The First Draft: Just Scratching the Surface

By Rachel Burkot

You’ve completed a manuscript. Hooray! Bust out the champagne, pat yourself on the back, share the happy news with your best friend, parents, mailman, dog, fourth-grade teacher…

Then get back to work. That’s right, back to work. Because you’re not actually finished. Not even close. Writing a book is hard enough, but there’s more to come with the dreaded R word: REVISIONS! Just as nothing in life is perfect, no first draft is perfect. Surely there was one chapter you worked on after a brutal, brain-cell-stealing shift at your day job, and reading over that part now feels equivalent to the depth of thought put into the personal message in your last birthday card from your four-year-old niece. You can do better! And we, the editors, exist to pull that better material out of you. But first we want you to give it your all and to learn from your revision process.

Yup, editors are sometimes like that annoying college professor who would never give an A+ just because. Well, it’s true—there’s always room for improvement. Writers and editors have the same goal of delivering the highest quality, most thought-provoking books to readers. Bottom line, you want it to be your best. To get there, you have to do more than a first draft. So what comes next? First, put down the manuscript for at least a week. Maybe more. You’ve been a slave to this thing for months, most likely, and you deserve a break from its intense demands. You’ve become too close to it, and you’ve probably lost sight of the meaning of certain scenes, characters, goals at this point. It can be mentally rejuvenating if you step away and come back to it later.

When you’re ready, read over it again with fresh perspective. Pretend you’re reading it for the first time, and try to note scenes and situations from new angles. Pay attention to details and information that you weren’t looking for when you were entrenched in the writing. Read it a couple of times—first for top-line, big-picture stuff: Does Shelly’s goal of making Matthew miss his date with Vivian tonight even make sense? After all, she decided in the previous chapter that his continued disinterest in her is actually her dodging a bullet, due to his unfortunate penchant for corduroys and Zinfandel wines. Also read for more between-the-lines, logistical things. In the first chapter, Shelly’s eyes were blue, but in Chapter 13 they’re green. Whoops! Must’ve Freudian-slipped-that-in as she gets more and more jealous of Matthew’s progressing relationship with Vivian… There’s plenty of time to catch this type of nitpicky stuff down the line, yes, but you still want it to be as strong as possible when you send it to your editor.

There are only a finite number of times you can look at your own work, so another important part of revisions is getting feedback from others. Even before you send it to your editor or agent, I’d encourage you to collect thoughts and suggestions from critique partners. Then consolidate all revision notes, put yourself back in your writing chair, and tackle Round 2. Then repeat ad nauseum until you have a manuscript you feel proud to ship off to the land of the publishing houses.

And that’s more or less how revising works. It’s going to be trial and error in terms of what works best for you. Just as every author has a different writing process (to outline or not to outline…?), so too every writer will handle revisions differently. But no matter how you revise, there is one golden rule: A hot-off-the-presses, just-finished-at-3-am first draft does not a bestseller make. No editor wants to see that. You owe it to yourself as a writer to hand in your best work.

Now go ye forth and revise! 🙂