Nalini Singh – beyond the first draft

Nalini Singh - polishing your manuscript beyond the first draft

Advanced Craft: Beyond the first draft – polishing your manuscript. 

How do you refine that initial draft to make it the best it can be? Nalini Singh talks detail-oriented editing tips and strategies, as well as big picture things such as point of view and how best to utilize secondary characters.

From breakout session 1 at Romance Writers of Australia Conference 2019, presented by author Nalini Singh.

Why spend time polishing your first draft? 

  • Editing your first draft is critical. 
  • Every piece of writing is the chance to capture a new reader, or lose them. 
  • It may be the first thing of yours they have read. 
  • Don’t leave anyone on the table – don’t put work out there with typos, errors etc 
  • Editing takes the pressure off – it doesn’t matter if your first draft is terrible, you can fix it 
  • Some can edit as they go, each page is pristine before they move on 
  • Others are dirty drafters, and go back to edit later. 
  • Give the people you are submitting to a really good first impression 
  • The cleaner and more polished your work, the less you will pay someone to edit for you 

Editors – different types:

Content editor: big picture edit 

  • Eg heroine’s motive is not clear, not enough history etc.
  • Looking at nuts and bolts. 

Copy editor: technical edit 

  • Grammar, spelling, typos 
  • Content editors tend to be very expensive, they usually have traditional editing backgrounds  

You can try alternatives, such as critique groups 

If you do that, make sure you protect your voice – don’t edit by committee and end up with a beige product 

For lone wolves – learn to be objective. Give yourself distance. 

  • Final draft – give it some time 
  • Even just a few weeks (2 weeks) 
  • Take a step back, come back an read it with a clear eye 
  • You may pick up a continuity error, scene missing etc – couldn’t see before when too close to it 
  • Give your brain a rest to see clearly 


  • If you have written an intense scene, take a break before you edit it 
  • Style of writing 
  • International voice – not using local dialect and slang 
  • Style of words you use is something you can choose 
  • Choice of language style can change the structure of a book 

How long do you edit, when is it ready? 

  • You have to trust your judgement on this
  • If you are just moving words around for no reason – it is probably done. 

Know your characters really well 

  • They all speak differently, language choice matters 
  • Don’t water down how a character would speak to serve other interests 
  • Conversation should be natural 
  • Good way to test it is to remove dialogue tags, see if it makes sense 
  • Do they sound like different people  
  • Is the tone different? 
  • Sometimes silence is important, can speak volumes 

Point of view 

Before you edit a page, you need to know who is telling the story 

  • Villain 
  • Hero 
  • Omniscient narrator 

Need to choose who will have the most impact 

  • Most to lose or most emotional impact 
  • Switching POV can get you out of a situation where you are stuck 


You need to know your setting – can even turn it into a character. 

  • What season is it? 
  • Is there wind? 
  • Inside or outside? 
  • Gives readers a strong sense of place 
  • Build depth of story 
  • Trying to build a world that the reader remembers 


Do whatever you need to make editing fun:

  • Eg first draft done, so editing means it is finished 
  • Print out and edit – physical (Nalini’s method) 
  • Page by page ask – what is this adding to the story?  Does the reader need to know this? 
  • Don’t become bloated by language that doesn’t serve needs of the story 
  • Everything must contribute to the story or the experience you want the reader to have 
  • If your natural style is to write more lush language that is fine, just filter the reader’s experience through that lens. 
  • At the end of each paragraph, ask yourself ‘is this needed’ – be ruthless. 
  • Scenes you cut out can be put in another file – used in another book, OR for newsletter as ‘deleted scenes’ 
  • Love scenes should come under the same scrutiny as every other scene. 
  • Every scene should – move the story forward, move the story backward, or screw the story up. 

Gaps in the story:

  • You may have said her ex was a drunk, but you haven’t shown the emotional impact that left.  EG he wasn’t there on her birthday because he was drunk somewhere 
  • Hook things to emotion 
  • Don’t need to have everything before you start 
  • Just need to have enough to start writing 
  • What if your book isn’t working? 
  • What if you are stuck in the middle? 
  • Do you need to add more depth? 
  • Should it be novella length rather than a full novel? 

Secondary characters: 

  • If a secondary character can fulfil two roles then do it 
  • Don’t have 10 shallow characters rather than one good one. 
  • Even in in larger series (eg Psy Changeling) each group has a limited secondary cast. Eg Dark River Pack – John represents the teenagers of the pack. 
  • If a secondary character has to be memorable, give them a feature (eg English accent, wears a bow tie) so they stick in the reader’s mind. 
  • Describe something transactional in tight language – you don’t need the full details. 
  • You don’t need to describe everything your character is wearing, unless it specifically reflects on the character 


  • Chapter start – quotes from a diary or similar (government regulations / letters etc). Way of inserting information into the story without it being part of the character’s story. 
  • Do a timeline. Vital! 
  • Wearing the same clothes at the end of the day as the start of the day 
  • Historical timeline side by side with your timeline 
  • Senses – eg smell of bakery morning bread 
  • Do Search for unnecessary words (like Just) 
  • We all have words we overuse / love 
  • But don’t over-thesaurus – don’t change a natural rhythm just to be pedantic 
  • Look critically at sentence structure. 

Don’t fade your ending 

  • People will remember how you made them feel – last impression 
  • Then go back and check your first impression 
  • Run a spell check once you have finished editing 

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