how to write second draft
writing | writing tips and tools

The importance of the second draft (and how to tackle it)

At the moment, I’m in the throes of the second draft of what I hope will be my third published novel. I like to share my ups and downs, and had been doing so on Instagram and the other day I received a message regarding my drafting process, specifically asking how to go from the first draft to the second. Now, I’m certainly no expert, but I have gone through this process a number of times. That’s the good news. The bad news is, it doesn’t get easier and I still don’t have a foolproof plan.

I suggested to this aspiring writer to check out Sally Hepworth or Jane Harper. Both are international best-selling authors who have shared their writing processes on Instagram. Needless to say, they know a thing or two.

I suppose I could end this post here, but what fun would that be? Instead, I’m going to share my own process.

Why is the second draft important?

All drafts are important, but the second draft in particular is the draft where a lot of the heavy lifting gets done. Let me explain.

The first draft gets the story down. If you’re a pantser, you are getting to know the characters during the first draft and seeing where the story takes you. If you are more of a plotter, you are taking all your plot points and seeing if they work on the page in story form. Either way, the first draft = getting the story down.

The second draft is where you get to analyse what works and what doesn’t.

Analysing your first draft is tough. It’s at this point I hate my story with a passion. Self-deprecating thoughts of ‘You couldn’t write a book to save yourself!‘ and ‘This is the worst thing ever written!‘ are on a constant loop in my head. But, you have to push those thoughts aside and get on with it.

When you analyse your first draft you will see where the story falls flat, discover what characters and relationships are working (and not), you will notice just how saggy your middle is, and see whether or not your story builds to a workable and satisfying climax.

If you think writing in building terms, the first draft is the foundations and slab, and the second draft is the frame – the bits that hold everything up. Your second draft is where you really knuckle down on getting the structure of your story right.

How to go from first draft to second draft.

The first thing I do, which I strongly encourage, is to put your manuscript aside for at least six weeks. Longer if you can.

Work on something else and totally forget about what you have written. It’s hard, but it’s an important step. Because, when you go back for the first read-through, you need to go back with fresh eyes.

The first read-through

The first time I read through my first draft, I do so with my reader hat on. As I read, I note down any inconsistencies I find, any things that don’t make sense (plot-wise), parts that I find enjoyable and that flow well, parts that I find slow and repetitious. Any thoughts that come to me I jot down. I find it easiest to print my manuscript out (double-sided to save paper) and jot either in the margins or on sticky notes. But if you can handle this digitally, go for it.

The second read through

In the next pass, I’m reading more intentionally, this time with my writer’s hat. I like to concentrate on the story in three parts.

The beginning – Does the story start in the right place? Does the first page start in action and hook the reader’s attention? Do we get to know who the character is before their world changes? Is there too much back-story and unnecessary detail that could be sprinkled throughout the manuscript rather than in big info dumps at the start?

The middle – how has the main character’s world changed? How are they reacting to it? Is there action? Is something happening in every scene to move the story forward? Are the actions of the main characters consistent with who they are? Are they faced with conflict and decisions to make? How do their decisions direct the story? How are all the characters interacting and moving the plot forward? Do scenes need to be moved around? Do new scenes need to be added? Are there scenes that need to be culled because they aren’t progressing the story?

The middle to end – does the tension build and force the main character into a final position of having to take big action? Do things make sense? Is the character being active and not reactive? How are the minor plot lines coming together? Is the climax, short but effective? Is the resolution satisfying and does it fit the story? How has the character changed?

Make notes (as detailed or brief as you like)

After taking all my notes from the first and second read-through, I make detailed notes on what needs to happen in the second draft. Here is where I (roughly) plan what the second draft is going to look like. Where the plot points need to hit. How my character needs to behave. And where the story needs fleshing out with new scenes and plot lines. This doesn’t mean the second draft will be easy to pull together. It is simply the next step in getting to the point where everything comes together.

I believe at this stage you have to be happy with the story and where it went in the first draft.

If it has gone completely off track and isn’t working, my advice is to take what works and start over. Yes. A new first draft.

I know it’s a daunting thought to throw away all those words that you worked so hard on, but I also know from experience it’s much easier to start again than to rework a story that just isn’t working at the foundation level. I truly believe no words are ever wasted. All those words you have written – whether they make the next draft or not – have already made you a better writer.

Start writing

Time to start writing. There comes a time where you just have to dive head-first into the second draft. Because it won’t write itself.

The second draft is, in my opinion, one of the hardest. It is where the real story unfolds and the harder you work on the second draft, the better your subsequent drafts will be. So, take your notes and work chapter by chapter, or even scene by scene – writing in scenes is one of the best things I ever did but more on that in another post – and just get writing.

One thing I do want to add is that there is no right or wrong way to approach the second draft. Just as there is no right or wrong way to write a novel. But all the usual rules apply. The story has to make sense, has to move forward, and has to have good structure. If you can get these things right in your second draft, you’re well on your way to completing a well-structured novel.

Happy writing!

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