The only faith a writer needs to have is in the next draft.
The quality of any draft doesn’t matter much provided its not your last draft. The goal of any effort in writing is to work hard now to provide the future version something better to work with. Each draft is a gift to yourself in the future.
I’m working on my fifth book now and I’ve developed these rules for how revise draft #1:
- Let it sit for a few days. The best editing happens when you are unattached. You need distance from the work to be able to edit it well. You need to be willing to rip entire sections out and rewrite others. If you’re afraid to cut anything, you’re not ready. Let it sit more.
- Print the whole thing out. We read more carefully on paper. Writing notes on paper can be easier, depending on your habits (see ‘true reading’ below). There’s also a pride you’ll feel in physically holding the book you don’t get with digital versions.
- Read the whole thing (aka ‘The Big Read’). I read the entire book in one or two sittings. I need to have the entire experience in my mind to properly consider how to reorganize things. This read is often painful: you must confront all the things that aren’t finished yet, which will be many. The good news is everything is easier after the Big Read.
- Take high and low level notes. Catch grammar and typos, but primarily note issues of pace, flow, and unneeded paragraphs. Put question marks down for things that don’t make sense. Does the flow from one chapter to the next make sense? Is there a chapter that needs to be added? removed? Sections within chapters that make no sense? Do I rewrite this or cut it completely? But I don’t rewrite as I do the Big Read. I make notes but try to continue as much as possible, as if I were just a reader.
- Get feedback. A draft, even with dozens of typos and known issues, is still a complete work someone can read. Ask two or three people you know, who you trust, who you can count on to give you honest feedback to have a go. Start with a few chapters: if that goes well, give them more. Be specific about the kinds of feedback you want, when you need it by, and how they should deliver it to you. Make it easy for them: they are doing you a big and intimate favor. Make sure to separate your supporters who cheer you on, from people who will give you the tough but fair feedback you need to make the book better. They are probably not the same people. Giving the book to your bigest fan or best friend puts them in a bind: they want to be positive, but what the book needs most is an honest, knowing eye, something they may not be qualified or comfortable giving you. It does not improve the draft to be told only “your draft is great.”
- Get to work on the second draft. With my notes, and notes from early readers, by my side, I get to work in digital form. If I’m moving chapters into a new order or writing new ones, I do that first. Then I work in the order of the chapters, revising, rewriting, rereading and editing as I go.
Many writers never do #3. It shows. The goal of a book is to provide one experience that lasts hours. If the author doesn’t read through the entire book in draft form it will be sheer luck if the chapters hold together well.
Working on paper also forces truer reading. If you work with a digital version you’ll be tempted to clean things up as you go. This seems efficient but it takes you out of the reading experience and puts you into a writing mode. It’s more important to be inefficient, but stay in the reading mindset to truly understand what the book currently is, so when you’re done you’ll have clarity on what it needs to become.
The second draft is always a delight to actually work on. It’s as if a gift was given to me: much of the heavy lifting is done. Even if a chapter needs rewriting the creative energy required is much less than working with blank pages. And since often the best move is to rip things out, the book gets better in big swings at every turn.
In many cases for non-fiction books, two major drafts are all you have time for.
Here’s what the first draft for my next book looks like from 10,000 feet. 76k words.
I’m doing the Big Read today. Wish me luck.