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7 Tasks to Bridge Your First and Second Drafts

Man walking across bridge [1]Much advice and wisdom revolves around writing the first draft of a novel. We all know first drafts are about getting the words down quickly, about telling yourself the story rather than telling someone else.

Likewise, there’s plenty of wisdom on how to take a first draft to the next level—that is, how to form your lump of clay into something beautiful.

But what about that gap between when you finish the first draft of a novel and begin the second?

How can we ensure a smooth and successful transition between the beast and the beauty?

Finishing the First Draft

In January 2010, I pledged to write a novel within the year. It seemed like a great idea at the time, even though I had a three-week-old baby and a second child in school, a house to run and a blog to maintain. But, because I was sure to be off work for a while, what better time would there be to write as much as I possibly could?

In spite of a few detours along the way, I can say that I have completed the first draft of my novel.

Right. Um. What now?

Bridging the Gap

Every writer has his or her own way of doing things, and no one way works for everyone, but here are seven tasks I plan to complete before launching into the second draft of my novel:

  1. Wait. I’ve learned from experience that diving into revisions before taking a significant break from my work equals disaster. Finishing the first draft is a milestone, so reward yourself for a job well done and take several weeks away from your novel. Come back to it later with fresh eyes.
  2. Brush up on your craft. While you’re waiting for your eyes to reset themselves, dig out your favourite writing resources. I have a number of books and articles on the craft of writing that I go over before beginning any new project. This helps me to pause from my actual writing while continuing to work toward my overall goals. Plus, it’s always good to have great writing advice fresh in your mind.
  3. Read the manuscript in a different format. Print out your manuscript or transfer it to your eReader. I’ve already done both and found so many issues that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Reading your novel in a different format is truly like reading someone else’s work. You might also record yourself reading your novel and take notes as you play it back.
  4. Map out the story. There are several ways to map out your story. You can make a timeline, use a photo album with index cards to represent each scene, use a digital organizer—the possibilities are endless. By mapping out your story in one of these ways, you’ll discover how much you’ve deviated from your outline (if you use one), and have a better understanding of your manuscript as a whole. Writing a synopsis of your first draft can also help you to visualize your plot as a whole.
  5. Assess the draft’s strengths and weaknesses. Take notes on what you do particularly well, and the areas in which you need to improve. Identifying strengths will help encourage you, while identifying general weaknesses will help you find what needs the greatest amount of attention. For example, if you notice your dialogue is weak, that’s something you’ll be looking for during revisions.
  6. Consider major changes that need to be made. There are some major changes I’ll need to make in the second draft of my novel. Changing settings, adding/subtracting/combining characters, and including/excluding subplots are some examples of major elements that might need attention. Somewhere during the first draft you might decide a character is unnecessary, and so that character doesn’t appear in the second half of your manuscript. Or you decide another subplot could really give depth to your story and you’d like to weave it in later. Best to plan the major changes at this point rather than after you’ve begun reworking your manuscript.
  7. Set new writing goals. You may have already completed the writing goals you set when you decided to write your first draft, but where do you go now? When do you plan to complete your second draft? Exactly how will you accomplish that task? Set yourself a new timeline for completing the next phase of your manuscript so you have goals to work toward.

In no way do I expect my second draft to be the version I’ll submit to literary agents.

To me, the second draft is about filling in gaps in the story, strengthening characterization, rearranging scenes, and smoothing prose. Even though I write to an outline, things change so much along the way that major revisions are still necessary.

The finer details of smoothing prose and polishing will come later.

How do you bridge the first and second drafts of your fiction? What strategies do you find particularly helpful to prepare you for rewriting?

Image courtesy of Pensiero [2]

About Suzannah Windsor Freeman [3]

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.