The Writing Process, Part II: Drafting
I've been asked many times over the years for various bits of writing advice, much of which I have covered in my video series, Olivie Blake is Not Writing, and on Tumblr under the tag writing advisements. In an attempt to organize these various posts and provide a central location for these topics, this will be a series of blog posts on various writing subjects.
In this series of writing posts, we're talking about how something makes its way from your personal void of nothingness to a polished final draft. In Part I: Getting Started, we talked about pre-writing, outlines, and research. Now we're going to take the process from the moment you start putting words down on the page to the moment your story is completed.
The Skeleton Draft
For the record, many inexperienced writers make the mistake of thinking a book and a first draft are the same thing. While there is plenty of joy to be found in finishing your first draft—and you should absolutely feel accomplished, because your idea now HAS A SHAPE and not everyone can do that—it is far from the end of the road. One of the best pieces of writing advice I've heard is that a first draft should feel like you're explaining your story to yourself. Every draft afterwards is about explaining it to someone else, aka your audience.
Okay, so draft one. The Blank Page. Aside from an enormous white screen of nothing, what do you have when you start your first draft? I mentioned in the last post that you might have an outline at this point, but at least you should have an open file for random notes you scribble to yourself.
Here's an example of what one of my note files looks like for my literary work-in-progress, STARGAZING IS NECROPHILIA, which I have annotated for you thusly:
This is a concept adapted from the book THE SEVEN OR EIGHT DEATHS OF STELLA FORTUNA by Juliet Grames. Because STARGAZING IS NECROPHILIA is non-linear and not being told in chronological order, this is me reminding myself that the MC's plot is incomplete unless I include a story of her mother.
This is a reminder to myself about how I plan to structure the part of the narrative showing Mari's inner conflict. I'm not telling the story according to how it happened in linear time, but I still want the narrative to have a sense of motion. As a result, I'm allowing the audience to infer her arc by providing direct contrast between her early and later works.
This is something my husband said to me. I wrote it down because it felt relevant, though I'm not sure yet how I plan to use it.
I was daydreaming a scene for one of the romantic arcs and felt I could make use of this line, though I haven't crafted it yet into its smoothest form.
These are lyrics from the song happysad by GOLDN. I felt they encompassed the mood of the main romantic arc, so I wrote them down to help me get back to that atmosphere.
This is obviously incomprehensible to anyone who isn't me, which is the primary way your notes will differ from your outline. This is a note of dialogue I plan to put into one of the more pivotal scenes in the book, and functions as a mental nudge for when I eventually get to that part.
These are lines I planned to incorporate into the narrative. They appear in this exact form in my drafts.
This is a note about Mari's characterization. I may or may not use it in this form, but I want to remember about Mari that she does have a softness she doesn't like to acknowledge.
Okay, so back to the first draft, which is essentially the word vomit draft. Are you the kind of person who gets bogged down by research? Do you feel a compulsive need to have everything figured out before you start, which is why you still haven't written a single word...? Yeah, don't worry, that's not uncommon. My advice is always to try to take some pressure off by skipping the pre-writing and just getting started.
Some people draft messier than others, but I think what you want to aim for here is a skeleton of how events happen. It is perfectly fine to write in "[description here]" or even "[come back to this]" and then just keep going. Your first draft should feel relatively uninterrupted; in the previous post I said to add in any research details later, so a note to yourself that says "[look this up]" is fine. A lot of people congratulate me on my banter/group dialogue scenes, but the truth is I rarely bother with much of it in my first draft. Usually I'll decide who I want to start talking, what's the most important thing to be said in the conversation, and how I want to transition out of the banter—but then I leave behind a "[group banter here]" for myself to come back to. Most people do not have all the time in the world to write—you might have a job or a family that means you may only get a limited amount of time to work on your story, so don't waste it. Allow yourself to draft imperfectly, with the knowledge that you have at least given yourself enough structure to know what you need to add in a later draft.
The writing itself is probably not perfect for this draft either. This is skeleton writing: this thing happens and then this thing happens and then this thing happens. What the first draft should do is give you the foundation for how characters evolve, how events are paced, and what order things are happening in. If it looks like this:
She walked in. Then she sat down. She looked up at him. He looked back at her. She was incredulous. He didn’t seem to care. Still, she asked, “Are you serious?”
That's fine! You know which characters are present in the room. You know what they're doing, what mood they're in, and how they're interacting. That's enough for you to come back in with your full toolbox and make things prettier, whether you do it right away or much later. Again, this is you telling your story to yourself, at whatever skill level you are able to do that from your first attempt.
The Content Draft
Some people advise letting your first draft breathe before you start revising. Eh, some people worry less about their mortality and/or contribution to the species than I do, I guess. I personally put very little time between my first and second drafts—usually they even blend together, because as I go back to see what I've just written I tend to make tweaks. I am utterly incapable of leaving well enough alone, but we'll get to that in Draft Four. (YES, FOUR.)
So anyway, the second draft is editing for content. This is my most bloated draft: it typically has the highest word count, because I'm focused exclusively on adding in the things I've missed (which I have usually noted for myself in my outline), but not on determining whether or not I need to cut things. That's a future problem! Usually the first thing I do after finishing the first draft is make a list of everything I need to add into the narrative to make sure everything makes sense; I tend to do that in checklist form and cross each item off as I get to it.
For me, the second draft is about plugging holes: making sure there is something preemptive established for every major event in the plot, fleshing out a character's arc, ensuring that nothing is missing to connect Point A to Point B. Draft two should also be comprehensible to someone else, which is why this is the draft I typically send to an alpha reader.
Quick sidebar: for those who don't know, alpha readers are there to focus on plot, pacing, voice, characterization. They answer your "Does this make sense???" concerns. Beta readers are SGAP: spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (Sometimes these are differentiated in publishing terms as substantive edits, which focus on content, and copy edits, which focus on style.) Because these are two different skill sets, these are usually two different people.
If I want someone's eyes on something specific—like when I've played fast and loose with my own understanding of scientific concepts—I'll also send this draft for correction. It allows me to prevent redundancies; working to clean up a section but then realizing I miscommunicated an idea and have to rewrite it anyway means I will have to repeat a step. (There's usually no point doing any SPAG editing at this stage unless it's an issue of typos—most passages will probably see stylistic changes, so those edits will get lost.)
Almost all of my books have gone through some strenuous second drafts. ONE FOR MY ENEMY originally had a different Part V—I rewrote about 20,000 words, changing which character POVs were featured leading up to the climax and adjusting pacing to make sure the ending made more sense. THE ATLAS SIX had a much easier second round—I added in a full scene to inject some action into the lull I had in pacing, but thankfully that was only about 5,000 words.
In terms of writing, the above scene might now look like this:
She took a seat beside him, waiting for a reaction. He wasn’t particularly shamed by her eye contact — managed to meet her eye with a spectacular lack of concern, in fact — and for a moment she considered turning her head. Still, if anyone should have been averting eye contact, it should have been him. “Are you serious?” she asked, once it seemed obvious she was going to have to do the asking.
I tend to write my prose similar to poetry, in that I pay attention to cadence/rhythm of how it might be read aloud when I'm weeding around in the syntax. You can see that the scene now has some bounce to the writing, which means it's closer to its final form, but it could also use a trim. It's... very chatty.
The Style Draft
This is the draft that gets the shine! By now you've already added any scenes necessary to fill any plot holes, you've clarified all your dialogue, you've established all the motion/choreography. Another person either has read or could conceivably understand the story you've written, so now it's time to start acting like you've got a real book/story in your hands. Mazel, mazel! Now the grunt work begins.
Editing for style means 1) applying a high level analysis of your prose and 2) finessing accordingly. It means making conscious, elevated decisions about the most effective way to communicate an idea. This is the draft where I cut unnecessary sections, tie up threads, and connect some cerebral dots. It's an opportunity to not only make the events of a plot point objectively clear, but to also level up the language with something that possibly feels Noteworthy™ (something people will quote on your book's Goodreads page, if you want to think of it that way) or to maneuver the writing into something that hits harder.
With the passage we've been working with so far, we know one character is annoyed and the other isn't acknowledging her feelings, but they're essentially throwaway lines that exist for purposes of staging the scene. Whatever comes next is what people are waiting for (the swing, if you will, or the spike), so what's going to make that initial serve resonate?
These are the finer skills of writing, but one option is to give it room to breathe.
He caught her sidelong glance as she took the seat beside him. "What?" "Are you serious?"
This is one way to paint the scene with a little more finesse than before; showing instead of telling (the clipped exchange of "what" and "are you serious" is evocative enough to stand alone) and adding some space (via line breaks) lets tension coil up while the reader waits for the inevitable drop. There's a million ways to express something and no technically correct way to do it, but the style draft is about being polished, economical, and taking your shots when you get them.
Draft 3 is technically Draft 3, 4, 5, 6, 7... however many drafts you need to take to get to your penultimate draft. For purposes of clarity, just know that "draft three" is my shorthand for the drafts where you edit for style.
The Typo Draft
When you've finished with the style edit, you should no longer be making any substantive edits; the last draft is exclusively about fixing typos and errors. Sometimes this means you just decide to stop—if you're a tinkerer like me, you may never be fully satisfied with what you've created. You might always think a scene should be better or clearer; you might slave over the same opening words again and again. If that's the case, then take it from me: it's better to acknowledge you've done the best you can with your current abilities and move onto another (ideally better!) book than it is to allow yourself to get trapped in your personal swamp of inadequacy or insecurity. Set a deadline for your final draft and stop.
Why is this a typo-only draft? Because anytime you revert to an earlier stage, you have to follow through with all the steps again. If you change content, you have to then read again for style. If you change style, you have to start the typo read over again. Anytime you make changes, you're technically increasing the likelihood you've made an accidental or careless error. So, on this read, DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING UNLESS IT'S AN OUTRIGHT ERROR. No matter how much you might want to perfect something, at a certain point you have to decide the thing is done.
Some practical advice:
Change the font. Your eye is more likely to catch changes if you alter the width between lettering. If you can pick a fixed width font, like Courier, that's ideal. (But change it back to Times New Roman before you submit it anywhere, because a lot of agents/editors hate Courier.)
Change the program. I usually work in Google Docs until this read, which is when I shift it into either Microsoft Word or one of the fanfic formatting editors. Little changes to the atmosphere of your screen can help your eyes not totally glaze over as you read the same thing for the fourth+ time.
Read it aloud, or get a program to read it to you. It takes the longest, but it's also the best way to catch errors you might miss while reading silently to yourself. I recommend doing this with dialogue, which I've discussed before.
Once you've finished your final read for typos, you have a final draft on your hands. Congratulations, you did it!! We can talk about what to do from here some other day, but for now, take a pause to feel proud of what you've accomplished. Not everyone can be a writer—not because it's hard to come up with ideas, which is a common misconception, but because not everyone has the patience or the drive to do the work.
So if you made it this far, enjoy it! You've earned the right to feel satisfied with what you've done.