How to revise a first draft

The only faith a writer needs to have is in the next draft.

The quality of any draft does not matter much provided it’s not your last.  The goal of any writing session is to work hard, now, to give the future version of you something better than the last draft to work with. Each draft is a gift to yourself, a gift to the future version of you.

I’m working on my sixth fifth book now and I’ve developed these rules for how revise draft #1:

  1. Let it sit for a few days. The best editing happens when you are unattached. You want to read it as if it was written by someone else. You need to be willing to rip entire sections out and rewrite others. If you’re afraid to cut or change anything, you’re not ready. Let it sit longer.
  2. 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. A printed version will also restrict you from falling into rewriting, which is not the goal. You need to be a reader for awhile. Set wide columns and heavy line spacing so you have plenty of room for commentary and revisions.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”
  6. 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. See How To Write  Second Draft.

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.

what draft 1 looks like

I’m doing the Big Read today. Wish me luck.

10 Responses to “How to revise a first draft”

  1. Kathy Sierra

    OMG this is dead-on for me as well, and I am exactly at the halfway point in my second draft today. Wild agreement with everything you said.
    My first drafts are really sketchy, more storyboard than text, so it’s a little different, but only in the details.

    However, I am not able to make myself do the whole Big Read. But I agree that it’s crucial so I do a series of Medium Reads instead, taking a section at a time. I also print out the book in a super shrunk pages (like four or six book pages on a printed page) and then view it at this high level, to check the overall flow.
    I tend to get too caught up in the trees during my second draft, and suddenly realize that I am totally lost in the woods. My third draft is almost entirely about taking things out including words, pages, ideas.

    1. Scott

      Kathy: Great to know you have a similar approach.

      I don’t have much data on how most authors reads their drafts – I hope more authors stop by to add a thought.

      1. Kathy Sierra

        I did not know how others do this either (and I am speaking only about non-fiction). It feels sort of like you’re converging on each topic by quickly and repeatedly switching from top-down to bottom-up, so your “high and low notes” felt just right for second draft.
        The one thing I struggle with most is walking the fine line between trusting what I already did in the first draft — especially for high level flow decisions — but feeling like I can still do major rework if needed. This book is several YEARS beyond the original deadline (most patient publisher ever), and I have torn it to shreds and started over many times. THIS time I am committed to trusting that my first draft decisions were good, no need to second-guess unless something really bothers me.
        Giving myself time/effort limits on each page of the second draft is also helping with this; if I start agonizing too much, I just make a note on the page about what I was struggling with and then move forward. This seems to be preventing me from my tendency to want to start all over. :)
        Also, I am religiously using the pomodoro technique with the second draft. It’s my first time with it, but it’s really helping me. I have to force myself to get up during the break, but I am feeling more energized now rather than drained by this process. Aaaaand… I am limiting myself to 3 hours total per day no matter what. We’ll see if I can get through it this time.
        Thanks for the post. It gave me a little boost :)

  2. jack

    GOOD LUCK!!!
    btw if a author commented plz reply on what i said i need
    i some one to revise my work
    plzzzzzzzzz reply if u will

  3. Shantnu

    Agree with everything, except the print the document part.

    The only reason for printing is to get a fresh perspective on the book. I can get the same by reading on my kindle app on the iphone, or on an actual kindle. Both allow me to make notes.

    Saves the trouble of wasting valuable printer ink :)


    Thank you for the guidance here. I had started to look at my completed first draft and began to revise/edit a lot, but then I felt bogged down. Your blog helped me realize that I should focus on reading, take only a few notes for the glaring errors, and then worry about most of the rewrites when creating the second draft.

    Thanks a lot!


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