Third Draft Editing Checklist: Get your Fiction from Rough to Ready
I just finished the second full draft of a novel. I’m going to take a couple of weeks of for Christmas, then get started on the third. But the titles “second” and “third” don’t refer to a number of revisions (I have worked through each chapter many, any times). Rather they refer to specific stages in the drafting process. In this article I will describe what I mean by a second and a third draft, and illustrate my personal checklist for revising third drafts. How do you turn a rough draft into a ready draft?
The first draft should be wild. I am a firm believer in writing it as fast as you can. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan – plan as much as you like – but when you’re actually writing the draft, write in a state of passion, a state of rapture, and, if you write like me, a state of semi-inibriatednous. Hey, this is English, making up words is totally allowed.
A second draft is all about story. First drafts don’t always make a lot of sense. In the second draft you figure out what your story is actually about, and put that front and centre. You cut out anything that doesn’t actively tell your story. You change characters, wipe out plot lines, tighten, tighten, tighten, until finally, after weeping bloody tears over beautiful writing that did nothing useful and ugly writing that you couldn’t figure out a way to replace, you finish up with a story that will hopefully make sense to someone who isn’t you.
So, are you done? Hell no!
The third draft, using my phraseology, is when you go back and start worrying about language. You’re a writer. You worry about language all the time. But if you fuss too much over presentation in the first and second draft you’re probably wasting your time on something you’re just going to cut later. It’s in the third draft that you need to make sure that the words you have chosen tell the story you want to tell.
To help me do this, I have put together a checklist of the sort of things I am looking for as I start this third draft. Rules to be followed, or, if broken, only broken on purpose. You will notice that there is nothing about spelling and punctuation. That’s a problem for later. You didn’t think we would be finish with a third draft, did you? Mwa hah hah, hah hah hah….
Clarity of Location and Action
The first and biggest problem a reader has is figuring out what the hell is going on. I’m not talking about in a deep Umberto Eco-esque way. I’m talking straightforward answers to these four questions: Who, where, what, why not? You can twist things about if you want. But if the reader can’t answer these questions after the first couple of paragraphs the chapter is in trouble. If you can’t answer those questions for the chapter then you need to go away and start again. The answers can turn out to be misleading. But the reader will be happier if they have some idea where they are going (and, erm, if the chapter actually goes somewhere!)
Point of View
Is PoV established early? Is it consistent? Do we only see things that PoV character would see?
You can do a lot of clever things with Point of View. You can also utterly mess things up. In a book like the one I have written, which follows a lot of different characters, I think it is crucial to let the reader know from whose perspective they are seeing things as early as possible. I like to put it in the very first line (ie “Keith picked up the sword and shouted ‘come at me, grammar dragon!’). After that, in this style of story, I make sure that I don’t describe anything this character cannot see, and that everything is consistent with the character’s world view. So I have to go through, line by line, and ask myself if we would really see this from this Point of View. I’ve written about this at length, starting here.
Whilst I’m at it, I’ll be taking a hard look at the first lines, using something along the lines of the formula from this article: people/place/time/context + distancing/poetry/mystery
Where dialogue is used for exposition, is this something the characters would really say? Read out loud the dialogue. Does it sound stupid?
Once I get to the fourth run through I’ll read the whole thing out loud – see why here . But in the third draft I always read the dialogue out. If the dialogue is stupid, it will sound stupid when you say it. Dialogue is an excellent way to get out the information you need the reader to know, but you have to be prepared to work for it. Is the character saying something no real person would say? Are they only saying it because the plot needs them to? Nope, nope, nope. Re-write.
For more on musical dialogue, check out this series: Dialogue as Music
Proportion of Action
How much of the action described is essential to the story?
I tend to get carried away with conversations. I love having stupid little things going on, having my characters take the piss out of each other or rabbit on about whatever is in their heads. There is a place for that, and it’s a difficult balance, but when your book is hitting seven hundred pages for a story that takes place over six days, it’s time to start cutting. Can your reader understand without this passage? Then the passage is not necessary.
My biggest problem, however, is not my dialogue. I have an obsession with explaining where my characters are looking, or telling the reader that X just walked to the cabinet. That’s not very exciting, and can be better demonstrated through more specific beats (The ketchup on Fred’s face had rubbed into his beard, Fred picked up the cabinet and threw it at the helicopter, whatever.) Don’t include boring stuff.
In my case, that may well mean a specific search for uses of the words “looked, glanced, turned, walked, moved, headed” and whatever other similar examples crop up. It is much better to imply these things through action. Don’t waste time on unimportant details.
Cut the word count by 10%
This is an old Stephen King trick. I’m a fan. Cutting your word count by 10% forces you to only keep that which is important. Following on from the previous section, your reader doesn’t have time to waste on stuff that isn’t important.
There’s a Frank Capra point that’s important here. There’s a bit in one of his films where all the characters just stop to have a sing song with some nuns on a bus. It in no way advances the plot. It’s brilliant. Capra said that sometimes you must give your character’s time to breath and be themselves. If you can’t bear to cut it, keep it. But if you can possible get rid, get rid. Bringing down the word count will force you to choose quality. And it’s likely your publisher will thank you for it.
Gerunds and Adverbs
Does a word in your text end with “-ing” or “-ly.” There’s a decent chance you are either hiding the action or trying to spice up a boring verb. Similarly, watch out for “to be” conjugations (had, have, was, will, am, are) that may indicate passive sentence structures. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use them. I’m saying only use them if they’re really, really good. What do you mean I need a more exciting word than good? Good isn’t a verb! Whatever, check out this article.
1+1 = 1/2
Say it only once. When I have a particularly exciting image in my head, I tend to overwrite, stacking metaphor on top of metaphor in an ungainly mess of writerly self-pleasuring. Which is nice for me, and a good process in a first draft because it means you can pick out the best line and keep it. But in the edit the rest should go. Use the best line and then move on. If you dwell on the second you diminish the first.
Emotions outside out dialogue
It’s our old friend showing and telling! If you are assigning an emotion to a character then your reader won’t feel the emotion. Replace it by having them do something that someone feeling that emotion would do. Yes, writing it this way is much harder. Suck it up.
Smooth out dialogue attribution
He said/she said is the superior mode of dialogue attribution. I’ll be going through my draft getting rid of grunts, barks, laughs, etc…
But for all the X said is superior, it shouldn’t be overused. Check for places that the text implies the speaker sufficiently that attribution is not required (inference from structure). If you can turn action into a beat that obviates the need for attribution, so much the better.
Finally, it is handy if a character is only called by one name in a chapter. Major Miles Manderly should only be called Major, Miles or Manderly, or your reader will waste precious time wondering who you are talking about. This one annoys me, because I love switching out through names for colour and variety, but I’m wrong and the rule is right
The thing about the pirates code….
Break the rules if they get in the way. This checklist is a way for me to look out for things that, when they happen, are often a sign of shit writing. If I find things that break the rules in this list, but I think they’re great, I’m going to keep them. It’s my book.
That being said, if you aren’t sure it’s brilliant, and it’s breaking a classic rule of storytelling or the English language, there’s a decent chance you’re kidding yourself and it’s actually a bit shit. Take a good hard look. Break the rules, by all means, but do it on purpose, and do it with purpose.
The third draft is when you really start to polish. Make it shine.