Sunday, 24 April 2016

Writing Ramble: In Defense of Second Drafts

Recently my friend Andy Knighton wrote an excellent blog post titled Surviving the Second Draft, which did exactly what it said on the tin, offering some sensible tips on how to struggle through that fearsome first redraft.

I say, "fearsome first redraft" - but second drafts are my absolutely favourite part of the writing process.  I commented to that effect on Andy's post, smugly pointing out that "you take something that’s kind of a mess and make it into something really good, what’s not to like?" and Andy made the sensible point that not everyone likes to admit they messed up the first time, never mind having to think about setting right what once went wrong.

This is very true.  And if I think back, I know full well that there was a time when I felt the same.  First drafts were sacred brain-goop, the raw outpourings of an unfettered subconscious.  Second drafts were weird and icky, a process of picking over something best left unpicked.  And third drafts were - well, why would you have a third draft, when you'd nailed it the first time, then made yourself miserable trying to find faults in something that was just fine to begin with?  As much as I might not want to relive such early writing traumas, I understand.

Still.  The fact remains that I was wrong.  Seconds drafts are awesome.

I guess that when you're starting out, the first draft has to be fun, otherwise there'd never be any end product.  And second drafts are the natural antithesis of that; they're about conceding your mistakes, which is not generally considered an enjoyable act.  Still.  If you're relatively new to writing then I promise you, second drafts are where it's at.  And not only is that the case but it's a good thing.

Why?  Partly because it takes away some of that awful, mind-crushing fear that first putting finger to keyboard - and then doing the same again and again and again until you actually have something resembling a story - involves.  Embracing second drafts is to admit that your first drafts aren't perfect, and never could have been, were never meant to be.  It's to accept your own fleshy weakness, your flimsy-brainedness, and to comprehend that human beings create processes for a reason.  The reason  second drafts exist is because you will never, ever get everything right the first time.  Maybe you'll make a million typos.  Maybe you'll settle for third person when your protagonist needed to be telling their story themselves.  Maybe you'll fling about adverbs with wild abandon and forget that speech tags are a thing.  Or perhaps it will be a combination of all those failings and more.

But it's okay.  The second draft is your safety net.

Here's the thing: second drafts are the point where you get to get things right.  Inevitably my first drafts disappoint and unsettle me.  There are nuggets of awesome, but they're hidden amongst great swathes of mediocrity, not to mention clunky language and inexplicable spelling.  They're the point where I wonder if I haven't maybe found myself in the wrong business, when after all I'd be much better suited to interior design or inventing new breakfast cereals.  But then I remember that clunky language can be tightened, spelling mistakes can be spotted, and really, just about any other first draft mistake can be fixed too.  Sometimes it's a matter of tidying and sometimes it's a matter of immense effort - I say this as someone who not so long ago changed the tense of an entire novel! - but the crucial point is that the end result is always better.

And that, ultimately, is the joy of the second draft.  The first time around you get to be intermittently good, maybe even intermittently great in small doses.  The second time around, if you're willing to put in the same level of energy all over again, you can nail it.  And then there's the third draft, which in my head is usually called the polish draft now, for obvious reasons: that's where the story begins to genuinely shine.  But the first step, I think, is just to get past that hurdle of thinking of the second draft as a chore, a hardship or some assault on your artistic integrity.  You want to tell a story?  You want it to be amazing?  Then the biggest advantage you have is that you don't have to be perfect the first time through.


  1. Despite my article, I take a lot of the same pleasure you do in writing a second draft. There's something immensely satisfying about purging the crud and making something more refined, not to mention the pleased feeling of re-reading things you wrote and finding they're actually rather good.

    1. Yeah, I forgot to mention that last point, but it's a good one; every so often there are those "holy crap, did I really write that?" moments that make the whole thing feel worthwhile.