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Second Draft Tips

June 1, 2009


Following on from Paul’s insightful podcast and article yesterday exploring the process of rewrites and critiques, I’d like to wind the process back to the beginning and discuss how to approach a second draft.

It is said writers are their own worst critics. Perhaps this is why we stall in moving forward from a first draft.  We like being “writer”.  It is comfy – makes us feel good.  On the other hand “editor” feels all wrong, so we avoid it.  Like new shoes it takes time and patience to wear-in the role of editor, but it is worth it.

Following are some of the strategies I have used to move from a first draft into a second draft. I hope, like leather stretcher or band aids, these tips assist you slipping into the shoes of editor with increasing ease.


It is tempting to dive straight back in and edit after finishing a story. While this is OK for basic spelling, punctuation and grammar, as Paul pointed out in his podcast, time freshens and sharpens the critical eye. Waiting is a productive way of putting space between you and your story. If possible, let at least a week elapse between writing your original draft and attacking the second draft.

Swap Hats

I read recently writers have two hats – a writing one and an editing one.

A colleague at my partner’s old work used to punch through her most gruelling workloads wearing a silly velvet magician’s hat with a bell on the tip.  It was her way of not letting the stress over come her.

Stepping into the role of editor is stressful even for the most experienced writer. Editing asks us to trade our writer’s hat for the editor’s one. While time and repetition helps, in the beginning if you are struggling to move into the editor’s role, get yourself a real hat to wear when editing. It may also help to work in a different physical space from which you write in.

Swapping hats, either literally or figuratively, means you embrace the challenge of reviewing your work with a detached editorial eye.  Editors are not “speshul snowflakes”. Being precious retards your story’s evolution.

Stephen King’s Second Draft Formulae

Reading On Writing last year was a turning point in my writing.  I could talk forever on what I got out of the book, but in terms of getting to the end of a second draft King provides a simple blue print.

On one of his rejected short stories early on in his career a generous editor scribbled:

Second draft = First draft – 10%

The first story he applied this rule to was accepted for publication.

I find it is the best way to tackle all second drafts – a simple taming tool for the wild beast first draft. The pool of words created by the 10% cull opens new opportunities in stories which may have already reached the word limit. In stories where your word count is over it is a efficient way to get the word count down. After applying this rule a couple of times you will notice the big difference it makes to a story.

What to Cull?

There are a number of places writers waste words.

  • The over use of “that”. I assure you 90% are superfluous and should be cut.  You will notice your writing becomes cleaner without the continual use of “that”.
  • Dialogue attribution. “He says/she says” clogs up your narrative and word count. If you have created believable characters and strong dialogue, attribution slows down the pace of the story and annoys your reader.
  • Adjectives. Writers often string together more adjectives than necessary to describe someone or something when one powerful adjective will do.  Be picky and if you need two, make sure you are not just repeating the obvious.
  • Adverbs. Like “that” I believe 90% of adverbs can be done without (thank you Stephen King for teaching me this and my writing group for pulling me up on it until I stopped).  You’ll notice as you strip down your dialogue many adverbs will bite the dust in the process.  This is a good thing.
  • Be expedient. If there is a way of saying something in fewer words – do it. With creative consideration and a good vocabulary it is possible.
  • Consider the merit of every sentence. The first draft is about putting blood on the page.   Sometimes what goes down ends up irrelevant to the story – action, dialogue, emphasis on a certain character? If it isn’t essential for the growth, development and understanding of your story ditch it – or at the very least, cut it down.

Clearing 10% of the bulk positions you well to consider further revisions. Rewrites concerning character development, the addition of non fiction detail, plot tightening, dialogue tweaking etc often require more words you technically don’t have.

Making peace with your fear of self-editing is essential for making peace with your fear of being critiqued.  Conquering one empowers you to move on to the next. Having finished your second draft you can pat yourself on the back. You have faced and survived your worst critic – it is all up hill from here.

~The Second draft rule as applied to this article: First draft – 1031 words/Final draft -863 words~

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Jodi Cleghorn learnt the hard way that stockpiling first drafts and being afraid to edit retards your growth and development as a writer.  This year’s hairbrained scheme of collating and editing short story anthologies has allowed her to challenge these fears one baby step at a time. Follow Jodi’s new blog Writing in Black and White.
  1. June 1, 2009 2:22 am

    I know I use “that” WAY too much sometimes. It’s something I’m working on.

  2. June 1, 2009 2:31 am

    It is one I’m weaning myself off. Since it came up at writers group a couple of months ago I’ve been supersensitive to it. It is like overlearning NOT to use it.

    I’ve decided to call myself “a recovering that brat”.

  3. June 1, 2009 2:44 am

    It is so insightful to read articles such as these because they are so full of the information I have been looking for. When writing an article I want everything to come across in that one piece. I often forget that this is a) not possible and b) the internet is an ongoing thing and I can always break down the article into two.
    Thanks for these tips, I will be sure to use these in the future when I look back and edit my work.

  4. June 1, 2009 3:03 am

    “That” – guilty.

    Listening to the podcast yesterday as I was editing, I realised that I use “and” far too often in speech, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it in my writing to see if it has begun to slip in there too.

  5. June 1, 2009 4:58 am

    loving the quality of information being generated here – what a fab resource for everyone.

  6. June 1, 2009 3:07 pm

    Good suggestions, especially the 10% rule. Asking writers to cut material from their stories is often the hardest thing to ask them to do — but it can also be the most important thing.

    I actually enjoy editing and revising my writing. It isn’t quite as exciting as writing that first draft, but it can still be a lot of fun. The way I see it, every correction and change I make is bringing the story closer to that “perfection” that I imagine for the story, and that’s fun.

  7. Jay Tee permalink
    June 2, 2009 12:33 am

    Using a tool like the AutoCrit Editing Wizard helps with getting the distance you need for editing. Because it’s a computer, it notices all those pesky overused words that it is so easy to miss.

  8. June 2, 2009 7:15 am

    This is a very useful article. I received similar advice about a short story of mine that was recently rejected. It was too drawn out and repetitive.

  9. June 2, 2009 10:31 am

    Thanks for sharing this information! I am about to get my first novel back from my editor in another week or so, and I know I’m going to see comments refering to a lof of what you mentioned in here. I use “that” WAY too much, as well. Also, I use adverbs a lot. I think my main problem is, my vocabulary is not up to par with where it should be, so I have a very limited amount of words to choose from.

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