How To Write a Second Draft

As I’ve been working on The Year Without Pants, I wrote recently about how to revise a first draft, including what I call The Big Read: where you sit down and read through the entire draft in as few sittings as possible.

The result of that big read is a manuscript that looks something like this:

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This set of pages had more notes than average, but every page has commentary from me. I avoid rewriting as I read, focusing instead on giving myself as much advice and input for the actual rewrite, which happens later. There are many different kinds of suggested changes I note for myself:

  • Trivial typos, phrase changes, and line edits. If I catch something quickly I’ll suggest a change, but otherwise I’ll mark it with a question mark or circle.
  • Sentences or paragraphs that are redundant. If it reads redundant to me, it definitely will to a reader. I edit harshly. Having a complete first draft makes this easy, since I know no single paragraph matters as much to readers as it might to me.
  • Questions I need to answer to justify keeping a passage. As a reader I note things that don’t make sense, need better explanation, or sections with style problems such as unfunny jokes, distracting self-aggrandizement or even arguments that I myself question.
  • Notes on things repeated across chapters (probably should be killed). In a book length draft there is always unintended repitition where I make the same point twice or more without acknowledging it. This is bad. It’s like talking to someone with no short term memory.
  • Within chapter flow suggestions. Is the opening strong? the closing? Does each story and point flow? Can I reorder paragraphs to make it stronger?
  • Across book flow suggestions (should a chapter be earlier? later? killed?) – these are the scariest changes to consider. Moving large blocks of text around ripples through a book, forcing many other passages that need to be changed. This is why the big read is important: it’s the only way for me to keep most of the book in mind during the second draft. If I worked on a 2nd draft over several weeks, I’d have a harder time remembering where everything is and how it was written and have more fear of big changes.

Second drafts also incorporate feedback from other people. This is a challenge: everyone gives feedback differently and none match what I do for my own drafts. For the Year Without Pants I had feedback from 10 different people to consider:

  • 5 co-workers from
  • 4 old friends who are good at tearing drafts apart
  • My editor at Jossey-Bass

My solution was to compile the feedback into a single file I could skim through at any time during the 2nd draft process. I’d keep the manuscript open in one window, the notes from everyone else open in other windows and my hand edited print out of the first manuscript by my side. Then I could jump between them if needed to compare their thoughts.

The actual Rewriting is far easier than Draft writing

While it’s not easy, the actual writing of a second draft feels much easier than a first. My creative powers can be applied to improving, rather than inventing. I can never predict which chapters will give the most trouble, but there are always 2 or 3 that I do heavy work on, rewriting or reorganizing large portions. Most chapters are simply me following my own notes from the read, filling in the blanks and answering the questions I asked.

I always have the goal of making the book shorter as it goes through revisions. Even if I add new sections or revise old ones I want the majority of my actions to be ones of concision. The book should get tighter and tighter as I work, with my effort clarifying the writing, making the book easier to read.

When the 2nd draft is done, it gets handed to a copyeditor who helps polish up my grammar. Check out my post on What Copyeditors do, with examples from my books.


7 Responses to “How To Write a Second Draft”

  1. Phil Simon

    Interesting look into your process, Scott. I hear you on moving big chunks around. That’s why I like to think of the structure of a book in the same vein as that of a house. Sure, you can move around pieces, but it’s harder once you’ve laid the foundation. You can pick up and move a sofa, just not a bathroom.

    One of the most gratifying aspects for me about writing is finding the right structure for my books–the right flow.

    I love having everything fall into place, but it takes a great deal of work. We’ll all seen poorly structured books. If something doesn’t line up well, people like you and me will just put the book down forever.

  2. Lisa

    I LOVE seeing this, thanks so much for the look inside! I did a ‘big read’ and kind of freaked when I saw how much I was crossing out and rearranging, but it was so much easier to see at this stage.

    I’ve read my drafts so many times, I feel like I could recite the whole thing!

  3. Sean Crawford

    I thought I would share my own self-editing with newer writers, to encourage anyone not to stop with only one draft.

    I only write little articles or essays, for myself or my blog, without any real-world deadlines. Meaning: I don’t know anything about how much time “published” writers can afford to spend on editing. I call myself a “real” writer because I write.

    Right now, on computer, I edit for hours (one or two) until I run out of improvements, then I call it a day. And the next day—surprise—I see more to improve, taking one or two hours. Repeat the next day too. This is good for keeping me humble but not discouraged, as I am learning from editing myself. Maybe one day I’ll be skilled enough to do all my edits in one day. (I should ask another writer whether this is realistic)

    Maybe I should go back to printing out hard copy. I used to take my manuscript (double spaced) to the cafe and edit for hours—I never get tired of reading my own stuff. Finally my pages would get too marked up, so I’d take it home and re-type it. And then I’d find more to edit and end up with a cluttered page needing re-typing again.

    I never asked another writer if this was normal: I just figured I was paying my dues to get better, by improving my piece as best it could be. They say no piece is ever finished, as in ever perfect. No, the piece is just abandoned as you have to get one with life and go write another.

    With my computer I used to take satisfaction in reducing my word count—oops! I just realized I have been forgetting to do that; good thing I wrote this comment!

    My self-editing never hurts my ego because my letters on the page are not me: I have boundaries. And if I had a real editor then like an actor in rehearsals, or an athlete at practise, I would not take any directives from my director/coach/editor personally. Such feedback is meant to be impersonal.

  4. Genia

    First of all I want to say wonderful blog!

    I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you
    do not mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself
    and clear your head prior to writing. I have
    had a hard time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas
    out there. I truly do take pleasure in writing
    but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to
    be wasted just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any ideas or tips? Many thanks!

    1. Mark de Wet

      I would like to suggest what I learnt once. Cut out random words from headings in newspapers then jumble them up in a bottle. Draw out 3 – 5 words randomly, then write a story using the words in a set timeframe. eg 5 minutes. This frees the creative juices and makes you focus on what you are trying to achieve – to write!



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