What is The Second Draft of a Novel? (and how I do it)

Hemingway said that the first draft of anything is shit. Go back after a month and read it. You’ll see what he meant.

The purpose of the second draft is to take the hairball you hacked up as a first draft and try to mold it into something more resembling a novel. 

Key Point No. 1: Creating a second draft is not an edit of the first draft. It’s a rewrite. As a rewrite, you start over with a blank screen, or a blank piece of paper, and write it again. Only different.

“But Mahk, ah done got me a bunch o’ words. Cain’t ah jus’ keep’em?”

Yes, you can keep them, but you are going to retype them, or rewrite them, from scratch.

Key Point No. 2: The second draft is not the final draft. Its goal is to move the novel another step closer to completion.

You will not solve all problems in the second draft. You will fix those you find, but there will always be more. They will be fixed in subsequent drafts.

Step 1: Print out the first draft. That’s right, on real paper with a printer. There is no way you can do what you have to do without printing the thing out.

Step 2: Read it. Read it as fast as you can, making notes on holes in the plot, inconsistencies, where things seem out of order, weak character development, scenes that seem rushed, scenes you may not need, whatever strikes you as something that should be fixed in the second draft.

Start looking for things structurally and plot-wise. What is the inciting incident? What are the turning points? Is there anything not believable? Is the main character “likable?”* Is the antagonist bad enough? Etc.

Don’t worry about typos at this point because you’re going to retype the whole shebang anyway.

Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that a novel is a screenplay. I don’t want you to try and jam it into three-act structure, or any of that. You’ve got to have a story, which means there is a protagonist who wants something, an antagonist who is keeping him from getting it, conflict, tension that builds to a climax, followed by resolution. But at this point, we’re just moving the thing one step closer to having this structure.

Step 3: Outline the novel as it stands. I rarely do much outlining before hand, but once I have the first draft, and I’m preparing to do the second, I have to know where I am. One good way to do that is to make an outline of the novel as it sì so far. You can do this any way you want. It does not have to be highly detailed.

I like to use Freemind. It’s free and extremely powerful. And if you use Scrivener, you can load the outline directly into it.

By doing this outline, you can see where there holes in the plot and get a good bird’s eye view of the story.

You can do a little planning. See what needs to be expanded, what needs to be cut, what needs to be added, and what needs to be moved around.

Step 4: Start writing. With the outline and marked-up text in front of you, retype the story. Start at the beginning and go to the end. (or whatever works for you).

This is where a lot of people will balk. That’s because they confuse rewriting with editing. If you’re just editing, i.e., correcting typos, looking for missing words, etc., then you still need to print it out, but you don’t have to retype. The term “rewrite” means to write again, and that’s what you need to do.

One advantage to retyping the whole thing is that you think of better ways of saying things. You also can easily beef up a scene, or pare it down, or realize that it should be cut.

Another is that since this can usually be done fairly rapidly, the whole story is in your mind. The first draft may have taken months. That what leads to holes and things that need to be resolved or otherwise dealt with.

Step 5: Print it out again and read through it. Make line edits and correct the manuscript to be as clean as it can be. Then put it away for at least a month. At that point, you will be ready for the next step.


*What this means is a whole new discussion that’s beyond what I’m trying to do here. For whatever it’s worth, though, that doesn’t mean he’s a nice guy. For example, Tony Montana (Scarface) is not a nice guy, but we can’t take our eyes off of him.