Conventional wisdom states that getting the first draft done is the hardest part, but if I’m honest that advice has always smelled faintly of horse-shit to me. When you’re riding the wave of inspiration and you have something to say you can pump out thirty to ninety thousand words pretty easily. Even when the first draft was hard, and it so often can be, it’s nothing compared to the sudden agony of having to cull your own words and scrap what seem, to you, to be your finest sentences and passages.
It’s the second draft, my lovelies, that stumped me for so long.
Many people make the mistake of jumping right into the business of the final draft, namely the polishing, word choice, and tightening of the narrative, but the second draft needs to be completed with much broader strokes. When you pull your draft from that drawer there are somethings you need to do before you ever pick up that red editing pen;
- Re-read your notes; if you kept notes when planning or conceptualising (you should at least have something) go over this to grasp what it was you wanted from the story to begin with.
- Read the draft; read it like you bought it, and ask yourself if you would have been happy to pay for it. If the answer is more yes than no then you should have a smile on your face; it’s not as easy an a result to get as you’d imagine.
- Write down the discrepancies; how does it meet your goals, how does it fall short, and how happy are you with it? What do you want to change
Once you’ve done this you can get your editing underway; this is the time to have a conversation with your draft and yourself. Ask the following questions about the overall content of the draft;
- Does it begin in the best place?
- Are there any plot holes?
- Is the view point consistent and effective?
- Does yours story fit the market you intended to target?
- Are the key themes and stories clear?
- Are your characters consistent and well rounded?
These are questions about the meat of the story, so to speak; they concern the less “writerly” aspects of the whole deal, but also the aspects that are perhaps most important to readers. Fix any issues you find here before you go into the murky depths of structure, flow, and technical proficiency.
Once you get to that point it becomes a matter of removing from the narrative those sections which were written purely for yourself. By this I mean the bits that were there to help you build the story in your mind; the sketch lines, the masking tape, or, as Douglas MacPherson calls it, the scaffolding can now be removed to show the finished product. The reader doesn’t need to see all the working you did to get to a certain conclusion; they only need to see the scenes that lead directly to it. When looking for ‘sketch lines’ to remove ask yourself these questions;
- Does this scene work for its space?
- Is it interesting?
- Does it add to the overall narrative?
- Does it provide meaning on its own?
- Does keep the flow of the story consistent and positive?
- Do you, as a reader, care about what’s happening at this point?
If the answer to more than one of these is no (and if it’s a no for numbers one or two alone) cut the scene. If you feel it contains good writing, or you value it put it in a folder for later use, but cut it from the draft. Baggy writing and meandering, meaningless diversions kill a book like nothing else. Every story arc, every character, and every major scene must pull their own weight, so to speak, if you want to create the best work you possibly can.
Once you’ve done all this you can think about moving on to your third (and generally final) draft; the polishing and preening (AKA, the Writers Quagmire.)