Friday, 31 March 2017

Writing Ramble: Making the Most of a Second Draft

Since I happen (for reasons best not discussed!) to have an unused article lying about, and since it's a while since I posted anything on the actual business of writing, I figured I might as well share this here.  It's on a subject I hopefully know a bit about: after a dozen or so novels and novellas and a hundred and some short stories, I've seen my share of second drafts - and picked up a thing or two about what you can and can't expect to achieve with them.


For most writers, the first draft is the most fun: that's where the ideas come out, where the characters are born, where the wild sentences are spun.  The first draft is the raw joy of creation; everything after that can feel like nitpicking.  But, as you dig deeper into the craft, you may find that - for all the giddy thrills of a first draft - it's the second that turns work you're excited but a little embarrassed by into fiction you're eager to show off.  For every writer that gets a story mostly right on the first attempt, there are a hundred who need to come back after time away before they can really draw out its virtues.

So here are a few areas where you might find your perspective is that bit clearer the second time around...

One of the advantages of writing in a language as gloriously messy as English is that you're never confined to saying something only one way; the flip side is that it's easy to get away with conveying an approximation of what you mean.  More than ever here, you need your reader head on over your writer one, and this is something most people will find difficult without the emotional distance a redraft provides: you've the chance to back off and question whether what you said is what you meant.  That character, that scene, do they come across just as you imagined?  Does that dialogue convey the information you need it to?  Are those descriptive passages full of insightful details or are they flabby and rambling?  If the words you chose are being vague or flavourless then here's the chance to replace them.
Conversely, you're not always obliged to spell out every small detail; in fiction, less is often more.  And another question better suited to a second draft than a first is whether you've said too much.  Again, bring out that reader head, and ask yourself, have points that only needed to be made once been made half a dozen times?  Do you feel patronized?  Are there aspects of your characters you wanted to imply without necessarily stating outright?  It's often a good idea to be verbose in a first draft, when you're trying to ensure that no vital information gets missed; that doesn't mean you can't roll back some of that exposition now that you have the chance.
In a first draft, it's all too easy to devote the same attention to every detail, to establish single scene characters with the same loving attention you've devoted to your protagonists or to detail every inch of a room your characters see for all of ten seconds.  The second time around, it's easier to ask: is the level of detail proportionate to the significance of the material?  And is it enriching your story or sucking away momentum?  Ultimately, the question here is whether individual elements - be they words, sentences or whole paragraphs - are adding to rather than subtracting from the story.  Viewed that way, decisions that seem merciless on a first glance can look awfully necessary on a second.
The pace of an action scene shouldn't be the pace of a leisurely conversation between two old friends, which in turn shouldn't be the pace of a description of a country garden.  While rhythm is tough to impose in a first draft, it's easy to identify in a second.  You may find, too, that you spot it (or its lack) more readily by reading from a printout than a screen, or in a reduced font, so that it's easier to judge how those blocks of text are fitting together.  But, ultimately, the question you're asking is the same however you approach it: do all my sentences and paragraphs look the same, or are they adapting to the story they're telling?
There are almost always synonyms for any given word of phrase, but when you're in first draft mode, your natural inclination may be to use the same handful of words time and again.  This is hard to avoid, and isn't even easy to spot on a second draft.  One trick is to use your word processor's find function: if in doubt, run a search, and if the word you suspect you might be overusing crops up twice on ever page then you are, indeed, overusing it.  And if that sounds like pointless effort then the way to look at this is that, rather than obeying an arbitrary rule, you're exploiting an opportunity to squeeze in more richness and detail: every time you reintroduce a character or an object and every time you return to an idea, you have a chance to reveal some fresh aspect, and that means taking advantage of fresh words.
However to the point you try and be in your first draft, cutting out the waste is infinitely easier in the second: for that matter, few things will teach you as much about the craft as trying to cut ten or twenty or fifty percent of your word count without infringing on the sense.  Which, really, is the crucial point, and why brevity is better sought in a second draft: you can cut a great many things, but the one that has to survive is meaning.  If you can't strip out another word without turning a sentence into nonsense then you've definitely trimmed enough; if you could rewrite a sentence with half the words and it will say precisely the same thing then you're not even close.
Nevertheless, there are definitely times when your language needs to be lovelier than others.  In a first draft, you often have to be workmanlike just to reach the end; in a second, it can be clearer where letting in a little poetry will serve some actual purpose.  This is one of the trickiest things to spot yourself, and one of the main reasons why giving yourself a good long gap between drafts is crucial.  The time to come back is however long it takes for you to stop being in love with the language itself and to consider what function it's serving: sure, that description of a sunset is lovely, but does it belong in the middle of a helicopter chase?  And, to return to the point, if you can go a couple of pages without any sense of physical space or of what characters look like, or if scenes that should have emotional heft feel flat and lifeless, then those are the points when you can let yourself loose with the pretty words.

One last thought: it's entirely okay to work through as many drafts as you need to, at whatever speed feels right.  That said, a draft will go better if you have a sense of what you're trying to achieve; you may find, for example, that hunting for typos is a job you need to separate out from spotting continuity errors.  And you may also find that it helps to have a checklist like the above to remind you precisely what you're looking for, or even to treat each point in its own mini-draft.  Perhaps the hardest lesson here is that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to editing. and getting it right requires at least a little understanding of the particular ways in which your unique brain works.

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