Spring Cleaning the First Draft

Alright, so you’ve written a first draft. Now what? Here are some tips. (Disclaimer: This post is autobiographical and DOES bear resemblance to actual people and places.)

Don’t look at it. Put your first draft aside for a while. If you’re really lucky, your loved ones will do this for you in some roundabout way that will fuel future writing ideas for quite some time. But usually you’ll have to exercise some serious willpower. Lock it up. Bury it for as long as humanly possible. You need space.

Read through the entire thing once, and make notes. Don’t skim. But don’t take forever, either. The main goal is to see the forest, not the trees. Where is your writing the strongest? Where does the plot fall apart?

Quick-fix any major plot issues. I’m not talking about a massive overhaul. This is when you insert brackets in the text and say, for example: [main character needs to encounter resistance here, or antagonist needs to kill someone else here, or there needs to be a massive wildfire here]. Not the time for nuts and bolts, just get the revision framework in place. You can go back and write later.

Focus on the beginning. Now that you’ve reviewed the whole manuscript, go back to the beginning – specifically the first 50 pages. Jeff Gerke says that the first 50 pages are the most important part of the book. Done well, those 50 pages will hook your reader (plus the agent, editor, publisher, critic, and God knows who else). Read books that explain what needs to happen at the beginning. I highly recommend The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke, and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

Find someone to review it. If you plan to pitch your novel to an agent, you absolutely must find someone you trust to read through it. An agent should not be the first reader. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott said it this way, “What works for me may not work for you. But feedback from someone I’m close to gives me confidence, or at least gives me time to improve.”

Take breaks to work on your query letter. It’s difficult for me to sustain interest in one thing for long periods of time. I like to have several windows open at once (both metaphorically and virtually). Working on my query letter is a good way to be productive when I need a break from the far more complicated fictional world in my mind.

Stay away from the candy jar. Oh wait, that’s just me. But I think it’s safe to say that you should avoid unhealthy vices and lean into what inspires. Grab an actual orange, instead of those orange-flavored jellybeans. Real and nutritious, versus artificial and empty. It takes willpower and resolve. But there’s not much value in vice. Not lasting value, anyway.

Before you know it, that first draft will become the second.

7 thoughts on “Spring Cleaning the First Draft

  1. Timely post as I will be finishing my rough draft today or tomorrow. I wonder, though, why do I need to put it away for awhile before I start my second draft? I’m very anxious to get on with it. Everything else sounds like sound advice. I am very glad to have read this. Thank you.


    1. I don’t like that part either. Stephen King even recommends taking *months* away from a first draft, but for me it was about a week. Probably not long enough, but I couldn’t take it anymore. The reason is that you need time to change hats, time to get into the editing frame of mind.
      That is very exciting about your rough draft! Jeff Gerke told me that just finishing a novel is a huge step… lots of writers want to finish, but few actually do. Congrats!!


  2. “…Don’t look at it…”

    This is great advice, but alas, I’m tend to be like Bruce Betheke (author of the short story, “Cyberpunk,” and the founder of The Friday Challenge: http://www.thefridaychallenge.com/ ). He wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote until he could’t stand the novel anymore. Then, he sent it off to the publisher, who then forced him to write and rewrite over and over again.

    When the book finally was published and reviewed by critics, what the critics said no longer affected him one way or the other because he was writing new projects and hated the old one.

    Bethke wrote this with his tongue in cheek, but a small part of me agrees with him.

    The saner side of me says, “Don’t look at it for six months and then it will be a fresh flower bud waiting to be watered.”


    1. There is definitely a love/hate relationship with the project after the editing process. I’ve experienced this with much smaller endeavors, so I’m sure it’s also true for a large one. Part of me is already moving on to the second book, but this is entirely too premature so I’m reigning it in, and only jotting down ideas while I continue with the main one. I like how you say “the saner side of me…” says not to look at it for six months. Really, Larry, how often do you opt for the saner side? 🙂


  3. Hmm! Like probably, maybe, never. I rewrite and rewrite until I start on something new. I consider myself a plow horse when it comes to writing, not a thoroughbred like many others.


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