What You Need To Know About Your Second Draft

The poor sad widdle second draft.

I’m in the midst of one of these right now, and while you see a lot of attention given to the first draft and to the overall editing process, you don’t see quite so much attention given to the second draft specifically. But there should be! The second draft is a peculiar animal. Interstitial. Imperfect. It’s frequently the growing pains draft, where two limbs grow and two limbs shrink and by the end of its hormonal transformation it’s the same creature as before but also, entirely different. The second draft is the teenager of manuscripts. Awkward, pimply, full of faux confidence and bravado, and something-something pubic hair.

Okay, maybe not that last part?

Anyway. Let’s talk a little bit about the second draft.

Psst! You Didn’t Write The First Draft

Yeah, no, I know you actually did write the first draft, but shh, shhh, we’re trying to be tricksy hobbitses here. By the time you get to the second draft, your best way forward is to somehow convince yourself that Some Other Asshole wrote this book. Because you can be cold, clinical, dispassionate when you’re attacking the draft if you think it’s not yours. It’s like having children — you can look at other people’s kids and be all like LOOK AT THOSE SAVAGES HANGING FROM THE CEILING FANS, but then you see your own kid drinking out of the toilet like a dog and you’re like, awww, he’s pretending to be a puppy — he’s gifted.

You’ve gotta treat this book like it’s some rando’s kid. Baby Rando.

Rando II: First Blood.

Whatever.

You have a few tricks by which to accomplish this. You can put in a lot of time between first and second draft. You can take the second draft and edit a printout of it instead of editing on screen. If editing on screen, you might consider changing the font, font size, margins, anything to make it look unlike the book you wrote. (Just don’t use the Wingdings font.)

A lot of writing and rewriting is tricking your audience.

But it’s about tricking yourself, too.

The Second Draft Is Often The Hardest

For me, this second iteration of a manuscript is always the hardest. It’s like, I just don’t know what to do yet. I’m still a blind man in the dark feeling for an elephant. It’s not like your novel is a simple little thing. It’s not a picture hanging crooked on the wall. It’s roughly 100,000 words of bewilderment and mystery. And every word has the potential to be hot garbage or high fashion. So much of writing a first draft feels like running a marathon while drunk — you’re just gallumphing about, yelling and laughing and crying and praying to Sweet Saint Fuck that the end is near. And then at the end you collapse in a puddle of your own liquorsweats.

The second draft is a major shift, though. You’re no longer in that period of unfettered creation. You now have to pick through the wreckage of your first narrative and find what’s salvageable. (Really, the first draft is all barf and LEGO bricks. The second draft is picking those LEGO bricks out of the barf. Also, pro-tip: don’t eat LEGO bricks.) Intellectually, it’s a different act — yes, the second draft may require considerable rewriting, but it’s still organizational. It’s still taking the ideas and notions you’ve ladled onto the page and figuring out what to do with them. It’s incisive, cruel, calculating. First draft, you’re Clotho, wildly spinning the threads of fate.

But the second draft, you’re equal parts Lachesis and Atropos.

Measuring the thread.

And then cutting it.

For me, at least, follow-up drafts after this one get easier, if only because you settle into the comfortable discomfort of ripping apart your own work.

But until you sit in the pool for a while, boy does that water feel cold.

Deadlines, Tracked Changes, Redundant Backups

Before you do anything:

a) Set a deadline if one has not been set for you. A reasonable one. Not too tight, but not so far out that it’s meaningless. Tomorrow is too soon, and 2038 is probably when we’ll all be dead from GLOBAL HEAT DEATH, so, give yourself a proper window. I don’t know you, but for me, it’s a month, maybe two, maybe three.

b) Make sure you turn on track changes. It is very, very helpful to be able to go back through and see how you molested and mutilated your poor first draft. I turn track changes on, but I leave them hidden until I’m done. Also, I make liberal use of comments to myself and any potential editors or readers who might be going along on this cuckoo bananapants journey with me.

c) HOLY SHIT, back up your work. Back it up always, back it up obsessively. I save as I go and I backup to the cloud and I back up to the hard drive and I do this daily with a separate file for every day’s worth of work and I have Time Machine on my Mac so that everything gets backed up regularly to an external hard drive and I also carve my manuscripts onto the backs of various transients that I have chained to the radiator ha ha ha I’m just kidding I don’t have a radiator.

Re-Read, And Do It Aloud

I think very few pieces of writing advice are “true” in the sense that they are universal.

And this one may not be, either, but for me it’s damn close.

You need to re-read your work.

And you need to do it aloud.

I don’t mean like you’re doing a performance in Central Park. I mean — a quiet reading of the prose out loud. Even if you don’t read the entire manuscript that way, read those spots about which you’re unsure. Reading your work aloud is equivalent to closing your eyes and running your hand over a broom-stick or bannister: you will feel the uneven parts, the splinters, the popped-up nails. Even those you would’ve missed with your big dumb eyes.

Outline Anew For Mad Organizational Mojo

Make a quickie outline.

A new one to match the finished first draft.

It doesn’t need to be a book in and of itself, but go through the quick beats. Outline each chapter, maybe — one sentence per. Or outline the arrangement of tentpole plotpoints (meaning, those moments in the story that are vital to hold the whole thing up). You can get detailed, if you want — I’ve gone through and used Excel to chart the minutiae of a story (plot, character beats, thematic punctuation, appearance of certain motifs). The reason for doing this is — your novel? It’s a big trash bag full of who-the-fuck-knows. It’s the forest and you need to see the trees. An outline lets you get your hands on it. You can break it down, break it apart, and feel more comfortable understanding how individual components contribute to the whole.

Two Lists: Shit That Works, Shit That Sucks

Now is your time to be like a housecat on a countertop — you will use your paw to select the things that have violated your feline majesty and you will paw them onto the floor, FOR OH HOW THEY DISGUST YOU. Fuck this shit. Fuck that. Not that. Also that.

*paw swiping*

*glass breaking*

Go through your whole draft. Find things in the draft and put them in one of the two aforementioned lists — THIS IS BALLS AND I HATE IT or OKAY YOU CAN STAY. (You might have a third list, which might be roughly titled BLOODY HELL, NO IDEA, or simply, ENH…? In this third list go all the things that you can’t figure out if they’re total pants or utter genius.) You don’t need to commit to doing anything yet with this list — but it’s a good jumping off point for getting you to think about your work as an agglomeration of Things That Work and Things That Don’t.

Those things that work can, at least temporarily, remain unpoked, unprodded.

That which does not? Well, you’ll have to decide what to do.

Repair?

Or eradicate outright?

I Reach For Low-Hanging Fruit First

Entering into a revisions on a second draft, I am both lazy and timid. I pick and fritter and wince. I rarely make any motions right away that would startle the beast — I’m basically doing the equivalent of poking a teddy bear in its soft, round tummy. I don’t just scoop up low-hanging fruit; I look for the rotten stuff on the ground that’s already acting as a buffet for hungry bees.

I attack things that:

a) I know are super-broken because I probably knew it when I was writing it (“Mental note: in chapter 4, I call the protagonist Dave when her name is really Annabeth, and also I got high and wrote a random leprechaun sex scene so that needs to get chopped out with a fire ax.”).

b) I know won’t mess up anything else if I fix it — so, removing the aforementioned leprechaun lovemaking scene doesn’t then cascade through the rest of the draft.

So, in other words:

Obvious and easy.

I do this because again, I’m lazy.

But I also do this as it lets me get my bearings. It’s like warming up with stretches. I feel like I’m still accomplishing things. It lends the revision momentum, and once I get a little momentum…

Then I Just Start Fucking Shit Up

It’s like flipping a lever. For a while — a week or two — I do the gentle tweaking and tickling of the teddy bear, but then it goes all torture-porny as I suddenly wade in with a leather apron and start chainsawing the teddy bear down to the stuffing and buttons. I go from 0 to 60. Comfort, once gained, lets me move more swiftly and more dramatically. Chapters killed. Characters culled. Entire sections rearranged. It’s like having a room which doesn’t quite come together: you sit for a while and stare at it, but eventually you have to start moving some motherfucking furniture around. You gotta throw paint. Rip up carpets. Only way you make change is by doing the work.

The Second Draft Might Be Worse Than The First

Here’s a tough reality to the second draft:

It might be worse than the first draft.

It’s a weird phenomenon and you think it shouldn’t be that way, but if you think of your story as the wandering of a maze, sometimes in that wandering you must be forced to choose a new direction and in choosing that direction you discover you just ran like, 10 miles the wrong way. Dead-ends do not reveal themselves immediately and sometimes must be written toward –

Sometimes you have to write the wrong thing to figure out how to write the right thing.

It Might Be Your Last Draft, Or It Might Not

You might complete your second draft and the angels will descend upon you, skateboarding down their crepuscular rays while blowing shiny God-forged trumpets and you shall be done, hands clean, draft fixed, story gonna story, huzzah, game over, goodbye.

But you might need a third draft, too.

Or a thirty-third.

OR THREE THOUSAND AND  — okay at that point you might just wanna give up. We can’t all be writers. Some of us are meant to be detectives, superheroes, and secret Vatican baristas.

But still, the point remains: finishing your second draft is not a guarantee of finishing the work. It may be time to hand it off to an agent, reader or editor at this point, yes — but it by no means guarantees the tale’s true completion. You rewrite till its right. Because, as I am wont to say: writing is when we make the words, editing is when we make them not shitty.

Good luck on your second draft, ink-flingers and word-slingers.

* * *

Storybundle!

Storybundle: The “Get Your Ass Ready For NaNoWriMo” edition. Six books (plus another six bonus books if you reach the $15 threshold) — pay what you want, give 10% to charity, determine the author/bundlemaker split. Buckets of cool authors, including Kevin J. Anderson (who also curated this bundle), Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinettte Kowal. 

72 comments

  • Okay Mr Wendig, with your superhuman psychic powers you are now scaring me.

    This was EXACTLY what I needed to read today. After weeks of my whiny-pants-cry-babying “Urrrhhh, why is this second drafting so haaaarrrdddd, it must mean I suck like the Undead Queen of Dysons!” it is the biggest relief to know it’s SUPPOSED to feel like that. And that end part, where you said the second draft might not be the last draft – or anything close? Best. News. Ever. ‘Cause there aint no-one reading the second drafts of chapters I’ve done so far (I’m coming for you, my not-so-pretties… in time… )

    Thank you for the inspiring boot-up-the-arse-hug-thingy :)

  • Fantastic, kick up the arse inspiration as ever! I hate the second draft and have been struggling with mine for so long because it never feels like the changes I’m making are big or dramatic enough. But reading articles like this reminds me that everyone has that problem and I am (sort of) doing it right!

  • I’m working on a first edit now, and I just have to say that schadenfreude is real, because hot holy hell does it make me feel better to know that even a seasoned author looks at the process with the same trepidation and uncertainty as I do.

  • Yes, more excellent advice!

    Note to self: you need to finish the first draft before you can get to the second. Must stop loitering on Wendig’s site and write.

  • After a year and two months since starting my current novel, I am days away from completing the third draft (DAYS!!!!). I think this will be the last one (besides a round or two of polishing) before getting it to beta readers for feedback.

    The first draft took me 3 months.
    The third draft took me 3 months.

    That second son-of-a-bitch: 8 months.

    Serious surgery was needed. Without a doubt the toughest part of the novel-writing process. It didn’t have the balls-to-the-walls momentum of the first draft, nor the job-well-done-satisfaction of the third. It’s hard work, plain and simple.

  • Well, three months down; I’m hoping to forget the characters names by the end of November. So I’ll be able to look at the horrid pile of excrement with disdain and condescension. As always, thanks for the sound advice Chuck.

  • Can’t I be a writer AND a secret Vatican barista? Because, that just sounds awesome. thanks, needed to read this right now. It’s right where I am.

  • In addition to reading a manuscript out loud I find that having the computer read parts to me helps a lot with awkward wording and repetitive phrases. However I suggest changing the voice to be something other than the bland computer voice.

  • I dunno. The second draft tends to energize me–it depends on the book and how much rewriting was required. First drafts are like a hilly bike race–both a slog and a rush. If the second draft involves massive rewrites, that can actually be exciting, because I’m THROWING things out the window and Frankensteining and doing gory horrible wonderful things to my baby. It’s in the third draft, when I tuck in the shirt, straighten its collar, and fix the twiddly continuity bits, that I get depressed and homicidal.

  • For me, second draft is absolutely the hardest. The bitch of the bunch. All those shortcuts and placeholders I inserted into the fist draft just so I could write quicker? I have to actually solve those. First draft and polish are fun. But second draft is the devil.

  • The biggest surprise I had when I began to research the writing process was the draft process. It was a huge disappointment to me that this impression I’d had of these deified writers was false – that there is not this chosen few who poop golden eggs that fulfill their destiny on the New York Times best-sellers lists.

    Those eggs have to grow up when they hatch? Wha? Best-selling authors write crap sometimes too?

    *mind blown*

    Thanks for being brave enough to pull back the magic curtain a little. It made me think that maybe I can do it too, and even if my golden egg does end up just being crap at first, maybe that shouldn’t be too demoralizing.

    • I just had the appalling realization that this makes two consecutive posts on your site where I’ve referenced excrement.

      You’re affecting me, Chuck. Please get out of my head.

  • My clone always reads his writing aloud to me long before it is my turn to attack it with the Red Pen of Doom (DOOM, I tell you!), and it helps him catch dropped words and such, plus it helps me get a better feel for what he intended the words to say so I can make sure they actually say it. I think the mad scientists who created us made a mistake with me, though, because I have an unexplainable fondness for editing. I LIKE working on the second draft of a story. I LIKE wrestling a story to the ground and making it let go of all the scenes that aren’t serving plot or characterization. I LIKE being able to tell it, ‘No, Murphy bless you, that is NOT the way to foreshadow a character’s death — do it about four chapters earlier.’

  • The moment revision made sense to me was when I was doing a series on my music blog about the Beatles. No, really, hear me out! It’s like how great bands record music. The listener [reader] only hears the end result in the song [book], but never sees the insane amount of rerecording [multiple drafts], the false starts and the missteps [even more multiple drafts], the overdubs [line edits] or the sequencing and final mixing [galley edits]. It’s up to the musicians and producers [writers and editors] to make that end result sound [read] perfectly.

    Since then, revision hasn’t been nearly as much of a bear than it used to be. God forbid, I actually enjoy it now.

    [I go into a bit more detail here if any of you are so interested: http://welcometobridgetown.com/2014/07/22/on-writing-revision-and-recording-music/ ]

  • I’ve needed this for months. I’ll gladly take it now. *crams post into brain hole*

    One problem I have that I don’t see mentioned too often: my first drafts tend to be thin. Like, gnawed-on-by-Langoliers thin. The characters and plot are there, but the setting is a map drawn by an alcoholic sea dog, the descriptions are all pencil sketches and my notions of time and space would make the Doctor throw up. In other words, I feel like my second draft is going to be the True First Draft. Does anyone else ever get that feeling? (NaNoWriMo is a contributor to this problem, but not the sole cause.)

    • I get that feeling. My first draft tends to be an extremely detailed outline, and the second draft ends up turning that outline into, as you put it, “the True First Draft.”

    • Funny you should mention that. My novel is a bit preoccupied with time (a deadline figures prominently) so characters are always referencing it. However, after the first half of the novel or so I started to lose all track of it. My notes in the margins quickly grew from “nail down what day this is” to “what day?” to “need to know the time” to “Time” to “TIME” to “&$*#)! TIME”.

      Needless to say, there is some straightening-out of the continuum to be done in my edit.

    • My first two novels were on the gargantuan side, because I was never truly aware of how long a novel should be until I had finished them. By the time I got to the third, I started to have a better word-gauge of where I should be. Unfortunately, that meant it was on the lean side. Initially, I thought a heftier novel was better before I start rewriting, because I could clear the brush between the trees. But really, I think having a leaner novel is better for me. It gives me the freedom to add in much-needed descriptions, which I prefer over cutting hundreds of pages. I’d changed my writing style by the third book. I saw I was breezing past any real descriptions of the setting and secondary characters because I was racing toward the end. What I’m saying is, it’s okay if it’s on the lean side. Think of it as a rough outline with gaps that need to be filled in, like a brick wall that needs some mortar filling. You might not have as much brush to burn, but you also won’t be demoralized if a side-plot collapses.

  • I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. After first drafting multiple novels I realized I was never going to get anywhere if I didn’t second draft one of them. So I picked own and sat down and painstaking went through each chapter. I jotting down what I liked, didn’t like, and what plot information I would need to insert in another chapter if I ended up tossing it entirely.

    It’s even more painful than outlining the first time around, but I’m glad I did it, and I think it’ll be a better book for it.

    But no one ever gave me advice for a second draft before other than “do it” and “it’s different for everyone.” I’m glad what I did in prep for my second (I’m still working on it) is pretty much what you outlined here!

  • I imagine my upstairs neighbors whoever is walking past my patio on the street (sliding door is open right now) wonders what craziness is going on up in here…because I keep screaming “Yes!” and “Preach!” and “That is SO TRUE!” as I read this blog post…Thanks for articulating it here, Mr. Wendig…and for helping the neighborhood realize that there’s a crazy person living in the downstairs apartment on the corner.

  • October 8, 2014 at 3:11 PM // Reply

    Thank you for this. I have rewritten the first 20% of my first draft and have gotten very discouraged. Not having fun at all. I am going to go back and reread your post, take a deep breath and get back to work. Thanks again.

  • I dunno. Second drafts in my head are fixing all the stuff you already know needs fixing, and then discovering a bunch of other new stuff you didn’t know about.

    My first draft is filled with editors’ notes, and when I re-read the whole thing for the second draft, I fix all that stuff in my notes, while making new notes for further revision and changing. I have a pretty ridiculous draft stage, though, often having at least six distinct drafts, and once up to twelve.

  • Timing is everything, read this post after reading some thoughts from my editor — right time, right place. Thank you. Great post — and I love the idea of the cat. Gotta get me one of them editing cats. Thank you.

  • Oh, but I did write the first draft. And my 18-year-old daughter edited it. She didn’t hold back, either. The next version will be much better, thanks to her willingness to tell me what bothered her about the story, what didn’t make sense, what just needed to go — picture here a passage with heavy pen marks through it, and the words “I’m just going to pretend you didn’t write that” scribbled in the margin. In order for this particular method to work, however, you have to have a teenager willing to read your book, and, as a parent, be willing to take the hits to your ego. Yikes. I’m still bleeding in places.

  • OK, wiping tears out of my eyes. GD, Chuck, reason this is so f’king funny — it’s utterly real. Track changes? I don’t think so. This stuff needs to die — NOW!

  • This scares me to the bottom of my soul. The thought of gutting my love ch–novel. Ugh. Makes me dizzy. I won’t think about it today (yes, I’ll Scarlett O’Hara the bitch). I’ll Finish. Writing. First. Then maybe I’ll be brave enough to go to the scary place.

    It sounds so scary.

  • Now is your time to be like a housecat on a countertop — you will use your paw to select the things that have violated your feline majesty and you will paw them onto the floor, FOR OH HOW THEY DISGUST YOU. Fuck this shit. Fuck that. Not that. Also that.

    This. This definitely makes the list making seem easier.

  • Oo, oo, Chuck! Chuck! Over here! Guess what, I finished my first ever whole first draft! Not just the first three chapters rewritten over and over again like in the past, but a whole novel! I have written a novel. Hushed awe. I am so amazing I can’t get over myself.

    This post is both apposite and timely. I think. If those words mean what they think I mean. School holidays are about to end here, so on Monday I plunge into second draft. I had already planned to do a new outline that actually had some relevance to what I have now written, but thanks for the advice to use track changes (hidden). Will do.

  • Yep. Good timing. I’m nearly halfway through a second draft and it’s a lot of work. Mass improvement has been made but this helped. Thanks!

  • Mr. Wendig!

    Thank-you, thank-you! Haven’t laughed my ass off for a long time. Your posts are so refreshing and so true.

  • Thanks for this. I’ve got a second draft on my hands that I’m not entirely sure what to do with. Revising the first draft was a blast, I hacked and slashed and actually built a real plot. But I still don’t like it, and that makes me question the whole thing, like shouldn’t its great shiny potential show through the muck by now? Did I overwork it? Is that a plot hole or do I just need to connect more dots? Did I go in a completely wrong direction with some things? And I definitely need to change a character’s name, yet again. It’s a little overwhelming.

  • Like Dean Koontz, much like Kurt Vonnegut and quite a few other writers I’ve known or read about, I don’t really do a second draft, at least in the traditional sense.

    When I first started writing, it wasn’t really pre-internet, but more people were without internet than with, and I was without for a long time. I was also an early high school dropout, and I didn’t know a thing about writing. I didn’t even want to be a writer, but tried it because I chanced on an article about how Heinlein wrote his first story in an effort to pay an overdue bill. I had several overdue bills, and I thought that if he could do it, I could at least try it.

    I sat down, write a story in two days, sent it off to a top magazine, using the address I found inside the mag. They bought. I sold the true first draft of my first several story, and then sold the first true draft of a novel I wrote in three weeks. Truth be told, I didn’t know you were supposed to write a second draft.

    When I found out second drafts were supposedly a good idea, I started writing them, and hated it to death. Then I stumbled on the same method that Dean Koontz uses, which is revising/rewriting/editing each page as I go, and I’ve been doing this for along, long time now. I may write a page and leave it alone, or I may go over it twenty times, but when I decide it’s as good as I can make it, I then move on to the next page, and do the same with it. When I reach the last page, I’m finished, and I never look back.

    This sounds unorthodox to most, but I’ve found a surprising number of writers who do the same. I’ve also found a great many who do a second draft that’s nothing more than getting rid of typos, grammar errors, and sometimes just a bit of tightening. No real rewrite or revising at all.

    We all write in different ways, each according to our own. I’ve always believed in doing whatever seems most natural to us, not what we read somewhere. If I had to pick a method from other sources, I’d look into the writing methods of my favorite two or three writers, and try one of those first. I do believe process affects product, at least to a degree, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of my favorite writers use roughly the same methods of writing I do.

  • I always try to write my second drafts first.

    That’s actually a semi-serious comment. I tend to -think- about a story quite a bit before I put word to paper. That usually means the structure and outline is pretty solidly set, and there aren’t major changes needed after the first written version.

    This technique admittedly works better with short stories than with novels. I’ve never managed to complete a novel yet. Longest work to now has been a 40,000 word novella. (I’m trying to top that.)

  • There is a lot of good advice in here. I am on the third draft and I find myself frozen in time. I am scared to death that people will pick it up and look at it like I do when I watch a movie that is trite, pat and been-done-before and say, phhhtt seen that before, and toss it away.

    I mostly write for me but I do intend to share it. I am more scared now than I was doing the first edit. I was so excited then. Now I hate my novel again.

  • On the subject of outlines, does the use of Scrivener make this easier? Harder? No difference at all? I’ve been using that program for the first draft, but have already 2nd and 3rd drafted certain scenes, and have marked them as such….

    Anyone?

  • Certainly the latter are usually more difficult projects.
    The weights generated by our early work can be heavy, especially if the first were good.
    Doubts can paralyze us, that horror.
    A change of fitness can benefit us and make us stronger, the casualidadades not exist and the hard work pays off.
    Not to relax the mood.
    Regards.

  • As you so aptly described, nobody talks about the second draft. Thank you for doing so. I feel slightly better now about the rewriting process, and will use this post to wrench myself out of paralysis.

  • Thankyou!!!
    I am unwinding from the featal position and taking up a chainsaw and plan to hack away at my first draft as soon as I can tear myself away from your fabulous blog.

    Chuck I also appreciate how you lift the veil on the drafting process and normalise the panic, fear, doubt and terror I’m feeling.

    Im going to name my ‘teenager’ after you!

  • Finding this post just blew my mind!!! I was literally staring at Google thinking, “I should write to Chuck Wendig and ask him what to do about this second draft problem I have.” I typed in “i suck at editing the second draft,” and here is this beauty, the first entry in Google!!! :) Thanks Chuck.

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