If seasoned writers know one thing, they know this: you don’t get it right the first time. Now and then, you might find your voice or get your story down – and even, on occasion, with some flair – but most likely, you’ll have to do several drafts. A novel, for the most part, is a work in progress.
But let’s think about that second draft because that’s where revision begins.
What’s revision about?
How much can you, or should you, accomplish in a second draft? Should you wait a while between the first and second drafts? Are you liable to mess up that first draft with your cuts and additions? What kind of mistakes might you make?
We spoke to several accomplished novelists to get their takes on these questions.
How should you approach the second draft of a novel? Should you concentrate on certain elements or aspects of your novel, or is anything fair game? How about fine-tuning the language at this point?
Revision strategies certainly vary from writer to writer. One approach is to flesh out your first draft – if it needs it. According to Eliza Knight, USA Today and international bestselling author of The Mayfair Bookshop, her first drafts tend to be pretty “bare” or “skeletal.” The characters and plot are there, “but it’s not quite a living, breathing story yet,” so her second draft is crucial in giving it life.
Knight also fine tunes the language to allow the scenes to “come alive on the page.” To pull this off, she goes for specific and concrete details. “A dining room set becomes an ‘elegant Jacobean mahogany table and matching chairs with gold silk upholstered seats,’ and a teacup becomes a ‘yellow primrose-painted teacup.’”
For Victoria Gilbert, a seasoned mystery writer, a second draft is an opportunity to revise the work as a whole. Among the areas she concentrates on is pacing. “While writing a first draft, it’s easy to create issues like long stretches of inaction, too much unnecessary description, and too much or too little dialogue. Fixing these pacing problems might involve moving around scenes and chapters as well as cutting or adding text.”
In her various mystery novels, she also checks for clues and red herrings. Are they in the right place? Are they clear but not too obvious? Covering these bases is a difficult balancing act, she says. “In the second draft, you may need to adjust the placement of clues so that the investigative aspects of the book make more sense, which in turn may require revising or shifting scenes.”
Don’t be afraid to make major changes, says Gilbert. “You can still retain the heart of your novel while doing extensive revisions. Don’t be afraid to cut, shift, or even add material. You aren’t destroying your vision – you’re enhancing it.”
“In my first draft,” says Marjan Kamali, award-winning author of two novels, “I am almost in a dream state where anything goes; there are no mistakes – it’s all about flow. I’m just trying to find out who the characters truly are, what they want, what they regret, what circumstances lead to their inevitable break or growth or change.”
The question for her second draft is: “How do I restructure what I have and rearrange the order of events in order to create maximum emotional impact on the reader? What am I truly trying to say with this book?” Answering these questions may well mean “a complete restructuring/regutting of the first draft.” With this in mind, she reserves fine-tuning for later drafts.
For Evie Hawtrey, author of And By Fire, a blend of historical fiction and contemporary detective thriller, the second draft is put on hold until she hears back from her critique partners. She’s confident about first drafts since she makes a practice of rereading and editing the previous day’s work before moving on. Having written straight through her novel, she’s ready for feedback. “I’ve selected critique partners carefully, ruling out anyone who’d try to convert my style to their own in favor of readers capable of judging my writing against my personal goals and my authorial voice.”
Once she’s heard back from her beta readers, Hawtrey treats anything as fair game for revision: “fine-tuning language, adding or cutting description, even massive structural changes” – including something as fundamental as point of view. “Between the first and second draft of And By Fire, a critique partner suggested losing an entire point of view. I decided they were right. I took the drastic step of cutting that POV, which involved carefully weaving anything that wasn’t expendable into my second draft via different means/characters. My resulting second draft was a much better read.”
For Dennis Must, prize-winning author of numerous novels, the second draft can mean a lot of cutting. He tends to “excise portions of the text, sometimes large ones, in order to establish a viable line-through. The amount of time spent on this second draft often exceeds by two to three times what I expended on the novel’s genesis.”
Should you let your first draft cool before moving on to your second? Or should you get right back in the heat of it? Again, authors’ practices vary.
Since her first draft is likely to be really “bare,” Knight takes a week to a month off before going on to revision. “I’ve tried reading a scene the following day and revising then, but I find the story isn’t completely cemented enough in my mind for me to do that.”
For her, returning too soon from the first draft can be detrimental. “Because I’m tired from the first draft and haven’t had the brain break, I don’t find the fleshing out to be as vivid. I really need that time away to let my brain rest.” On the other hand, Knight says, if your first draft is “fleshed out,” moving immediately to the second one could be helpful “because you’re already in a good place.”
“Distance has value,” says Hawtrey. “Personally, because I get feedback from critique partners between my first and second draft, some downtime is assured.” She’s likely to spend that time reading and responding to other writers’ manuscripts. “This isn’t just an act of reciprocity – it also cleanses my palate with regards to my own work.” Meanwhile, she’s open to ideas that suddenly pop into her head, things that come from the subconscious, and she might go back and make changes prior to receiving feedback.
For Kamali, too, gaining distance from the first draft is important. “I think you should absolutely let the first draft not just simmer but actually cool off before moving on to a second draft.” She strongly recommends following the advice of Ann Hood. In a class Kamali took from the renowned writer, Hood advised letting your manuscript cool for several months. Then, according to Hood, you should read a hard copy of it “as if you’ve never read it before.” Kamali strongly recommends following this advice: “I think you can only gain by taking a break. The novel is too much with us as we are writing that first draft. We need distance after we’re done in order to come back with fresh eyes to really see its flaws, its hidden messages, the ways in which our subconscious was hinting at what needs to be done. Jumping back in too soon can take away all of that. Patience is key.”
According to Gilbert, the ideal approach would be to allow a first draft to sit idle before “jumping into the second draft,” but she’s found that this strategy isn’t always practical, at least not for her. “In recent years, my contracted deadlines have been too tight to allow me to take more than a few days off between drafts. So for some authors, this choice may depend on outside factors.”
But if you can take a break, the real value of doing so, says Gilbert, is “achieving more mental distance from your work.” What you gain from this is more detachment, more objectivity. “It also allows your mind (perhaps subconsciously) to work through various problems in the first draft.”
If you do decide to move directly to that second draft, Gilbert has some advice: “First go through the manuscript like a reader: tagging everything that could seem confusing to someone not intimately familiar with the story and noting any pacing or character arc issues, as well as marking scenes and passages that feel forced or clunky.” Attending to these matters will greatly aid you in the revision process ahead.
Must also finds that setting aside a first draft for a while allows him to “address it with a critical eye, as a reader.” In this mode, the author’s role is no longer that of the creator but an editor. As he points out, the creative stage is poles apart from the editing stage: “At the stage of origination, my novels and short stories tend, however imperfectly, to write themselves. I dare not interfere. But upon returning to the material, the real work of rewriting commences. Weeks or months later, the critical part of my consciousness can resume control.”
Are there any mistakes you might make in approaching the second draft? Like being too eager or too quick to cut or add? How can you avoid botching it? How much should you trust that first draft? How open should you be to major revision at this stage of the process?
“I never trust my first draft!” exclaims Knight. “But that’s because it’s bare.” In contrast to that, she says, “I think a mistake some people make is over-editing. This is when they cut and tighten so much, they take the emotion out of the story.” According to Knight, you compound that mistake if you don’t save those cuts, especially if you later discover that you’ve deleted an important scene, one vital to your protagonist’s arc: “Now you have to rewrite it!” She recommends writers keep a separate document for deleted scenes.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re overly self-confident. According to Hawtrey, “If you are not ready to admit your first draft is less than ‘inspired perfection’ – if you tend to get fighty over every issue raised by your critique partners – then your second draft is not going to be a useful exercise. You must be open to serious revision.”
But this doesn’t mean you should accept everything your readers say, states Hawtrey. You must depend on your own judgment. “You need to have a clear sense of what’s essential to both your narrative arc and your central theme. If a comment truly does not resonate (as opposed to just inducing a knee-jerk defensive response), if it detracts or seems at odds with the overarching concept or tone of your book, then trust your gut and do not make that edit.”
According to Gilbert, one mistake in a second draft is attending to fine-tuning instead of “big-picture” elements. It certainly makes sense, she says, to fix “some clunky passages and dialogue,” but, for the most part, save polishing your language for another draft. “It’s better to use the second draft to ensure you’ve started the book in the right place, the pacing works, and the character arcs make sense. Working through the timeline, chapter by chapter, is also important.”
Kamali agrees. “I think it’s a mistake to think of the second draft as a mechanical ‘editing’ revision.” Save that for the third draft, she says. For her, the second draft should really be viewed as one stage in the process, which might call for “several drafts – not just one.”
She explains: “In the rush of the first draft, there may be many clues our brain plants that later have to be developed. For example, in the first draft of my novel The Stationery Shop, I had included many words like ‘blast’ and ‘inferno’ in referring to the coup d’etat. It was only in the second draft stage that I realized I needed to have a fire in that scene.” She also killed off a major character in this stage, which called for rewriting the second half of her novel. “I think we should be open to huge changes in this part of the process. It is not a renovation but a regutting.”
For Must, “The heart and sinew of the novel lie within that first draft.” If he’s fortunate, he’ll be able to leave whole sections untouched, sections “where the birth of the inspiration occurs.” To be faithful to this inspired work, he says, “I must be ever cautious about becoming too judgmental in my editing.”
Must offers this advice: “Permit that inspiration to speak for itself. Capture the raw narrative that is urging to well out of you. Once it has anchored its storyline inside your consciousness, pick up the blue pencil.”
A successful second draft is a balancing act between too much and too little. Be confident, but not overly confident, about that first draft. Put your editor’s hat on and be critical, but don’t strip your novel of its magic – of what inspired you to write it in the first place.
Revision Tips From the Pros
Victoria Gilbert: “The second draft is a great opportunity to look at the ‘big-picture’ aspects of the novel and make major revisions that can be fine-tuned in further drafts.”
Evie Hawtrey: “Before you begin working on second-draft edits, create an ‘outtakes and ideas’ document. Put anything you cut from your first draft into this file. In addition, keep a running list of questions raised by any changes you make (or decide not to make) during your second draft. Having a workspace like this will free you to be bold because, technically, nothing is lost even if you make dramatic changes. If a deletion proves to be an error, you can easily restore some or all of what you changed while second-drafting.”
Marjan Kamali: “Think of the second draft not as a minor renovation of your narrative but as a complete regutting. In many ways, you are tearing down the house you built in the first draft in order to restructure with clarity and intention.”
Eliza Knight: “This is your chance to examine and flesh out every sentence for lyrical quality, details that stand out, realistic emotional responses, and characters that bounce off the page. Give your brain a break between drafts. Think of each draft like a marathon – you won’t run another right after crossing the finish line. You rest, then take on the race again.”
Dennis Must: “Write what is in your head, in your mind. Put it aside until several weeks have passed…then permit your critical reader’s eye apparatus come into play as you begin to revise.”
Jack Smith is the author of six novels, four books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews.