5 Ways To Move Beyond Your First Draft
Arguably the hardest part about writing a book is plugging out the first draft. It’s a marathon – sometimes exhilarating, often exhausting – and by the time you’ve finished you’re probably tired and maybe even a little lost over what comes next.
1. Take a Break
It might sound counterproductive, but taking a break could be your best bet after finishing a first draft. At the end of any marathon a runner needs rest, and it’s no different with writers. That said, taking a little time away is not just about rest.
By the time you’ve finished your first draft you’re probably way too close to the material to judge it properly. When you’ve been laying down pine needles for months or years it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Taking space away can help give you a broader perspective when your break is finally over. You might also find yourself full of new ideas and ways to tie your book together.
So how long of a break should you take? No less than two weeks and ideally several months depending on how long you’ve been at it. Once you’ve had enough time away, it’s time to get to the editing phase!
2. Read Your Draft
You might be tempted to jump into editing right away, or maybe even handing it to a friend to read. Not just yet! Your beta readers are your second opinion, not your first. By sitting down and reading through the story yourself you’ll catch any obvious structural or writing issues and save your beta readers’ precious eyes for issues you wouldn’t have seen.
It’s important not to edit during this phase. Feel free to mark problem areas as you go, but you want from this exercise is to get a sense of your book as a whole. Think of it as using a satellite instead of a microscope.
Once you have a good idea about what your book is – and isn’t – now you can begin to think about the next step.
3. Do a Structural Review
Where did your book work? Where didn’t it? Were there any obvious plot holes or characters that didn’t work? Where did you get bored? Where did you get excited? These are some of the questions to ask yourself after your first read-through.
The important thing here is to identify what major structural issues your book might have and to come up with ways to fix them. You don’t need to worry about spelling, sentences and paragraphs here. All you want to do is make sure that your story makes sense, is focused, and has value to your intended reader.
4. Do a Structural Edit
Now’s the time to start enacting those changes you just planned. You should expect to cut large swaths of text from your first draft and maybe even add just as much or more back in. You might reorder chapters or cut characters or put new ones in. This is your moment to fix all of the issues that made your story stumble on the first read.
This probably isn’t going to be easy.
As many writers have said, you have to be willing to kill your darlings. Any plot point, character, or scene that doesn’t contribute to the story as it is (rather than what was in your head when you wrote it) needs to go. This might mean getting rid of some of your favorite scenes. Doing so might also leave glaring holes that need to be filled with new characters or scenes. That’s okay. Your story is being improved.
Once you’re done with your structural edit, you’re ready for the next and final step.
5. Take a Break and Read It Again
That’s right, it’s pretty much the same as steps 1 and 2. You can repeat the process laid out in this post over and over until your story works. If the first draft is all about ‘getting your story down’, the second draft is about ‘making your story work’.
How long should this process take? As long as your story needs. It only makes sense to begin line editing in earnest when the foundation of your story is strong. Once you’re satisfied that you can’t find anything else to fix, then you can consider fine tuning your prose and sending it to a beta reader.