Wednesday, July 3, 2013

First Draft versus Revising and Editing

I struggle with the first draft of a story. Maybe that’s because I’m a pantser not a plotter. I might have a vague idea about where the story is, or should be, going, but quite often I let my characters run with it, and, oh boy, they really lead me on a merry dance sometimes!

There are various ways to describe the first draft writing. My favourite is ‘carving granite with a teaspoon’. Others are ‘knitting with fog’ and ‘swimming in jelly’. Whichever way you look at it, it’s hard work!!

Sometimes the characters take over and a scene or chapter will almost write itself (oh joy!); other times it takes me forever to write fifty words, especially when I’m trying to get my characters from one major episode to another. I don’t want to fill the time with irrelevant events or conversations but, at the same time, I feel as if I need to write something about what happens in the meantime. Then there are the times when an event you thought might fill a chapter only takes about a page, and there's also the reverse of this, which happened with my current ‘work in progress’. I thought Chapter 25 would be the last chapter, but no, it took a lot longer (i.e. three chapters) to tie up all the loose ends and reach the final denouement. Even when I thought I’d got to the end, I suddenly had another idea, and had to incorporate that in the penultimate chapter.

When I get to ‘The End’ of the first draft, I breathe an enormous sigh of relief. Not because the book is finished, but because I can now start on the process I enjoy far more than the initial writing of the story i.e. revising, editing, polishing, tweaking.

I know I spend far too long agonising over words and sentences while I’m writing the first draft. I try to tell myself I should leave that until the revision stage, because I know I’ll agonise all over again as I move sentences around, amend conversations, add essential info or delete unnecessary words or sentences or even paragraphs.

Part of the process, too, is to look for what I know are my over-used words. I think I’ve got out of the habit of using ‘just’ and ‘then’ too much, and my editor pointed out with the last book how much dialogue I started with the word ‘So’ – so (!) I’ve been watching out for that too as I’ve been going through my chapters.

My next step will be to put each chapter through ‘Autocrit Wizard’. If you haven’t used this, I can recommend it. It highlights repeated words and phrases, sentence construction, clichés, and many other things.

After that, I sit down and read the whole thing out loud. That’s another thing I can recommend, as it makes you realise when a character says something that sounds wrong, and you also notice any missing words or punctuation too.

In a sense, I suppose you could say that my first draft is my way of plotting. I get the story down, do the research about facts and places etc, get to know the characters, work my way through the main plot points, sort out the intrigue, and finally bring it to the happy ending.

Once I've sweated through that, I can then enjoy revising and editing. I probably spend about a month re-writing, polishing, and tweaking until I’m happy with it, and then press ‘send’!


  1. Getting the first draft down is the hardest part. I always remind myself I can't edit a blank sheet of paper.

  2. First drafts really are interesting aren't they? Sometimes the words flow and sometimes it is indeed 'knitting with fog'. (That's my favorite of those comparisons!)

    And the characters definitely do sometimes take us in surprising places that we as the writers hadn't planned. Then again, I guess in the long run, it's their story not ours, right?!

    It's funny that you mention, 'so' Paula. I've been using that a lot...I usually get rid of the pesky 'then' and 'just' in the editing stage, although sometimes I'll catch them in drafting mode.

  3. I use the word "so" a lot also, and will have to get rid of it on the editing phase. I find I like the first draft writing better than the editing phase--for me, that's the harder part, trying to fill in those blanks, correcting everything, making sure it all works. For me, it's like determining whether the idea I had in my head actually works on the page.

  4. I agree about the first draft, Ana!

    I've just put my first chapter through Autocrit, Debra, and am cringing at my overused words. I seem to have got rid of my original favourites, but now others have taken their place e.g. 'maybe' and 'for a moment' or 'at the moment'!

    The first draft is like carving granite for me, Jen - whereas the editing process is the polishing of the granite!

  5. I have a terrible time writing first drafts, though I feel quite pleased with myself when I finish a chapter. I enjoy the editing process much more, getting everything just right. I haven't heard of this Autocrit, Paula. Will have to check it out. An interesting post, and nicely done!

  6. Thanks, Pat. I'm exactly the same and really enjoy the editing process. Autocrit is great for highlighting style 'problems'!