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The Best 3 Techniques to Rewrite Your First Draft

For many writers, the bridge from a first draft to rewriting a short story or novel is long, shaky, and leads to an uncertain destination. Rather than despair, use these 3 techniques (and watch the video below!) to rewrite your first draft, and you will be able to successfully prepare it for publication!

by Rebecca Hales.

The prevailing advice for writers is that not only should you not worry if you write a crummy first draft, you should try to write a crummy first draft. The crummier the better. Go for the low!

For the uninitiated, this may sound counter intuitive. Let me get this straight: you want to write badly? Aren’t you trying to get published?

Of course we are, and that’s where we writers have to explain how it works; when we hold low-to-no expectations for our first draft, let it all hang out, and stop trying to wring our work into performing before its time, that’s when the magic creeps in.

The strategy is sound and makes sense. Ask anyone who did everything in their power to find their life mate.  Often, it’s when they stop trying, that’s when *Bang!* they meet their soul mate. It’s the same for good writing, and as a result, many books are written this way.

But the next question is: how do you rewrite your first draft so it goes from a mess to publishable? The answer is often unclear.


fiction editing sheet

Tinkering Is Easy; Rewriting a First Draft Is A Bigger Challenge

Where the original drafting is all right brain freewheeling, rewriting a first draft is left brain war-room strategizing. You need to use what you know of writing craft, your instincts, and others’ feedback to most clearly and cohesively sculpt your story.

The trick is learning what you need to look for, so you are then able to see it in your own work.

full moon

Small things may be instantly obvious; for example, issues of verisimilitude, or “making sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky” (a reference from the wonderful Eudora Welty essay, “One Writer’s Beginnings”) may pop out. Or a character’s outfit changes color from one scene to the next. Those are easy fixes.

Systemic issues of structure or purpose however require far more in-depth adjustment: the writing takes a wrong turn, gets carsick, misses its connecting flight, or never lands at all.

You know the story can get to where it’s supposed to go, but right now, metaphorically speaking, it’s in New Mexico when it needs to be in Saskatchewan. You can see the problem, but it may not be so clear-cut as to how to get it where it needs to go.

Tinkering is easy, but rewriting requires fortitude and strategy. To successfully rewrite your first draft,  use these three techniques, and they will get you- and your story- back on track.

rowboat on still lake surrounded by trees

1. Take A Break

The first step toward rewriting your first draft is is to take time off. (That’s correct: don’t write). If you’ve completed a first draft, don’t dive right into rewriting; instead, put the work away. Close the file, lock the drawer. Not only can you no longer see your own work clearly because you’re too close to it, you also need to refill your creative well. Whether your break is two days or a month, fill your time and your head with whatever brings you joy.

The biggest asset to rewriting is perspective. You need to be able to see the work as a whole, which you can’t do if you’re still agonizing over that one scene in Chapter 2.

2. Go Scene by Scene

Go through your work one scene at a time and ask yourself these questions:

– Whose side are we on when this scene starts?

– What does that character want in this scene?

– Why do they want that?

– What is at stake?

– Who is opposing them? (Or what resistance will they meet?)

– Who has power at the start? And how do the power dynamics shift?

– How does this scene impact your character’s overall goal?

– What is at stake for that character?

– How will that character recover?

Your protagonist – the person whose decisions are driving the story forward – will have an overall goal. But for each scene, the protagonist should have a smaller goal, which is a manageable bite of the overall goal, that they should be pursuing.

Of course, that pursuit will go badly, and they will have to recover. That creates nice dramatic tension, which pushes forward your story.

In just these few questions, you can uncover why a scene isn’t working, why a character doesn’t leap off the page, or why your mind wandered while you were reading (bearing in mind if your mind wanders, your reader’s certainly will, too).

*This article, The Building Blocks of Scene, which is part 1 in a 3-part series by Sharon Oard Warner, adapted from her book Writing the Novella may also help.

white lined index cards

3. Track Your Progress

Embrace your inner nerd! Spreadsheets, diagrams, or index cards are a rewriting writer’s best ally. They may seem clinical, even like a hinderance to the creative side of your process, but au contraire: they’re incredibly helpful.

A creative person’s mind is like a vessel filled with shooting stars. These organizational mechanisms offer the opportunity to lay out all the information of the scenes in isolation, so the construction of scenes is easier to see and easier for you to do what you do best: take those bits of information and begin making connections and putting them back into their context.

A really good tool is a simple spreadsheet. This one is a particular favourite:

The same can be done on index cards, which you can then pin to the wall (and easily rearrange, remove, or add to).

This solution is also available in digital formats. Online index card programs such as Trello, book writing softwares like Evernote, Scrivener (commonly considered “the gold standard”) or these Scrivener alternatives, or screenwriting (Final Draft) or other more specific writing softwares and apps, etc. are everywhere nowadays.

Getting organized with charts, cards, or lists, whether you write them by hand or create them online, lets you focus on getting your work over the next hurdle, so you can rewrite the first draft of your story with confidence.

empty highway

Writing a bad first draft isn’t easy- some say it’s the hardest part! (It is definitely humbling to see yourself day in and out at your perceived worst). So if you’ve achieved a terrible first draft, congratulate yourself!

Then give yourself the best chance at rewriting your first draft by first taking a break to get perspective and recharge, then diving in with insightful questions and a calculated approach to help you focus your efforts and elevate your story to where it deserves to be.

When you have a skilled dedicated writing coach and editor supporting you as you rewrite your book it helps you clear a path to your best possible work. Your stories are important, and we are here to help you get them out into the world. Contact us any time for a free chat!

Rebecca Hales is a writing instructor, mentor, writing coach & editor for screenwriting and adult, middle grade & YA fiction at One Lit Place.

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