Writing A Book: What Happens After The First Draft?

Many new writers are confused about what happens after you have managed to get the first draft out of your head and onto the page.

manuscriptI joined NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year and ended up with 27,774 words on a crime novel, the first in a new series. It’s not an entire first draft but it’s a step in the right direction and the plotting time was sorely needed.

Maybe you ‘won’ NaNo or maybe you have the first draft of another book in your drawer, but we all need to take the next step in the process in order to end up with a finished product.

Here’s my process, and I believe it’s relevant whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.

(1) Rewriting and redrafting. Repeat until satisfied.

For many writers, the first draft is just the bare bones of the finished work and often no one will ever see that version of the manuscript. Remember the wise words of Anne Lamott in ‘Bird by Bird’ “Write shitty first drafts.” You can’t edit a blank page but once those words are down, you can improve on them.

editing arkane

My rewrites and edits for Pentecost

I love the rewriting and redrafting process. Once I have a first draft I print the whole thing out and do the first pass with handwritten notes. I write all kinds of notes in the margins and scribble and cross things out. I note down new scenes that need writing, continuity issues, problems with characters and much more. That first pass usually takes a while. Then I go back and start a major rewrite based on those notes.

After that’s done, I will print again and repeat the process, but that usually results in fewer changes. Then I edit on the Kindle for word choice. I add all the changes back into Scrivener which is my #1 writing and publishing tool.

(2) Structural edit/ Editorial review

I absolutely recommend a structural edit if this is your first book, or the first book in a series. A structural edit is usually given to you as a separate document, broken down into sections based on what is being evaluated.

I had a structural edit for Pentecost in 2010 and reported back on that experience here. As the other ARKANE novels follow a similar formula, I didn’t get structural edits for Prophecy and Exodus. However, I will be getting one for the new crime novel when it is ready because it is a different type of book for me.

Here’s how to vet an independent editor if you are considering one.

(3) Revisions

When you get a structural edit back, there are usually lots of revisions to do, possibly even a complete rewrite. This may take a while …

(4) Beta readers

Beta readers are a trusted group of people who evaluate your book from a reader’s perspective. You should only give them the book if you are happy with it yourself because otherwise it is disrespectful of their time.

This could be a critique group, although I prefer a hand-picked group of 5 or 6 who bring different perspectives. I definitely have a couple of people who love the genre I am writing in as they will spot issues within the boundaries of what is expected, and then some people who consider other things.

My main rule with beta readers is to make changes if more than one person says the same thing. Click here for more on beta readers.

(5) Line edits

Editors Notes Exodus

Line editor’s notes for Exodus

The result of line editing is the classic manuscript covered in red ink as an editor slashes your work to pieces!

You can get one of these edits before or after the beta readers, or even at the same time. I prefer afterwards as I make broader changes of the book based on their opinions so I want the line editor to get the almost final version.

Line edits are more about word choice, grammar and sentence structure. There may also be comments about the narrative itself but this is a more a comment on the reading experience by someone who is skilled at being critical around words.

The first time you get such a line edit, it hurts. You think you’re a writer and then someone changes practically every sentence. Ouch.

But editing makes your book stronger, and the reader will thank you for it.

(6) Revisions

You’ll need to make more changes based on the feedback of the beta readers and line editor. This can sometimes feel like a complete rewrite and takes a lot of detailed time as you have to check every sentence.

I usually make around 75% of the changes suggested by the line editor, as they are usually sensible, even though I am resistant at first. It is important to remember that you don’t have to change what they ask for though, so evaluate each suggestion but with a critical eye.

(7) Proof-reading

By this point, you cannot even see any mistakes you might have made. Inevitably, your corrections for line editing have exposed more issues, albeit minor ones.

So before I publish now, I get a final read-through from a proof-reader. (Thanks Liz at LibroEditing!) After Prophecy was published, I even got an email from a reader saying congratulations because they had failed to find a single typo. Some readers really do care, for which I am grateful and that extra investment at the end can definitely pay off in terms of polishing the final product.

(8) Publication

Once I have corrected anything minor the proof-reading has brought to light, I will Compile the various file formats on Scrivener for the ebook publishing platforms. I will then back the files up a number of times, as I have done throughout the whole process.

(9) Post-publication

This may be anathema to some, but the beauty of ebook publishing is that you can update your files later. If someone finds a typo, no problem. If you want to update the back matter with your author website and mailing list details, no worries. If you want to rewrite the whole book, you can do that too (although some sites have stricter rules than Amazon around what is considered a new version.)

time and moneyBudget: Time and money

Every writer is different, and there are no rules.

But in terms of time, your revision process will likely take at least as long as the first draft and probably longer (unless you’re Lee Child who just writes one draft!). For my latest book, Exodus, the first draft took about 3 months and the rewriting process took about 6 months.

In terms of money, I would budget between $500 – $2000 depending on what level of editing you’re looking for, and how many rounds. You can find some editors I have interviewed as well as their prices here.

I believe editing at all these different stages is important, because it is our responsibility to make sure our books are the best they can be. But if you can’t afford professional editing, then consider using a critique group locally or online. The more eyes on the book before it goes out into the world, the better.

What’s your editing process?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Do you have a similar approach or something completely different?

Top image: BigStockPhoto old spanish manuscript, Bigstockphoto time and money

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  1. says

    Hi Joanna! First of all: Thanks for the good information you give! It is really helpful! Together with a friend, I´m writing a nonfiction-book about a certain music style (I´m a musician). We did a lot of research (filming, interviews,…) for our book. Now we are both writing and trying to get things together. For our book, we have to work with several programs (music-writing-program Sibelius, Photoshop, Pages…). To get all information together, I try to import PDF´s and jpeg´s into Pages (as I work with a Macbook), which is a hell of a work and the program Pages sucks because it´s not an editor program. What can you suggest as a better program? Or should I just put all files in a chaotic way together and leave the work for a professional editor? But this will cost a hell of a money I guess…? Do I have to provide perfect edited pictures and PDF´s, or is this work of the book editor? Should I edit all by myself, and if yes: in which program?
    Thanks for your help, kind regards, Matthias

  2. says

    Hey Joanna,

    I love your posts.

    What do you do when you are part of a writing group. You give them a finished draft, they completely trash it – but they love the characters?

    Should I write it from scratch addressing their concerns and reworking the plot so that it is easier to understand?

    I’m also not sure how much critique from this group is valid as I still don’t know them well yet but they do go for the jugular – lol.

    Thank you


    • Joanna Penn says

      Hi KD, I’m one of those people who don’t use writing groups. I prefer to pay a professional to help me improve my writing, or do workshops with published writers who are actually making a living with their writing. How many of the people in your group who trash your characters actually have a) books finished and b) books published?
      Check here for a list of pros – http://www.thecreativepenn.com/editors/
      Also read – The Pursuit of Perfection and how it harms writers – by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

      • says

        Hi Joanna,

        I must admit I do feel a bit discouraged today and I write a lot. In truth the other people in the group are not published but also they don’t write what I write – thriller/horror – so I also am not sure they will get it or like it because it’s not their style. Maybe I will budget for good professionals as you say.

        I will check out Kristine’s book. I have heard her speak on a podcast and I think she’s great!

        Many thanks for your help and your fast reply. You rock!


        • Joanna Penn says

          I would add then that you should only use beta readers or critique partners who love the genre you write in. If you write thriller/horror, I wouldn’t share with people who write literary fiction or romance, for example. Just too different :) Find some other thriller & horror writers to hang out with!

          • says

            Yes, thank you for that. I really appreciate your feedback. The interesting thing about this is that that piece got me an LA agent and 3 jobs on TV shows. I didn’t tell them that as I was just looking to update it and write it out as a novel instead of a TV pilot. Anyway great advice as always Joanna. Thank you :)



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