Writing a Book: Editing that first draft

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Phew! Your first draft is done, and it was hard work. It was hard work to do the planning necessary to get a good book idea together, and it was hard work to get everything out of your head and into a file in more or less the right order.

Take a minute to celebrate. Getting your first draft done is a big achievement, but it’s not the end of writing your book. Now it’s time for what everyone says great writing is: rewriting.

The First Draft Is the Worst Draft

No matter how good your first draft is, it’s a long way from that book you’ll be proud of. First-time authors I work with are usually stunned when they get further along in the process and look back at what they had in the first draft. So, it’s okay that you’re going to find things that surprise you in a bad way.

You’re going to do the revisions to create the second draft, identifying key themes, cleaning up your language, and adding research and stories.

Read Your Book Out Loud

The first step in the revision process is to figure out what you need to revise. The best way to do that is to read your book out loud from beginning to end. Yes, I know, it would be easier and faster to read it silently from your computer screen. Don’t do that.

Reading aloud has several advantages. The most important is that your mouth will catch things that your eyes will miss. The other important thing about reading aloud is that it forces you to slow down and concentrate on the words.

Before you start reading, make sure you have a variety of ways to mark things that you want to change. I usually use several colors of highlighters and a couple of different color pens. I capture the ideas I get while I’m reading my manuscript on a digital voice recorder.

Things to Watch For

Obviously, you want to mark grammar and wording changes that you catch while reading aloud. I suggest marking these in two different colors of ink. Use one for grammar or wording changes. Use a different one for ideas about what you could do with the material at this point.

Things to Highlight as You Go
• Promises, such as, “I’ll tell you,” “You’ll learn,” “In this chapter”
• References to other parts of the manuscript
• Statements of fact or research findings
• Quotations
• Proper names

You mark those things, so you can make sure that they are both correct and consistent. Keep your promises. Facts and quotes should be checked to make sure they are properly rendered and properly sourced. Given names and other proper nouns should be checked to make sure that they are properly spelled and spelled the same way every time.

Check the Transitions

When you’re done reading, go through the manuscript again, but this time, just look at the beginnings and ends of chapters. Chapter beginnings should tell the reader what he or she will find in the chapter. The end of chapters should help the reader transition to the next chapter.

Identify the “Red Threads”

“Red Threads” are what I call the important ideas that you want to run through the book, like a red thread in a tapestry. You probably knew some of them when you started the first draft. Since the writing process often leads to discovery, think about whether any red threads should be modified, removed, or added.

Now, Go Thou and Revise!

Your read-through and markup has given you a good analysis of what you have in a manuscript. Now, use those notes and highlights as your guide to create a second draft that’s way better than the first. You’re after a well-written draft with consistent themes that makes your key points concisely and eloquently.

One More Thing

The best business books are written conversationally, the way you would tell it to a friend. You don’t want to sound like you’re trying to be an author. You want to sound like a friend. So, take the advice of Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

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