What to do during the second draft of your book

First drafts are about getting the story down. Maybe you are working from an outline, or you are writing intuitively, but either way you are transforming a blank word document into a book-like thing. 

As you already know, I’m really not precious about first drafts. I do not put any effort into making the writing good, the descriptions polished, or for my language to be poetic. 

For me, a first draft is one version of the story, and more often than not, it is the wrong version. I once heard Holly Black say that she has to write the story the wrong way before she can write it the right way—and this is the purpose of the first draft. I’ve also heard Leigh Bardough say that you cannot outsmart the first draft–a comment that is both liberating and heartbreaking. 

First drafts aren’t about good writing, at least not for me. First draft are just about the story. The interesting thing about first draft is that, at least for me, they improve the further into them you get.

Drafting is making decisions and then responding to those decisions. This is how you move forward. As you write further into the story, there is at least some level of clarity about where the story is heading and who the characters are. As you continue to work on the story, you often generate more ideas, or at least more interesting ideas, then you may have been able to come up with during the outlining or planning stage. 

After completing a first draft, you’ll likely realise that the story has taken a shape you’re not happy with, but this is what second drafts are for. 

Second drafts are where you get to look at the book as a whole and reflect on important questions about structure, plot, setting, and characterisation. 

You get to ask yourself whether the story has everything that it needs and whether the events are in the right place. One quick trick is to create an outline for the draft you’ve already written, summarising each scene in a sentence. At a glance, you can see how the book hangs together as a whole and whether you need to move or adjust any of the scenes or events. 

Seconds drafts, like first drafts, are not concerned with good writing. In fact, spending too much time polishing a scene at the line level can actually be a disservice to the story as it will be harder to cut it later if you realise it’s unnecessary. 

Second drafts are still very much a work in progress, and during this stage you should be looking at the big and little building blocks that make up the narrative. Are these blocks well built, flimsy, or missing something?

So, when do you start to worry about perfecting your prose? The short answer? When you’re arrived at a story shape and plot that you are happy with. The even shorter answer? You’ll know.  

We spend a lot of time talking about first draft because many hobbie writers never make it beyond this stage. We often put a lot of effort into the preparation stage before beginning a first draft, but it’s also worth pausing, and coming up with a plan for how best to approach the writing of our second draft. Ask yourself what you hope to achieve within this space, and be realistic about how much work happens between a first and second draft. 

It often takes a lot of work to fix all the problems that exist in a first draft, which is another reason why you don’t want to further complicate the matter by editing the work on the line level during this stage. Only spend time making your writing sing once you’re happy that all the building blocks are in the right place and that the story is working the way you had hoped it would. 

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

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