With NaNoWriMo over, many writers are celebrating a huge milestone: the completion of their first draft. Now comes the rewrite.
The first draft is a huge accomplishment, and to all of you who’ve managed to do it for either the first time or the tenth: congratulations! Revel in that feeling, because you’ve earned it. You’ve successfully tackled what so many people long to do but never achieve: you wrote a novel.
Once you’ve caught up on sleep and the confetti’s swept away, though, you might find yourself thinking, Now what? Because whether you spent a month, a year, or a decade on the first draft, that work will only get you so far. Before your manuscript can become a book, you’ll need to edit it.
If this sounds daunting, don’t worry. Today, I’m going to guide you through four phases that will walk you straight through your second draft. Soon you’ll wonder what you were ever so afraid of.
Phase 1: Assess the Damage
The first thing you’ll need to determine is exactly what the state of your manuscript is. Let’s face it, you can’t fix a book if you don’t know what’s wrong with it. (And don’t you dare say “everything!” Remember, even the messiest book can be salvaged.)
I like to do this in three steps. First, make a list of everything you think is wrong with the book. Do this before you reread the draft, going solely from memory. Was there anything you know you did wrong? Do you worry there wasn’t enough foreshadowing for the big reveal? Are there parts you suspect contradict each other because you changed your mind halfway through the draft? Put it all on your list. (And here’s a self-editing checklist if you need a guide.)
Next, it’s time for a reread.
For this step, take the list of issues you just made—and bury them in a drawer. I’m serious. You got all your concerns out of your head, so now it’s time to clean the slate and look at your book fresh. Try to forget the doubts, and approach your book as if you know nothing about it. Don’t rush into this step, though. Time and distance can yield wonders in providing a fresh perspective.
When you’re ready, print your manuscript and settle in. Don’t worry about bringing your red pens— this paper copy isn’t for marking up, it’s to get you away from the screen you’re used to seeing it on. Reading your story in a different format is essential for gaining a clear understanding of what you’ve written.
Once you’ve read the whole thing, write up your thoughts! Treat it like a book review, where you briefly summarize the plot, assess the strengths and weaknesses, and then give your overall impression.
During this step, it’s important to be both honest and fair with yourself. You obviously don’t want to let your creative pride cloud your judgment. But you also can’t fall into the temptation to rag on yourself undeservedly.
Phase 2: Create a Plan
The first thing you’ll want to do is take all your notes and go through the draft to see how they apply. For example, was there enough foreshadowing? If so, you can strike that off your list. If there wasn’t, look for places where you could work some in.
Try to make your notes at this point as actionable as possible. While it helps to identify, “the big reveal is dull and lifeless,” that still leaves you with a big question mark when it comes to actually make it tense and unexpected. Instead, try to dig deeper. What makes it dull and lifeless—and what can you do to spice it up? Would it help to change the setting? Sharpen your dialogue? Pump up your character arc? The more you can work towards a potential solution to the problem, the less you’ll struggle when you’re writing draft two.
Now let’s take your lists and define exactly what kind of edits they require. Most of them are probably big picture, “developmental edits” at this point, but not all. Make a system and color-code the different types of problems you’ve identified. For instance, I highlight all the notes where I realize I’ve overused a word, phrase, or concept with the color green. Perhaps you can highlight notes related to character arcs in yellow, and use blue for scenes that need more description.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a much better idea of what the next draft should look like. After all, you’ve identified all the big problems in your book, figured out actionable steps you can take to address them, and sorted your notes by the types of edits they require.
Then it’s time to put those notes into practice.
Phase 3: Rewrite What Cannot Be Salvaged
Even if you don’t need to scrap the whole draft and start over, chances are there will be scenes or chapters that would benefit from a rewrite. If this is the case, don’t despair. Plenty of excellent books have gone through entire rewrites, and have ended up much stronger for them.
The biggest choice with rewriting is whether you reference the old scenes or manuscript as you redraft, or leave it aside and write fresh. There are pros and cons to each.
Having the old version around means that you can pull good portions from it, and you won’t forget the overall structure and order or events—it basically works as a highly detailed outline, with some prewritten dialogue and description.
On the other hand, you might want to start fresh. An old version of the scene or story has the potential to drag your new prose in similar directions, and it might make it harder to let go of old material. And of course, if you’re making radical changes to the structure, the old structure won’t do much good.
Whatever your approach, it’s important not to feel beholden to the old version as you rewrite. Let yourself be just as playful and creative as you were the first time. Yes, you want to make sure to fix the issues, but don’t get so wrapped up in avoiding the problems that your writing becomes stiff.
Phase 4: Rework the Remaining Scenes
Chances are good that even if your rewrite was extensive, there’s still going to be something left that was good enough to keep but needs pumping up.
Unfortunately, there’s no getting around it: this part is when you roll up your sleeves and get it done. So brush up on your favorite writing tips and crack open that thesaurus. Because remember the color-coded lists you made earlier? It’s time to bring those bad boys out, and start checking things off.
The upside is there’s really no right or wrong order to tackle this process. You can go through the book chronologically, fixing each scene in turn. Or through your color-coding system, tackling first continuity problems, then character issues, then plot holes. You can jump around, and do easy things when you’re struggling, and harder tasks when you’re fresh. It all needs to get done.
One thing to note: as you rewrite and rework, it’s likely you’ll encounter more problems as you’re fixing others. That’s all right—in fact, it’s normal. You’re so deep into the book by this point, and so attuned to both its flaws and strengths that it makes sense you’d pick up on issues you missed the first time. My advice? Immediately handle the easy fixes and write down the rest to be tackled in the next draft.
Phase 5: Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Because guess what? This won't be your final rewrite. There’s going to be a third draft. And maybe a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth. That’s okay, because now you’re armed with the knowledge that you’ve done it once, and can do it again. Whether you’re writing a children’s book or the Great American Novel, there really is no shortcut to a polished, completed book. But with dedication and effort, you too can bring your vision to life. Before you know it, you may even be planning your book launch.
Jenn Gott is an indie author and a writer with Reedsy, so she basically spends all her time either writing books, or helping people learn how to write books. She firmly believes there is no writing skill you cannot learn with practice and the right guidance. When she’s not working, she enjoys keeping up with the latest superhero movies, reading, and swimming.