first review should be in sequential order, so that you start get a sense of the narrative flow, any plot holes and the emotional impact of the story. I tend to find at this point there is some crucial information that I’ve failed to reveal to the reader (or I’ve revealed too much) and so have to re-draft as a result. This is common for my writing style, which is fairly non-linear, and it comes from a background in writing stage plays, where I would often write the exciting scenes first and then go back and trudge through the ‘plot-filler’ moments and the critical story points. It is usually at this point that I find I have left a massive gap in the middle of a chapter that I was intending to come back to later (and then never bothered).

Stage 3 – Collate electronically, print out and edit on paper. This stage is the first time I’ve got the entire document in one place, which gives me accurate word count and makes it feel like a thing of substance. This slower-paced editing stage gives me the chance to polish the sentences, the dialogue and, crucially, identify any issues with pacing. You can instinctively feel whether you’ve rushed one scene or dumped too much exposition by the speed of your reading here. I enjoy this part because you can settle back into a comfy chair and just read and scribble. Occasionally I’ve also tried to do this stage by reading aloud to myself. It slows down the process but helps you identify your real clunky sentences and it excellent at highlighting unrealistic dialogue.

Stage 4 – The Kindle read-through. Once you’ve made your edits from Stage 3, export it as an ebook and read it through on an electronic device like a Kindle, tablet or smartphone. This adjusts the text size, the screen size and the line endings and lets you spot missing words and errors you wouldn’t ordinarily spot. Again, the pacing of the scenes and the story should really come through more now and you may start to tell yourself: ‘I need whole new chapter here’ or ‘I can just remove that entire paragraph and it wouldn’t hurt the story.’ My advice is to cut, cut, cut at this stage!

Stage 5 – Copy-editor / proof-reader. Now that you know you won’t be too embarrassed by the state the manuscript is in, get it sent off to a copy-editor or proof-reader (thank you Wanda for Book 1 and Anita for Book 2!). I had Monastery copy-edited but only went with proof-reading for Archipelago. This stage should highlight any other issues that you’ve not been able to spot because you were so close to the text. Double, double check any amendments you make during this stage. I’ve found that most of the errors I have in the final document relate to changes I made after proofing.

Stage 6 – Final Kindle Test. After you made the updates, read through again on an electronic device, to do a final, final check. Even at this stage, you’ll still be finding the odd error creeping in here and there. But, hopefully, you’ll put it down at the final page and feel pleased with what you’ve accomplished!