Mastering the Mysterious Second Draft
We authors talk a lot about the process of writing the first draft book—whether it’s fast-drafting or slow-and-steady. Whether it’s plotted or “pants-ed.” Whether it easy or hard, fun or torturous, too-long or too short.
And we talk about the revisions process—what it’s like to get an editorial letter, and how to reconcile an editor’s suggestions with our own vision of the story, to make the best book possible.
But we hardly ever talk about the second draft—that in-between stage that sometimes feels like a blink-and-you-miss it part of the process. Hell, sometimes it actually does get missed! If I’m wildly behind schedule, I sometimes have to send the first draft to my editor, with profuse apologies for its Hot Mess-ness.
But usually, there’s a second draft.
The second draft can mean all sorts of different things to different people, but here’s how I’m defining it:
The second draft is that version of the manuscript that comes after an author finishes the first messy one, but before it goes to the editor.
It’s the first read-through of your book. Sometimes it’s not even so much a draft as a layer—an extra bit of refinement to make sure your editor gets the story you were intending.
Here are some do’s and dont’s for making the most of the second-draft
Use this time to create/complete your style-sheet. The second draft is a great time to make sure you’ve got a list of all your characters, places, listed in a separate document. This “list” is called a style sheet, and you need one. Trust me. You may be able to hold a bunch of character/details in your head while you’re writing a book, but I guarantee you’ll lose at least some of them in the weeks when the manuscript’s off with your editor, and you dive into a new project. The second draft is the perfect opportunity to capture the details of characters whose names/descriptions may have changed since you’re outlining stage (or the perfect opportunity to capture those details for the first time if you’re not a planner!)
Pay attention to setting—this may be specific to my own writing flaws, but I always skip right over setting in the first draft of a manuscript. It’s not uncommon for my editor to gently say, “Um, I have no idea where any of the first half of the book takes place.” My first drafts tend to focus on dialog/action, without any explanation of where each scene happens. The second draft is where I start to change “restaurant” to “swanky downtown steakhouse” and “apartment” to “his cold, spartan penthouse.”
Search for TK. In my 5 Tips for Fast Drafting I mentioned how I use “TK” during my first draft process to denote any character name/timeline reference that I can’t remember off the top of my head as I’m writing. The first thing I do during the second draft is do a “Find” for TK and start to fill in those gaps.
Make note of the parts when your attention/interest wavers while you’re reading through—it may not necessarily mean that it needs to be cut/fixed; it could just be that you’re sick of the story and need sometime time away with it. But it could also mean that if your attention’s wavering, your readers’ will too. The second-draft/frist-read-through is a great time to pay attention to this, because you’ll never get to read your book “For the first time” again.
Make changes as you go along .... if you want to. I’ve heard so much advice over the years saying that you should always read the book straight through once before making any changes. That’s never really worked for me. The entire point of that approach is to get the big picture before you start tweaking, and it’s great in theory. But I get so preoccupied with the stuff I want to fix, that I never can see the big picture anyway. Do what feels right to you—there’s no rule that you’re not allowed to touch the manuscript on the first read-through!
Don't too much time proof-reading. Yes, if you catch a typo as you’re reading, obviously fix it, but now is not the time to agonize over every little sentence to make sure the punctuation is spot-on. You’re wasting your time. Why? Because this draft isn’t even close to final—you don’t want to spend hours polishing a scene that you and your editor may later decide to cut. Your second draft is a time to tidy-up your manuscript, not spring-clean.
Don’t you dare be hard on yourself. It’s tempting to read through the first draft and think, “This sucks so hard, I’ll never be a writer.” Most of us feel that way with the occasional manuscript at this stage, if not with every manuscript. But it's important to remember is that you’re still in the earliest stages at this point—your job during second draft is not to judge the manuscript, but to start brainstorming ways to make it shine.
Don’t feel you have to fix everything at this stage. Obviously, if a fix is clear to you, go for it! But often times during the second draft, I’ll sense that something’s amiss but I won’t yet know how to fix it. Instead of stressing, I simply make a note of it to discuss with my editor at a later date to make sure we fix it during the revisions process. You don’t have to fix everything RIGHT NOW. You have time, I promise.