Finishing your First Draft

This post is the twenty-ninth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

If you have followed all the lessons, hopefully, you are done (or close to being done) with your first draft of your novel. Congratulations. But you are far from being done…What you have written is nowhere near ready for publishing.

Many first drafts tend to be just writers getting their story ideas down on paper. It may be rough or wordy, but at least the basic plot and characters are there. Now how well written this draft is can depend on many things. If you developed your world and characters or you outlined your story, you may be in pretty good shape.

But some authors consider the first draft a “junk” or “vomit” draft. This is for the people who just type to get something down but didn’t do a lot of planning. They type whatever comes to mind and don’t worry about plot holes or complete sentences. These authors often toss this first draft and start over.

Now whether you outlined or just wrote, you need to be prepared that you will throw out some of what you have written. Great scenes may get cut. Even minor characters may have to go. Your word count may dwindle as tighten up your wording, but it also may grow as you expand on other areas, ideas or descriptions. A lot of things will change as you shape your story into a publishable work.

Personally, I find the “junk” draft idea a complete waste of time. Why spend all that time and throw it away? My method of writing my first draft involves writing and editing the content at the same time. This method can make the first draft take longer but it means less work of rewriting in the second or third draft. This method isn’t for everyone, but I thought I would put it out there for those of you who are still working on the first draft or haven’t begun to write.

First Drafts – Editing as You Write

Instead of waiting until the first draft is finished to begin editing, I edit as I go. Every few chapters, I have someone else read them and make suggestions. In my case, that person is my husband.

So here is how it works. I write a few chapters. I re-read them and make sure that the general idea of what I want is there. Then I give those chapters to my husband to read while I continue writing.

My husband will jot down areas that don’t make sense or areas in need of improvement. His favorite question is “why?” He loves to understand the character motivation for their actions. I then take his comments and go through making any simple corrections. Anything that is going to take some more thought or work, I make notes at that section (highlighting the comments so I can find them again). When I have time (i.e. I get writers block or can’t get motivated to work), I go back and start changing the story based on what he noted.

I find it helpful to do this as I write because it allows me to ensure the story is going in the right direction. It saves me from having to re-write entire sections or from throwing out pages of my novel that no longer match my goal.

Using this method means that by the time I am done with my first draft, my story really has been gone over at least twice. Instead of my second read through being one where I cut out scenes, I use it as a time to tighten up my novel with less to rework. So in other words, I am probably doing drafts one and two at the same time.

Of course, to use this method, you must find someone willing to work with you, all the while realizing that what they are reading is a work in progress. Whatever they read now may or may not make it into the final novel. They also must be willing to give you critical comments and you need to be able to take their criticism and suggestions. It isn’t an easy method. It is kind of like having a Beta Reader in the early stage rather than when you think you are done. (More on Beta Readers in a future blog.)

So how many drafts does that take?

As you are reading this, you may wonder how many more drafts your novel will go through before it is publishable. There is no correct answer. It takes as many as it takes. Some authors do three drafts, some do five or seven and some do many more.

Some of this depends on what you consider to be a “draft.” Obviously, your first draft is everything you write down as the basis of your story. It is done when the story is complete. (Some authors consider their outline their first draft.) After your first full-written draft, there will be drafts to fix structure/plot, story arcs, grammar, word choices, tightening copy, corrections from Beta Readers and more.

If pressed for an answer, I would say you are going to have three to five drafts.

Draft One – Writing out your story

Draft Two/Three – Fixing consistency and plot problems. Making sure sub-plots work and scenes are necessary.

After this point, you might consider sending it to a Beta Reader. (You can do this again and again if you want – depending on how many issues your Beta Reader finds.)

Draft Four – Make Beta Reader Changes & removing wordiness and polishing writing. (This is where I also might use my Revision Outline which will come up in the next few weeks.)

Draft Five – Final Read Through

Now as I said, this is just an outline, a guess, a suggestion of drafts but what you need for your novel will depend on many things – your writing style, the type of book you are writing, your amount of experience and more.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

#16 – Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

#17 – Hinting at what is to come with foreshadowing

#18 – Tips for writing different scenes in your novel

#19 – Dealing with Writer’s Block

#20 – Killing a Character in your Novel

#21 – Keeping things realistic in your novel

#22 – Establishing Writing Goals and Developing Good Writing Habits

#23 – Using the five senses and passive voice in your novel

#24 – The benefit of research in fiction writing

#25 – Novella or Novel, Trilogy or Series – decisions for writers

#26 – Avoiding Plot and Character Clichés

#27 – Novel Writing – Endings and Epilogues

#28 – Fantasy Novel Writing – World Building, Dragons, Magic and More

One thought on “Finishing your First Draft

  1. “Your word count may dwindle as tighten up your wording, but it also may grow as you expand on other areas, ideas or descriptions.”

    Thank you for pointing this out. All too often, I see articles on writing where authors are told that they will always have to cut words from their first draft, rather than add words. (In particular, we’re told, ‘Your first three chapters have to go, because you started your story too early.’ Well, I always start my stories too late, and I have to add to the front end.)

    “Why spend all that time and throw it away? My method of writing my first draft involves writing and editing the content at the same time. This method can make the first draft take longer but it means less work of rewriting in the second or third draft.”


    Conventional wisdom says, ‘NEVER edit as you go.’ Supposedly, editing on the fly means never, ever finishing the first draft, because of course all writers, all the time, get distracted by the “trivia” of scene structure and pace if they allow themselves to think about what they’re doing… Well, I personally know at least two authors who edited their first drafts on the fly, and aside from a single pass of copyediting to correct punctuation errors and such, neither needed a second draft.

    Conventional wisdom also says that, because “Writers write,” all that matters in the beginning is putting words on the page, any words, as long as you’re busy every single day putting lots of words on the page… And then the writer is supposed to just throw out most of those words, because of course they’re no good and don’t even belong in the story anymore. It’s terribly inefficient, but at least the writer is always busy… *rolls eyes* Personally, I prefer “Work smarter, not harder.” (Plus, it makes life ever so much easier for whomever ends up editing the manuscript.)

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