I don’t know about you, but I used to think books were the language equivalent of perfection. Why would anyone publish a book that had errors in it? Sure, as I got older I realized that each book took a long time to write and went through several rounds of editing, but I still thought they were perfect. I wasn’t aware of style or pacing or plot. None of that. It wasn’t really until I read a few books that had errors in them (and later went to grad school and met some of the editors that worked on my favorite books and realized they were real people who made honest mistakes) that I understood that nothing is perfect. Why should your book be any different?
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not trying to say that you should publish your first draft because it’s perfect in your eyes or your mom said it was good. (Side note: your mom is probably never going to tell you that your book sucks.) If you put out the first draft you’ve only really done a small portion of the work.
Writing follows a multi-step process:
1. Outline (optional) – This includes writing down your character descriptions, their motivations, temperaments, connections to other characters and maybe even their evolution through the story. It could also include chapter guidelines (that’s the way I start). Some authors don’t outline at all. Pick what works for you and try it.
2. Write (Not Optional) – This is full on A-S-S (ass in seat). You can talk about and dream about and brag about writing all you want, but at the end of the day you actually have to sit down and write.
3. Edit (Not Optional) – Your first draft sucks, dude. Everyone’s does. As you toiled away writing the first thing that came to your mind during the first draft and took different directions for your characters and scenes, it’s time to start picking up the pieces.
Imagine a large forest. The land beneath the branches is awesome, filled with hidden caves, big hills, ravines, maybe even a river. This is the initial idea of your story. You have some great features, but they’re lost in the trees.
Now imagine a giant bulldozer coming through and plowing a winding path through the forest highlighting all the best parts of the world beneath the leaves. This is your first draft.
Once the bulldozer is gone, the path is certainly clear but it looks like crap. A bunch of branches and ruts everywhere. There is no canopy effect above you so the sun’s beating down and man is it not a good place to be. But regardless, you get to the places you wouldn’t have ventured to before.
Now you start the laborious task of picking up after the bulldozer. Making nice, walkable paths, clearing out the brush. Maybe along the way you discover new highlights that you didn’t even know existed until you were spending time in each section cleaning up the nitty-gritty stuff. But still, it’s going to take you a while to clean up that path. It may even be years before it really starts to fill in and the path looks beautiful.
This is editing. The first draft is a bulldozer. The second, third, fourth, fifth (this could go on for infinity, no joke) draft is the touch-up work.
The thing is, maybe some of the rough edges of your manuscript give it charm. Maybe you’re still so close to it you can’t see its flaws. Maybe you see too many flaws and get overwhelmed. Maybe some people are suggesting you change you protagonist’s hair and then someone else complains why you changed it.
You’re never going to please everyone.
You’re never going to think your manuscript is perfect.
You’re going to look back at each book and cringe when your writing appears juvenile because you wrote that part in your teens, or another seems like it’s trying too hard (again, maybe because you wrote it in your teens…). Some people might pick up on the same things as you, but others might not.
As the author, the creator, the artist, you will never have an objective look to your work. You will always find something to change or tweak when you revisit it.
That’s why, after you’ve gone through your manuscript three, maybe even four times yourself, you should pass it off to a beta reader. A fresh pair of eyes. See where they think the plot holes are and where they feel a break in flow. This will make you want to make more changes, of course (and cringe when they point out those flaws), but once you make those changes you can pass it off to your editor who might notice more holes and can then look for copyedits.
What you need to remember is that you need to let your manuscript go. You can never move on to another project and grow as a writer if you don’t make some mistakes along the way.