How to Start Your Second Draft Right

After months, perhaps years, of work, you are ready to edit the first draft of your novel. Hopefully, you’ve gotten professional feedback from an experienced book editor who assessed your book’s overall vision and other big-picture elements, as well as spotted smaller things you need to improve.

Over my 30-plus years as a book editor, I’ve seen countless authors approach this stage all wrong. Most often, they rush into edits, eager to “get it done.” Many first-time authors begin the revising process by going through their manuscript line by line and adding some things, taking out other things, cleaning up punctuation and spelling. This isn’t the right way to revise. Going about it this way could leave you with a second draft that has even more structural issues than the first.

Before sitting down to tackle all those editorial notes you — or your editor or critique group— have made, it helps to have a revision plan that gives your manuscript its best chances at publishing success.

5 key steps in starting your second draft:

1. Determine the biggest issues to fix.

For a revision to truly be effective, you need to attend to one issue at a time, starting with the largest issues (such as story structure, key themes, story arc, and character journey) and saving the smaller, more easily fixed issues like grammar and spelling for way later in the process.

2. Create a workbook.

A big binder works. Each big issue gets its own section, marked by tabs. Lay out the order in which you need to tackle your manuscript’s biggest weaknesses, brainstorming suggestions for how to address each stage of the process. Hopefully, the critiques your developmental editor provided can offer an outline for shoring up these weaknesses step by step.

Devise a plan for each issue. For example, if a weakness you’ve determined is “stakes are not high enough for my main character,” come up with ways to ramp up the stakes and make your character journey more meaningful.

3. Create a new blueprint for your manuscript.

For this, I recommend scene cards — individual index cards outlining the nuts and bolts of each scene. Go through each and every scene and create a scene card with the new plan.

For example, let’s say that you are still trying to raise the stakes for your protagonist. In a scene where the main character has a final confrontation with the novel’s opponent, you might write down on the scene card that you should change this confrontation so it is more life or death. Instead of the two characters having a verbal argument, perhaps have the protagonist have to risk his career, his love, or choose to potentially sacrifice his life.

Using scene cards is a helpful way to keep track of all of these changes.

4. Kill your darlings, but save what works.

Go back into your manuscript and circle only those passages or scenes that fit with your new draft. Be ruthless. Don’t be afraid to scrap whole scenes or even chapters. I know, I know…this is really hard to do!

Don’t just delete these passages forever — transfer them into another document for your archives. You never know, they could end up going in another project.

5. Make a new document.

Copy and paste the salvageable material into a new document, in the new order in which it will appear. This is where you can use your index cards as a guide.

Transfer any editorial notes from the annotated manuscript into the appropriate places in a new document. Remember, at this point, you’re still looking at bigger structural issues. Do not address any of the smaller details, however tempting!

This method will help you on your way to completing a new draft, where you’ll follow your blueprint to fix both larger and smaller issues. From there, you can work your way towards making it sing.

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