The Editing Process

No one writes a perfect story with their first draft. That first finished document is the skeleton of the true tale it will become. The books in the bookshops? They've all gone through many rounds of rewriting and editing to make them as good as they are.


If you enjoy writing but feel disheartened when you finish your story and read it back, remember, you've only just begun. No one will see that scrappy first version unless you show it to them.


Improving a first draft is a skill. Anyone can learn how to do it, it just takes time. This is the story of how Past Remembrance went from a first draft to a polished novel.


The basic process sounds simple… write, edit, proofread. But it's a little more complex than that. The writing (getting the story down on the page) is the straightforward part because your mind is bursting with ideas and characters are talking in your head. You might even be a writer who sees a scene like a movie in their head and writes what they see, hear, smell, etc. One thing is for certain: no matter how you get it down on the page to start, it will need more work.


After the first draft of Past Remembrance was complete at the end of October 2022, we took a brief break to give our brains some distance from the story. The time varies depending on the writer. We took around a week… by then we were itching to get back to it. Stephen King, in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, suggests we should set aside the first draft for a minimum of 6 weeks. Stephen King is far wiser than us.


After the break, we read through the draft individually and discussed strengths and weaknesses over several Zoom sessions, chapter by chapter.


It was clear the first draft was missing some emotion and depth. This was fine, since getting the plot down and the characters from point A to point B had been the primary aim. How do you add emotion and depth? With people. We did a rewrite, chapter by chapter, and switched out some of the narrative for dialogue and showed people's reactions, inner thoughts, their doubts, fears, and a bit of snarky humour.


In the example below, the original draft from October 2022 ended abruptly. However, we introduced one of the side characters and added a little more personality to the scene. 




  ‘Thanks, well, I need to…’ she pointed back outside, ‘and you need to find your bags.’

  ‘I do,’ Adam’s forehead furrowed, and he turned back to the pile. Safia took the opportunity to double-time it back to the deck before Adam got weird again.




  ‘Well, I need to…’ she looked at the exit sign above the door across the cabin, ‘and you need to find your bags.’

  ‘I do.’ Adam’s forehead furrowed as he turned back to the luggage pile. Safia watched him for a few seconds, and when it seemed he would say nothing more, she turned away, heading back to the deck.

  ‘That was weird.’ A voice stopped her before she reached the exit. Safia looked up into a round face with mischievous eyes. ‘Amina,’ the voice said.

  ‘You’re the Australian.’ Safia rested a hand on the wall to help steady herself.

  ‘Was it the accent, or the misspelled t-shirt?’

  Safia glanced down and saw VEGE-MIGHT plastered in white and black outlined letters on a red background across Amina’s chest.

  ‘You’re a vegetarian?’

  Amina snorted a laugh. ‘Nah, it’s a spread. Good on toast.’

  Still none the wiser, Safia shook her head absently. ‘What did you mean, weird?’

  ‘Just now, I heard you with Adam. I know he’s not the most social of creatures, and he’s older, but that was like he almost wasn’t there.’

During the first few chapters of the first draft, we were still getting to know the characters. We weren’t completely inside their heads. It showed in the writing. It was choppy; the dialogue did not flow, and it felt like we were forcing things that should have developed organically. It didn't feel natural. Therefore, the first few chapters got an extensive overhaul.


It was also obvious more detail was required in certain places to really bring scenes to life. This was particularly the case with the time-slip section of the book. We wanted Safia to know what daily life was like so she could learn how the diverse ancient community on Sir Bani Yas worked. The following snippet from Chapter 13 did not exist when we finished the first draft. 


  They were about halfway to the trader when a rhythmic thumping reached them. There was a beat to it, but it didn’t sound like drums.

  What’s that? Safia thought, stirring to awareness in the back of Savita’s mind. Some kind of warning?

  A rhythmic sing-song chanting started up, and Savji scuttled on ahead to figure out where the noise was coming from. Savita held out an arm to stop him in case there was danger, but he was too quick for her.

  ‘Dried fish,’ Mariam said as they rounded a small dune littered with scraggy brush. ‘See, we dry the fish and grind it.’

  Savita looked ahead to where Mariam pointed. A carpet of sardine-sized fish spread out over the sand far from the water’s edge, their little silver bodies darkening in the sun. The wind wafted and Savita put a hand to her mouth.

  Oh, that’s intense, Safia added the thought to Savita’s reaction.

  Mariam laughed. ‘But you work on the sea!’

  ‘Not with fish,’ Savita said between her fingers.

  Savji pranced on the edge of the fish carpet, unbothered by the smell. He pointed to a series of huts where a group of four or five men stood outside gathered around narrow, waist-high wooden mortars. Each of them held a long pole they used to pummel a supply of dried fish from a heap.

  Mariam waved to one man and gestured for Savita and Savji to hurry over.

  ‘Do they do this to all the fish?’ Savita asked, miming what the men were doing.

  ‘Some is to eat as they are, some for the date palms, but this,’ she paused while she took a small clay storage pot from the man she’d waved at, ‘is for cooking and adding to food.’

  She passed the pot to Savita and motioned for her to remove the lid. Savji stuck his nose into the pot, pulled back sharply, and turned away to sneeze. The men paused their pounding and burst into laughter at Savji’s antics, leaning on the poles still in the wooden mortars.

The middle of the first draft suffered from what many writers call ‘the saggy middle’. This is where a writer runs out of steam and the plot slows down. Not a lot happens, and the reader feels they are slogging along, waiting for things to pick up again.


How do you fix a saggy middle? Strip it of anything that does not move the story forward and throw in some conflict. We brainstormed over WhatsApp messages and a Zoom session and added a scenario that not only fixed the saggy middle, but allowed us to see more deeply into some characters. We won’t include an example… you shall have to read the book to find out what it is.


Once we dealt with all the big issues, it was time to drill down into the text and start amending the nuts and bolts, first, expression. We added more ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ to the writing. Have a look at this bit of text and decide which one gives you a better visual.


TELLING - Savita ben was unsteady on her feet while the trader navigated the terrible storm.

SHOWING - The trader lurched from side to side in the heavy swell. Savita ben gripped the support beam with a claw-like hand as salt water sloshed across the deck.


Both examples say essentially the same thing, but the first is simply tells us what happened, while the second is showing it through the actions of the trader and Savita ben.


You can also use dialogue to show rather than tell, such as in the below example. The first quote is from a draft from 11 October 2022. How does using dialogue make this feel different?


1)  With a unified shout, they hauled smoothly on the rope, and Safia felt a tug of air as the slab rose above the level of the trench. They eased it over the side and let it settle on the sand, partly propped against a gnarled root.

2)  With a unified shout, they hauled smoothly on the rope, and Safia felt a whoosh of hot air against her face as the slab rose.

‘This way, this way,’ her father’s voice urged. ‘There, by that root, set it down.’


We also tried to remove as much ‘passive voice’ as we could. Many writers fall into the passive voice trap. It’s not technically wrong, and sometimes it’s needed, but it isn’t always as strong as active voice.


PASSIVE VOICE – As Safia crouched in the trench, she was hit by a wave of nausea.

ACTIVE VOICE – A wave of nausea hit Safia as she crouched in the trench.


In active voice, Safia becomes the most important part of the sentence. It is clearer and more direct.


We also searched for overused words or phrases. Most writers have a few words or expressions they rely on when writing a first draft because it is faster to write the first thing that comes into your head. Our common overused words and phrases are:


Smile, grin, nod, shook her/his/their head, breath, breathe, look, said.


No one wants to read a story where the character is grinning like a fool every five minutes just because the writer wants to give them something to do with their face. It gets boring.


A word like ‘said’ could be a little more difficult because the word actually does something… it tells the reader who is speaking, right? Words like ‘asked’, ‘answered’, ‘responded’, ‘yelled’ etc also fall into this category. While it is important to know who is speaking, our brains are great at figuring it out with just a bit of information. Have a look at the following example, maybe read it out loud:


  To his credit, her father did not say, I told you so, but smirked at her and steered Safia away from the trench with a hand on her upper back.

  ‘Why don’t you go to the food tent?’ Dr Ali said. ‘I think your mother is in there making chai. You can grab something to eat and update her on your progress,’ he finished. 

  ‘Yeah, I’m sure she’ll be happy the only thing I’ve found is that root,’ Safia responded.

  ‘Don’t be too hard on her, Saf; we’ve put a lot into this excavation, and she wants it to succeed, that’s all. She worries,’ her father said.

  ‘About me?’ Safia asked.

  Her father thought for a moment before speaking. ‘About everything.’

  ‘Sure,’ Safia said, forcing a spring into her step, ‘chai would be perfect.’ 

Now, try this one:


  To his credit, her father did not say, I told you so, but smirked at her and steered Safia away from the trench with a hand on her upper back.

  ‘Why don’t you go to the food tent? I think your mother is in there making chai. You can grab something to eat and update her on your progress.’ 

  ‘Yeah, I’m sure she’ll be happy the only thing I’ve found is that root.’ 

  ‘Don’t be too hard on her, Saf; we’ve put a lot into this excavation, and she wants it to succeed, that’s all. She worries.’

  ‘About me?’

  ‘About everything.’

 She’d never actually thought about the pressure on her parents and their responsibility for an entire excavation, even though she knew what they did for a living. 

  ‘Sure.’ Safia forced a spring into her step. ‘Chai would be perfect.’ 

Can you hear the difference? Did the first example feel like it was stuttering and sputtering along? Did the bits telling you who was speaking distract you from what the characters were actually saying? Did it sound like an actual conversation? More importantly, could  you still figure out who was speaking in the second example without all the dialogue tags?


Most of the time, a writer only needs to show who is speaking if it becomes unclear. The writer doesn’t always need to use ‘said’ or something like it either. They can use an ‘action tag’ – a bit of text describing what someone is doing that also lets the reader know who is speaking. Can you spot the two action tags in the following bit of dialogue?


  ‘Hey,’ her mother reached out for her hand, ‘based on what we’ve found, the people here lived a good life.’

  ‘I hope so. It’s so isolated.’

  ‘Looks can deceive, habibti. This area would have been nothing like it is today; lots of fishermen and probably pearl divers. It would have been a hive of activity.’

  ‘And the monks would have been a big part of that?’  

  ‘While it lasted, yes.’

  ‘But why abandon it?’

  Her mother smirked. ‘I don’t think they woke up one morning and left, habibti.’

Overused words are relatively easy to fix. If a writer knows what their problem words are, they can do a word search, and either cut the problem out or replace it with a better expression… the thesaurus is a friend. If the writer has no clue what words they commonly overuse, there are apps to help. We use the report in ProWritingAid to help spot them. It won’t fix them. We still have to put in the work, but at least we don’t have to go hunting. The report below is for the section of text above.



And then comes grammar and punctuation. Yes, we started a sentence with ‘and’. There is no rule to say you can’t, just don’t overuse it. If we have a super quick look at English literature, Jane Austen did it, Emily Brontë did it, Charles Dickens did it, even Shakespeare did it, and no one shouted at them! The same thing goes for ‘but’.


As a general rule, we want spelling, punctuation, and grammar to be correct for the storytelling part of any writing (the narrative), but we can bend or break the rules for dialogue or a character’s thoughts.


Regular people don’t speak with perfect grammar during everyday speech… if ever. It would sound funny if a 14-year-old kid came out with, ‘Mother dearest, poor grammar is something up with which I will not put!’ At the very least, the mother would give the kid a huge eye-roll.


You can use the editing function in Word to check for basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pick up an error if something is an actual word. Nigel spat on the carpet and crossed his lugs, is perfectly correct according to Word even though you meant to write, Nigel sat on the carpet and crossed his legs.


Other apps, like that mentioned above, go deeper into the context of a sentence to figure out if there is a mistake, but they are not perfect. With the above example, ProWritingAid picked up on ‘lugs’, stating it was possibly a confused word, but then suggested ‘lungs’ instead. It also reckons it is fine to spit on the carpet - ewww. Apps and programs can help, but they cannot replace human eyeballs with a bit of skill behind them.


How did we pick up on these things in Past Remembrance? Aside from ProWritingAid, we had a couple of other tricks up our sleeves. Often, when writing, we do a lot of editing on a computer screen. One of the easiest ways to help mistakes jump out is to change the way we read it.


Katia did a 'read aloud' edit by transferring our completed Word doc to her Kindle Fire and used the text-to-speech function to listen to the story. Word365 can also read aloud, but the Fire voice is better (at least that’s what Katia thinks).


Whenever there was a bit of stilted dialogue, a spot that did not flow, where it was unclear who was speaking, or the words just seemed to tumble out all over each other, Katia paused and added a note with a possible amendment. She typed up these changes and sent the file across to Michele to review. 


We also did a print version edit. You guessed it, some issues had slipped through the multiple on-screen edits and the read aloud edit. For instance, there was the following continuity error. When we first described the LED lamp on Safia’s side table on page 28 of the print copy, it had a warm orange glow. Now, on page 90, it had a white-blue glow? You’d think it would have been obvious. How on earth had we missed it? 


Text from page 28 print edit copy.
Text from page 90 print edit copy.


That is the power of changing the way you read something. As a writer, you become so close to the story that your brain sees things as you intended them… unless you force your brain to see it differently. Some writers even read their manuscript backwards when editing.


When we completed the print edit, we had another break and then did what we called ‘The Big Read Through’, where we met up over Zoom and went over everything one last time under a microscope (not really). After this, the text was ready to send to several people from our intended audience to give us feedback, otherwise known as ‘beta readers’.


Beta readers need to be honest and unafraid of hurting a writer’s feelings. We can handle it, and we really want to know if we are doing something wrong. If we don’t know what a problem is, how we can’t fix it? We asked people to read the book over a two-week period and answer some questions, such as:


  • Was there anything you did not understand?
  • Did you find anything offensive?
  • Could you see the story in your head?
  • Was there anywhere where it seemed too slow or confusing?
  • Did the characters sound and feel like real people?
  • Did you feel an emotional attachment to the characters?
  • Who was your favourite character… why?
  • What was the most exciting part of the story?
  • Did we make you cry?
  • Do you think the characters learned anything or changed by the end of the book? If so, what and/or how?
  • Do you want to read more stories about Safia and her archaeological adventures?
  • Did you spot any typos?


Once we received our beta reader’s feedback, we Zoomed again and worked together on making any amendments we thought necessary.


Writer tip: just because someone suggests something, you don’t always have to do it. For instance, someone might say, ‘I think it would be cool if Safia wore an Indiana Jones hat!’ We would not change that because Michele didn’t create Safia to be a female Emirati Indy… and it would be a cliché. However, if someone said, ‘I don’t understand why Safia puts her trowel in her back pocket,’ we might decide to add a line to explain it.


After proofreading and polishing to make sure there were no silly typos, the manuscript was as good as we could make it. Sure, we could probably have changed the odd word here or there, but it wouldn’t be improving the story, just fiddling with it.


Overall, from finishing the first draft in late October 2022, it took to mid 2023 to complete editing the main text. Over the next few months we finalised the additional sections of the book, such as the glossary and further reading sources. We also began to look into hiring a cover designer - and found the awesome Holly Dunn` -, ISBNs, and formatting for print and ebook. We set a deadline for relase of April 2024 to coincide with the AbuDhabi Bookfair.


We know that sounds like a long time between finishing writing and release. Full-time writers wouldn’t take as long. However, dealing with different time-zones, day jobs, and other life commitments meant we could only devote some evenings and weekends to Safia. 


If you are thinking about writing or just developing some story ideas, we hope this page has helped you understand what happens after you finish a first draft. As for us, well, we’re still trying to work out how Nigel managed to cross his ears. 


Print | Sitemap
©2023 - 2024 Katia Davis | Michele Ziolkowski - Safia's Archaeological Adventures.
This website uses British English.
Past Remembrance cover design, illustration, and promotional banners/graphics by Holly Dunn of Holly Dunn Design.
Resource illustrations as stated.
Website title graphics via subscription user license - and includes some AI elements.
Map style from using Googlemaps.