Writing and Editing in Layers

Your first draft is not your final draft.

Something I’ve noticed with my students and coaching clients is this shared desire to be finished with a project as quickly as possible. 

They come up with an idea on Monday and then they want to be holding a finished manuscript by Sunday. Even though they have a full-time job, or they’re studying full-time…and like, who the heck wrote a good 80,000 word novel in seven days anyway?

Okay, I know Stephen King wrote Dolores Claiborne in nine days, but he was high on coke the entire time and Claiborne– I’d argue–is far from King’s best work (at least in my opinion!). 

So many emerging writers think they can skip the revision process. They believe that once they’ve finished the first draft, all they have to do is go back and fix their grammar and punctuation and then they’re ready to go out and start soliciting agents. 

But your first draft is not your final draft. 

I totally understand that people want to get their book right the first time, but the writers who are able to do that are few and far between. Just today I was watching an instagram story by VE Schwab and she was complaining how after writing 21 novels she is still disappointed that she can’t get a story right on the first draft. 

There are many stages involved in the writing of a book and each stage requires its own set of skills. How you approach the first draft of a novel is completely different to how you conduct a structural edit, and that is different from how you conduct a line level edit. 

Something to remember is that the first draft is the version of the story that you are writing for yourself. You get to be as loose and weird and unconventional as you like. The structure can be a shooting train that is linear and chronological, or you may have thirty semi-random scenes that you then have to stitch together. 

The second draft is when you need to consider the reader. 

You need to look at the work and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. You need to consider what the genre is and how the book is meeting or subverting those tropes. You need to examine the plot to determine if it makes sense.

Oh my god — people! — your plot must make sense. You can’t spend the first five chapters following a lawyer around their firm and then introduce a spaceship!

You must look at your characters and ask yourself whether they are being consistent (within reason) and believable, or whether you are making them behave in a certain way simply out of convenience, because you don’t know how else to make the plot move forward. 

Overall, does the book work and if it doesn’t, you need to start making a plan on how to fix that. 

For myself, I get my best ideas for the book once I’ve hit draft five or six–a fact that makes me feel rather ill. 

In those initial drafts, I’m usually exploring various ideas and looking at all the different avenues I could take the book down. I’m still getting to know my characters, and with each draft I edge a little closer to what the book is really about. 

The ideas and realisation that come to me by the time I hit draft five or six I couldn’t have had during the initial outline, or before I started writing. It is only through engaging with the story and immersing myself within that world that I’m able to form more complex and dynamic ideas for the novel. 

You need to spend time with a story to figure out what it is really about. 

Once you identify what isn’t working within a book, you can start fixing it–just not all at one. 

Our brains cannot look for character inconsistencies at the same time that it’s trying to establish mood or write witty dialogue. When you’re revising the work, again we need to work in layers. It is far easier to sweep through the entire manuscript with an intense focus on dialogue, and then a separate run through with a focus on fixing the plot, and then another round that focusses on developing the setting. 

When revising, it can be useful to create a list of everything that needs to be reworked and then opting to fix the bigger more complicated issues during weeks when you have a little more head space and time, and small, simpler issues for weeks when your schedule is more strapped. 

So much of writing is rewriting, but to be honest, I’d take revision over a first draft any day. First drafts can be fun, but for me, there is so much more wonder, freedom and play that can happen when you already have a lump of clay to work with–you don’t have to go out and find your material, you already have it. 

To use another art reference… 

Don’t be in a rush to publish your first draft, because the real joy in writing comes from watching the initial impression you had of the work transform into a full, realistic, oil painting. A portrait of a story that you couldn’t see before beginning that initial draft. 


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

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