So Your First Draft is a Mess…

So Your First Draft is a Mess…

There are few things more satisfying than finishing a manuscript draft. You’ve just spent the last God-knows-how-many weeks/months/years on the book, and you’re done… with a draft. You’re so accomplished! You’re a real writer now. You have content to show people. Yay!

But it’s not sunshine and roses for long, because eventually you’re going to revisit that draft to do some work on it. Tinker with some sentences, smooth out some world building, things like that. You know your manuscript needs a little TLC, but it’s not that far from complete. Right?

Last December I pulled out my Camp NaNo manuscript from July 2014 for a read-through. I’d let it sit since finishing it, just so I could cleanse my system of it. I figured that way, when I went back, I’d see where the manuscript was weak, with no “But I just finished my beautiful baby novel” bias.

Oh, buddy. I did see it clearly. And it looked like the manuscript equivalent of this:



That thing was just a MESS. It was such a mess that I didn’t even know where to start with it. I had planned to read through the whole manuscript, but I couldn’t even bring myself to do that. So when I pulled out another manuscript for an edit last month, I knew I had to be better prepared. I thought I’d share some wisdom I gleaned from the wonderful resource of the internet, as well as lessons taught to me by my own experience, about how to approach revising the first draft.

1. Put the red pen down. 

Was that painful to read? It was instinct for me to just slash my manuscript to pieces during that first reading, and I had to force myself to shut off the editor in my brain. Doing line edits on a first draft is not a good use of your time — you’re bound to cut entire sections, maybe even chapters, during your revision.

2. Pick up a blue pen (or purple or orange or green) 

What you should do instead, during that first read-through, is mark passages and sentences where the writing is really good. Pat yourself on the back! Find the little gems in that messy first draft. Believe me, they are there, and marking them will give you some confidence and momentum for all the work that awaits you.

First drafts are meant to be messy. I view them as a longer brainstorming exercise in which you’re getting your ideas on paper, just in a more structured format. The writing might be sloppy, redundant, or just plain bad — but there will always be areas where that inner creative genius of yours shines through the muck.

3. Bring back the red pen and read it again

Once you’ve finished a first read-through, read it again. You’re fresh on the story now, so it’s time to go back and start making editing notes. Again, I would encourage you not to do line edits (although if that’s part of your process, go for it).

What I did was make comments in the margins. Where is the pacing off? Where have I inadvertently drafted plot holes? In what places do my character act all weird? Did I draft three pages that are just one big info-dump?

Make note of the big things that need work: character arcs, plot development, pacing, world building, etc. Other, smaller details can be worked on later, once your book is more fully formed. For instance, a lot of my dialogue needs work, but the dialogue is happening in response to plot, so the plot needs my attention first.

4. Make a Draft 2 plan

After I had done my read-throughs, I made a list of things I wanted to focus on in my second draft. I limited it to two things, because they required BIG changes and a lot of new scenes. I had decided to make a few big shifts in my plot, so Plot was my #1 area that needed attention. Secondly, I decided that my antagonist was not nearly developed enough despite his importance to the plot, so that was #2.

Part of my Draft 2 plan included me going back through my manuscript and making notes of where I thought new scenes needed to be added, and marking which scenes needed to be completely overhauled to adjust to the new pacing of the plot.

You cannot tackle everything at once, and your book is going to go through draft after draft after draft. Instead of trying to fix all of your problems in one go-round, narrow your focus. It will make revising seem MUCH more manageable. When you look at your hot mess draft and see a hundred things that need to be worked on, it can get so overwhelming that you just want to give up (as I did).

Don’t give up! Break up your manuscript’s issues into smaller pieces, and work on those first. Use any analogy you want — the pyramids were built one stone at a time, etc. — this is a better way to face the mountain of work ahead of you.

5. Start revising

Once you have a plan of a few things to focus on during your second draft, there’s nothing left to do but dive in. Putting your attention and energy on a few big elements, versus a dozen small ones, will yield much better results.

And remember, it’s only the last draft when you say it’s the last draft.


Is anyone else revising a first draft right now? What’s your revision process like? Let me know in the comments!


Teresa Morse
Teresa Morse is a writer of YA fantasy and poetry. She was awarded the first place prize in Original Poetry at the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention in 2013. She lives in Kansas with her husband and works from home as a transcript editor. When she's not writing, she bakes, plays with her pug, and watches too much Netflix.

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