If you’re anything like me, you rolled out of bed one morning, and at some point, you decided you were finally going to do it. 

You were going to start writing that book. 

So you sat down at your computer, and you began where most people begin… chapter one. 

Now, I hope you got further than me on your first draft. I got stuck in an editing loop at around chapter five, so I stopped writing and started researching how to write a novel. 

I want you to have an easier time than I did, so I’m here to give you a handy dandy step by step guide to get you started on your very first manuscript.

Outline

There are two types of writers, with two standard terms used for each. You might know them as pantsers and planners or gardeners and architects. Whatever cute nickname you use, they boil down to the same kind of person: those who outline and those who don’t. 

Outlining is flexible and can be as simple or complex as you want. Many writers choose to forgo planning of any kind. I’ve played with many different outlining methods, and I think they can all be fun and beneficial for writing. 

If you’re not sure whether you are a gardener or an architect, spend some time experimenting, perhaps with shorter form content. Get a feel for the method you like best. Or dive right in; there are no perfect approaches here, only the one that will work best for you!

For anyone who wants a list of different methods to try out, I wrote an article a while ago with a couple of them. This might be a good jumping-off point.

First draft

The first draft is the thing that most writers manage to get done. 

This is when you write your book down on paper. 

For writing the first draft, I generally advise that you chuck perfection out of the window and edit later. Some people enjoy editing their novel as they go, my mum is one of these people, but I prefer to bosh out a messy first draft. 

If I start editing while working on my manuscript, I get stuck perfecting things that are likely to change in the next round of edits anyway. If you find yourself getting caught up in the intricacies of sentence structure, it might be time to remove editing from your writing process. 

To me, a first draft is equivalent to sketching out the basic shapes on a page. You know where the eyes and lips go, and you are putting in a few details, but mostly you are trying to get the shape and proportions correct. My first draft ends up at around fifty thousand words, then I go back and fill in more details later on. 

I write a very bare first draft. I get a feel for the characters, begin to understand their voices and motivations and nail down the plot’s essence. Later I go back in and add details, but the first draft, for me, is about discovering my world. While writing, I often change little details to make things more interesting. I jot these down in a separate book and remind myself to flesh out bigger concepts during the developmental edit. 

The more detailed your outline, the less you will need to do this, but I’m half gardener, half architect, so I enjoy discovering the details along the way.

Once you’ve finished the first draft, it’s time to treat yourself and put that manuscript away for a couple of months. 

Then we move on to the next step.

Developmental edit

The reason I think you should put away the manuscript for a few months is so that you can forget all of the little details. Then you’re going to read your book again. 

As you go through your draft with fresh eyes, you will begin to see what works and what doesn’t. Any questions that you have as a reader about your novel should be jotted down for later fixing. I often get my writing partner to look at my novel at this stage and get him to point out confusing or unrealistic parts. 

This is the beginning of developmental editing. Next, you’re going to comb through your book, fixing the plot holes and adding in more details so that your reader fully understands your novel. By the end of this phase, you should have a complete book. Everything except the grammar and the spelling gets adjusted in this phase.

As you get feedback, begin to work through what you need to fix. I recommend making a big list and checking things off as they get tackled. You should also keep a visible cheat sheet if things need to be changed throughout the whole manuscript. 

Keep going until you’ve worked through the whole book. Take your time and try to get it right. If we’re going to stick with the painting analogy, this is where you are filling in the big blocks with base colours, so making sure that you’re choosing the right tone, pace, and details is vital!

Line edit

Okay, so the line edit is equivalent to putting in the little details. You’re adding in the wrinkles and creating interesting textures. This is where you will be focusing on making sure the novel functions grammatically. 

You are going through your novel sentence by sentence and making sure that they are all grammatically correct and serve the function you want.

This is the phase where you will start implementing consistency in style and voice throughout your novel. 

Again please don’t rush this process. It takes as long as it needs to. You want to make sure you are getting it right because you’re nearly at the end here. The more time you take making sure that the novel is working well technically, the less chance you have of needing to redo an editing phase.

Some things you’ll want to pay attention to:

  • Run-on sentences
  • Passive vs active voice
  • Sentence fragments
  • Word choice
  • Unnecessary words
  • Tense changes
  • Whether or not the manuscript itself makes sense

Rewrite

Now comes the scariest part. You don’t have to do this one, but I highly recommend it. 

I have found that when I go through the process of writing out my novel from scratch, I can clean up the manuscript most effectively. 

During the rewrite, I’m looking critically at the contents of my novel. I’m ensuring that I’m not repeating information too often or laying on messages too thick. 

If you can get another round of readers to give you feedback before this phase, it can also be excellent guidance when approaching the rewrite. 

Having a reader or two at every phase of the editing process is great for both advice and confidence. Different stages will have different problems; readers can pick out what is and isn’t working at every stage.

Proofread

Now comes the final phase. You might want to implement one more line edit if you changed a lot in the rewrite, but if you’ve only added bits and pieces without changing too much sentence structure, feel free to move onto this step.

Proofreading is exactly what you think it is.

You’re going to look through the manuscript and look for any errors. 

Some things you’ll want to pay special attention to:

  • Nouns and capitalisation
  • Unnecessary capitalisation
  • Quotation and punctuation marks
  • Apostrophes
  • Hyphens
  • Spelling errors or typos

Once you’ve gone through this list, you’ve done it. You can safely put ‘the end’ down on paper. It’s time to move on to whatever your next steps are, passing it off to a professional editor or proofreader or perhaps finding an agent. 

As always, I cannot wait to see you on the bookshelf!