productivity revision

My first draft is done, now what?

Congratulations! You’ve completed the first draft of your story. You’ve put in the time by writing, typing, pondering, and plodding on through it all. You’ve sweated, snacked, and maybe even cursed a few times. And after all of that, the first draft is done.

So, uh, what now?

First thing’s first. You’re awesome. Finishing a first draft is a huge task, and by finishing, you’re already way ahead of the field.

Finishing a first draft can be spooky! Should you now write the draft again from scratch and hope the second time works out better than the first? Or should you re-read every chapter again, hunting for flaws? Or does finishing the first draft mean that you’re all done and can start hunting for an agent?

What’s a writer to do?

You’re a lot closer to being done, but there is still some work ahead of you. Fortunately, you can use some objective approaches to get from first draft to the final version.

Step away from the story

Put your hands up and back away from the computer! Close that notebook, stat!

One of the most common pieces of advice for writers who’ve just finished their first draft is to put the story aside and give your brain a break. This might seem counter-intuitive at first, but there are some strong reasons for distancing yourself from your work.

If there are flaws in your work, you’re too close to the story right now to see them. You’ve been immersed in this story world for a while now. For better or worse, you’ve been living in this draft universe. Taking a break from the world you’ve created will get your brain out of story mode and give you a chance to reset.

When you reread, you’ll have fresh eyes. You’ll be better prepared to notice weakness. Better yet, you’ll get a chance to re-read your own story, and you’ll experience your invention in the same way your readers will get to. Doesn’t that sound great?

Read or write something new

While you’re on hiatus from your draft, try to get out of the world you’ve been living in for so long, and place yourself somewhere new.

The easiest way is to pick up a book in a different genre than you’re used to. If you have a book on your shelves that you’ve been meaning to get to, and it’s in a different style than what you’ve just written, pick it up and dive in. The time away will help your brain freshen up.

If you’re feeling ambitious, try writing a story of your own in a completely different genre. Is your first draft a science fiction novel? Why not try writing a flash fiction comedy? Did you just create a short story romance? You might give detective fiction a try.

You’ll help get your mind out of its groove by writing in another genre, but there are other benefits too. If, for example, you’ve written a sweeping fantasy epic, and you take some time to digest it all by writing a romance story, you’re also getting experience writing about romance. Your fantasy story will benefit from the knowledge you gain by pursuing another genre, even temporarily. And who knows, maybe the romance will flow back into your second draft, adding some intrigue, conflict, or just plain ol’ great storytelling.

Return to your story as a reader

Remember all those tiny details you pined over in Chapter 3? How about when the protagonist deduced the clue they needed to track down the villain’s secret lair? Or how about the zany pet’s catchphrase? Wasn’t that great?

Wait, don’t you remember all of the details? No?

That’s the benefit of taking a break! Now you get to take off the author’s hat and step into the reader’s role. You’ve spent all that time building your world. Now you get to experience it with fresh eyes.

Before you start, though, you’ll need to remember that you wrote a first draft and not a published story. Be kind to yourself! A first draft is meant to be a place to start growing your story. You did a great job producing all those words. Now you need to find the parts that work and the parts that don’t.

That’s the magic of revisions — every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows.

Kelly Barnhill

As you read, take notes. Write down anything that catches your eye, including typos or grammatical concerns. If you find yourself with questions about the story, or if the timeline doesn’t seem to make sense, just make a note. Don’t feel that you have to fix everything (or anything) now! Just take notes.

Remember, the draft is a draft. No first draft is perfect! Be kind to yourself, and take as many notes as you can endure. You’ll have a chance to make the story even stronger later.

Start on the next draft

Now that you’ve taken your break, read the story again with fresh eyes, and produced a bunch of notes, you can get to work on the next round!

Revision is a different process for everyone, and there is no wrong way to do things. However, now that you have a collection of notes, you can start to work through them linearly, one at a time.

If it seems like a lot of work, don’t fret! Remember that each note you resolve takes you one small step closer to being finished. Since each step is small, you can always keep making progress. After you’ve taken all of those small steps that you’ve already documented, you won’t have a first draft anymore. You’ll have a second draft. How cool is that?

You’ll probably want to do more than one revision pass. Just return to the start of this flow, re-read, take notes, and revise, until you’re comfortable. Before you know it, you’ll have taken your first draft all the way through to the final draft.

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