The Writing Process: Editing a First Draft, Part 1

Editing is a tough, exhausting process. It’s not glamorous like writing is. No one talks about the Editing Muse, though maybe we should, because she’s just as important. You’d think by my third book, I’d have a good idea of my editing process, but alas, like everything in my life, it’s a work in progress. The editing phase takes me much longer than it probably should, (thanks, self-doubt and waffling!) but I’ll keep track of my steps and write about them this time. I always think I’ll remember them, but I never do, so if you’re trying to get your editing process down like I am, it might help if you do something similar and record your process. This will allow me to better adjust and improve in the future. So, here we go. All brain cells on deck.


1. Initial Read Through

I give myself a couple of days after finishing the draft, then read the story, start to finish. Some people give it longer, but I like to have the ending fresh in my head as I reread the beginning. I also make changes during this phase if I feel inspired to, because if I’ve got momentum and want to fix something, I’m not turning that down. My goal is to get the entire story in my head at once, though I’m a slow reader and this still takes me days to complete. The goal of this read through is basically triage. I’m looking for weaknesses, plot holes, and inconsistencies. I record these issues in lists, I color code text, and I color code the chapters.

I have a list of plot and character arcs that need resolution. This is the core of the story, so I want to make sure each one has a beginning, middle, and end.

There’s also a list of minor spelling/capitalization things that I’ll need to check for consistency much later in the process. It helps if I write them down when I notice them so I don’t have to figure out all over again what needs to be checked.

I made a list each for things to double check in Book 1 and Book 2 of the series, so I don’t make any consistency errors across books. This is where having a series binder would have been helpful. I will definitely make one for my next series.

I also use a highlighting system that is constantly improving. For flow, word choice, or awkward phrasing, I highlight in yellow. For inconsistencies/plot issues, I use green. I also turn the bigger inconsistencies into their own list. For a specific plot thread I’m tracking in this story, I’m using blue, to make it easy to find. Finally, for something that I need to look at but can’t categorize as minor/yellow, I use pink. It’s useful, and I think I’ll be honing this system as the years go on.

Finally, I also highlight the chapter labels in my Scrivener “binder.” Red means it needs a lot of work, for example, it’s missing part of a scene, or needs rewriting. Orange means that there are some issues and decisions to make about changes to that chapter. Yellow means that it’s mostly minor stuff. No chapters get labeled green or blue until much later in the editing process.

Once I have identified my problems and messes, I come up with a game plan. The general principal is big stuff first, small stuff later.

2. Verify the plot arcs

Have I tied up all of the loose threads? Did I hint at a problem early on, then forget to resolve it? Are my resolutions satisfying and believable? Is there a better way this story could have ended?

Sometimes a subplot that’s hinted at the beginning ends up fizzling out, and I need to remove it. Other times, I learn something important about the plot while writing, and it needs to be better set up at the beginning of the book. While the last thing I want to do is rewrite the ending, if it’s necessary, I want to do that now, before I tackle the smaller stuff, and especially before I start polishing my prose. Unless it’s something I’m saving for the next book, if I posed a narrative question, I want to make sure it has an answer that will satisfy readers.

3. Dive into the Red and Orange Chapters

The next thing I do is tackle the red chapters and write the missing pieces in. This is also the time to make those decisions about how to fix certain plot issues. For example, I might need to add in an important piece of set up for something that happens later. If I changed something half way through, this is the time to modify the earlier chapters to create consistency.

4. Tackle the Green Highlights

The next biggest thing is to make sure that the story is consistent. I go back to all my green highlights and take the time to double check and verify these elements. This could be something like making sure that a character who’s speaking is actually in the room, or making sure that the time line allows for a character to be in a certain place at a certain time. This is especially important if I’ve got two groups of characters who end up meeting later in the story.

5. The Next Read Through

After tackling the big stuff, I do another read through. There will still be unresolved highlights and issues, but, again, before I work on the small details too much, I want to double check that the changes I’ve made on a macro level work. Once I’m happy with the story’s progression and resolution, I can dive into the details. I haven’t gotten to this point for my current project, so I’m going to leave off here for now.


For those of you in the editing phase, good luck!



6 thoughts on “The Writing Process: Editing a First Draft, Part 1

  1. Great system. The colour coding is an excellent, visual method. I used stars (*) at the start of each of my headers (chapters). 1, minor. 4, riddled with major mistakes.

    It can be extremely difficult keeping track of multiple people’s lives.

    For me, I have to create several spreadsheets. Amongst them includes – weather, time of day, nearby objects, a characters physical and mental status….

    Keeping those spreadsheets up to date can be more challenging than writing the story.

    I love the colour coding. Thanks for the experience and tip.


    1. Definitely! I like the star visual – it’s the same principle. I think for some of these things, like weather and character status, you’ve got the right idea using spreadsheets. I sometimes track them on a handwritten chart which is a pain to keep with me at all times.


      1. I really enjoy the handwriting method of note keeping. I switched to a tablet and stylus – galaxy note 7 with autodesk sketchbook a few years ago. It was good, but after a while I felt as thou I was very constrained and restricted. So I got the 10inch galaxy note s. Fine for a while, then the same thing. Plus, plastic nib on a glass screen hasn’t got the same feel for me.

        Now, I just take a photo of all of my hand made notes and doodles.

        But I’m really interested in the eink drawing tablets like onyx and remarkable. Thou they seem to be more for reading not writing. And you of course lose colour.

        Although, I’m showing losing the war of wills not to buy the new freewrite traveller. Pricey for what it is, but I can’t build one for any cheaper. Plus…. Less eye strain 😁

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The thematic colour coding technique sounds very time effective.
    I use a star (*) rating system on ends of the headers to my chapters. 1 = minor changes. 4 = chapter is an utter mess. But the colour coding sounds much more intuitive.

    It is hard keeping track of multiple people’s lives. Especially over months and years. I even have multiple spreadsheets for each story, detailing, amongst other things – the weather, time of day, surrounding objects, character’s physical and emotional status. I use a modified version of the IMSAFE mnemonic to check a character at the start of new chapters.

    I’ll definitely be trying your RAG system for my next editing session. Thanks


  3. Pingback: The Writing Process: Editing a Draft, Part 2 – Erica Rue

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