Finishing a first draft can be both exciting and terrifying, but it’s worthy of celebration. YOU DID IT! The characters and worlds you’ve spun on the page are a living, breathing story. Go get yourself a glass of something bubbly, I’ll wait.
Now here’s the hard truth: When you re-read your manuscript, you’ll find the words may be riddled with flaws, maybe the characters are inconsistent, the plot might be aimless or lacking tension. But don’t worry, even if your manuscript is an utter mess, you can’t fix what isn’t on the page. Writing is re-writing. It is re-planning, tweaking, overhauling. It is adding elements that will improve the story and taking away those that don’t fit.
So you’ve written that first draft, but where do you go next?
Take a break
Revising is a big step. It doesn’t matter if you had to painfully pry each word out of your fingers or if they spilled out of you, you will re-read your first draft and see all of its flaws. And that’s okay! To gain some distance from your manuscript, make sure you take a break. Treat yourself by binging The Christmas Prince on Netflix, read books that will refill your creative well and make you excited to dive into revisions, or even write something new. Taking the time away from your manuscript will give you a chance to rest, but it will also allow you to build up your creative armour and sharpen your editing pick-axe. After some time away, you’ll find it’s (slightly) easier to re-enter a project. Plus, with fresh eyes you’ll have no problem putting your characters through hell and thinking critically about how to make your story the best it can possibly be.
Read over your manuscript
The way writers re-read their first draft varies from person to person. Some writers print out their manuscript and reading through it in one sitting, which will make plot holes, inconsistencies, and other issues easier to identify. During this sitting, some writers don’t take a single note, while others brandish their red pen like a sword. As someone who doesn’t like sitting still for that long, I try to read my manuscript over the span of a week, making notes in a separate notebook. Regardless of how you do it, make sure you focus on big picture issues—there’s no point in editing smaller grammar or syntax problems when that entire scene, chapter, or act may change because you’re merging two characters or adding another point of view. And remember: even though reading a first draft and spotting its myriad of problems can be overwhelming, each edit is only going to bring it closer to the story you want it to be.
In this stage, you’ll identify how you want your book to change. With the problems you identified in your read through, you’ll now want to think about issues relating to your character, setting, plot, etc. Create an outline or edit letter to plan your revised novel and remind yourself of pivotal moments in the plot when you’re elbow deep in revisions. You can go beat by beat with Save the Cat’s beat sheet or Lara Willard’s 8 C’s of Plotting Worksheets. Or, you can go chapter by chapter, writing 150-250 words about the scene, the character’s motivations, and the purpose of the scene in the story. Regardless of what method you choose to plan your revision, run it by a critique partner or mentor afterwards. While you may think your plan is flawless, they can help you flesh out what is compelling and cut bits that don’t need to be there. At the end of the day, revise based on what feels right for your story.
This is easier said than done, right? Whether you’re making smaller changes or doing a complete overhaul, this is where you take all the ideas rumbling around in your head from your first draft and new outline and work to make your story shine. While revising is not easy, taking your time to plan beforehand will give you the tools you need to tackle your edits. But your second draft won’t be your last. You’ll repeat this process until you’ve sharpened your larger structural issues—from plot to setting and character—before you turn to attacking your language, syntax, and grammar in line edits. Further along in the publishing process when you’re working with an editor, you’ll continue to hone your revising skills long after you’ve gotten an agent or a book deal.
Use the community!
This final tip is applicable at all stages in your writing journey. Linked below are a ton of other resources that will help you plan and execute your second draft. Talk to your critique partners about how to support each other during your writing journeys: maybe you can exercise your critiquing muscle and keep each other accountable by exchanging every time you complete a couple chapters or a full act, or even arrange daily check-ins. Or, use revising worksheets and tools shared by other authors to keep yourself on track. You’re not in this alone!
It doesn’t matter if you’ve revised a hundred times before or are just starting out, with each new manuscript comes new set of revision challenges to face and insights about your creative process. Now that you’ve refilled that creative well and gotten some rest, let’s get to work.
How do you like to revise? Has the way you revised changed each time you complete a manuscript? Reach out on social media or below to let us know how you’re doing. We’re rooting for you!
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