The Second Draft of X [X = 11? 17? 30?]

For me, the best part of starting a new writing project is discovery. Typically, a character pops into my head; I live with that character for a few days, weeks and then I begin to write. The setting, the situation, other characters … all of that filters in while I draft. As you might imagine, my drafts are a mess. I am not a planner. I do not outline. For me, doing so would kill the creative spark, the mystery. It would stifle what could be for what I can think of now. Instead, I live with these discombobulated drafts. I let the plot holes lie. I allow the setting to change seasons, the characters to change names, the dog to be alive then dead, then forgotten, then alive again. All the inconsistencies, I say to myself, can be aligned in revision.

So … revision. Let’s talk about that second draft. How do you do it? Where might you begin? I’ve read the craft books. I’ve discussed with writing mentors. I’ve sat in lectures. The single most valuable piece of advice I’ve received so far is to begin again.

What?, you may ask, in an indignant tone. Are you saying what I think you are saying?

Well, honestly, I don’t know how your brain works, so maybe … or perhaps not. Here is what I am saying: print your draft, set it beside you, open a new document. Begin writing anew.

Now, I’m not saying retype what’s beside you. Remember, we’re revising right now, not editing (I’ll leave that for a different post). During revision from an empty document—with your draft beside you for reference—a world of possibility will open. You’re not beholden to the words on the page. You do not have to work around that one really magical, daring feat of word craft. Perhaps you don’t need that page at all. Perhaps you know something better to put in its place.

But I’m working on a novel, you say. A NOVEL! I can’t start a draft from scratch. That’s lunacy!

I say, yes you can. And, you should. What do you think writers did before word processing computers? How did all those handwritten or typewriter drafts become second and third and eleventh drafts? And I’m really just asking you to consider this method for your second draft.

If you want to push yourself: re-read a scene, put the scene away, rewrite from memory. You’ll keep what’s important; you’ll lose what isn’t. It’s work. It’s a little bit terrifying.

What if I lose all those beautiful prose?, you ask.

You’ll find new, better prose, I say. You’re cleaning out the attic, not just reorganizing it.

Where do you get this stuff?, you may be asking.

This is from a workshop leader (a paraphrase, of course): “The most effective tool for revision is to begin from a blank page rather than revising from within the draft. But most writers never do that.” I heard it again about a year later when one of my MFA advisors challenged me to rewrite an entire scene with the printed pages next to me. Then, rewrite that scene again without looking at the pages. This exercise forced me to put into practice the workshop advice I’d heard, but at which I had scoffed. It’s not easy, but when is writing ever really easy?

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
― Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades