Anne Lamott is famously a proponent of “shitty first drafts,” and the real key to that whole thing is what comes next: editing. Professional writers endure the shitty first draft, then make the magic happen in revision.
So, you’ve got your shitty first draft. Where to go from there? Here are a few checkpoints I always start with when getting my books in order:
- Make sure you’ve used active voice, not passive voice, as much as possible. (Active voice: I edited my book. Passive: The book was edited.) Usually, this results in clearer, more concise sentences, though there are exceptions. And yes, I check sentence-by-sentence. It’s grueling and makes me feel like some kind of hero.
- Relatedly: Check your verbs, sentence-by-sentence, to make sure they’re as strong, vivid, and varied as possible. Within reason, of course. No one likes a human thesaurus.
- Check punctuation and grammar. If you don’t know the basics, learn.
- Examine your beginnings and endings. The book beginning and ending, of course, but also beginnings and endings of chapters. Make them shine.
- Delete anything that doesn’t move your book forward.
- Make sure there’s no jargon or phrases that your audience won’t understand.
- Keep an eye out for your tics—words and phrases repeatedly used. This happens in almost every book. When you write a lot of words, you get into certain grooves, sometimes surprising ones. I’ve overused “flummoxed” and “vexed” in various drafts, good words when used once, glaring when repeated dozens of times.
- Read your work aloud! Works wonders.
- Get a copy of Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit and read it through, then use its tips and checklists with abandon. I have relied on my rumpled copy through seven books now.
This list is adapted from my e-booklet, Write That Nonfiction Book Already: A Practical Guide for Writing a Successful Book, from Conception to Publication.