There’s always a surge of excitement when I type “the end” on a manuscript. It’s a feeling of completion, plus pride in the ability to finish what I started. Those two little words mean a lot, because stick-to-it-iveness is a big factor in a writer’s success. So if you’re an aspiring writer who’s finished the first draft of your manuscript, you’ve got the right stuff! But you’re not done.
Once you type those words, the fun’s just getting started. On the first draft, you’re a storyteller, living in your character’s heads, inhabiting their landscape, creating the story out of thin air. It’s a heady time, and watching your story world come alive is one of writing’s greatest pleasures.
On the second draft, you’ll need to be an editor, looking dispassionately at every paragraph and sentence, fixing voice and grammar and style.
On the third, you’ll be the reader—and that’s the hardest work of all. You need step out of yourself and read your words as if you’ve never seen them before. Pretend you’re a stranger who stumbled on the story and knows nothing of the characters but what you find on the page.
There are a few handy tricks that help take you out of yourself and into the mind of your readers. Read the book aloud (a great way to find mistakes and awkward sentences), or read each chapter out of order, as if it’s a story in itself (great for making sure there are no dead spots in your book).
But the best writing tool of all is time.
When you’ve been slaving away on the same 100,000 words for months, you can’t see them anymore. You can try all the tricks you want—you’ll still gloss over the most basic mistakes, because our brains tend to read what they expect to see rather than what’s really there. Your brain just made them, after all. It doesn’t know they’re mistakes yet. In fact, it’s probably just a little bit in love with every word.
Years ago, when I did a lot of drawing and painting, I’d use similar tricks to really see my work. My favorite trick was to look at my artwork in a mirror – I’m not sure why, but mistakes and bad proportions jump right out when they’re backwards! I’d also take a photo of the piece to gain a new perspective.
But in art, as in writing, time was the best tool. I’d put the drawing in a drawer for a week, and find all sorts of flaws to fix that I missed in the afterglow of creation.
That’s why it’s important to stay ahead of deadlines so you can let the book sit a while before the final edit. Ideally, you can start something new during this time. That will stir up your creative juices and blow those old words right out of your head.
Getting ahead of deadlines require tricking yourself, too. Convince yourself you need to get the book to your editor a week earlier, or offer yourself a reward (chocolate is good!) for being early.
But the best reward is a better book. Once the manuscript has spent a week or so sleeping in the deep dark bowels of your computer, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by most of it, thinking, “Hey, this is pretty good. Did I write this?”
But there will also be areas that are absolutely appalling. That’s why you waited. You wouldn’t have caught them if you hadn’t, and you want your book to shine its brightest when it sees the light of day.