Writing and Editing the Second Draft of Your Novel

What a doozy this one is. Like so many other people who’ve embarked on the novel-writing road, over the last few months I’ve been asking myself the same question repeatedly – how do you start writing the second draft of your novel? Is this classed as editing your novel, or re-writing it? How do you motivate yourself to start your second draft, and how do you know when it’s done?

You could Google these ponderings forever, as everyone seems to have a different opinion as to what the best method is. Some people chop their beloved first manuscript up and edit it in sections, some people break it down into chapters, moving them around to see what works, but in my eyes the only way to see this part of the editing process for what it truly is, is to recognise it as a process of RE-WRITING.

I’m now embarking on re-writing my entire novel, not quite from scratch but still – I have to accept it. That’s what this is. I’ve started to get my head around this and it’s not at all as scary as I thought it would be. Obviously I’m only at the start of this journey, but I’ve found a way that the process is working for me. I think once I’m through this part I’ll write a part two of this post, about what I’m going to do next! So…

At this point you should have a complete first draft.

It’s raw, it’s rough, but it (sorta) has a beginning, middle, and end, and a motley crew of characters in between. You’ve probably come down from the first-draft-high and you’re quaking in your boots at the prospect of the next bit. I’ve been the same, but little step after little step and what do you know – you’re past it.

Forget about it for at least a month (I didn’t properly understand this at first).

I waited a month after my first draft and started reading it again, making little notes as I went. I was picking up the smallest things, even grammar at times. At about ¼ of the way through I was swept away to work with an editor on my poetry collection, so I put the manuscript to one side. I returned to it again with fresh eyes maybe two months after this (so three months after finishing it) and MY GOODNESS what a difference that time made. I smirked at my own stupidity, marking down the things I did. What was the use of annotating on grammar when I was going to be writing afresh? Waiting this long meant I was looking at it with alien eyes, and I saw the big picture. The big picture is the most vital point of view to keep to at this point. How does the book feel? How does it sound? Are you carried along with the story naturally?

As you read, write down what each chapter is about in a big long list.

If there aren’t chapters, record the big events, or break it down so that every 10 pages you’ve logged where the story is. The point is to create a timeline of what’s happening. Possibly even two or three timelines side-by-side, so you can see what the different characters are doing and how their paths overlap. You need to be able to see the beginning and the end all at once, so one sheet of paper (no matter how massive) is always my choice.

Sit away from the manuscript and write in an emotional way – covering what the story is actually about.

Tap into your gut. This isn’t the plot points, this is what your message is, what the point of it all is. This might take you longer than you think, even if you have a pretty clear idea of your themes. You might find that what you think now contradicts with what you thought, and that there are lots of themes, not just one. By the end of this step you should have a one-page document written in your own language about what your book is telling the world. This page will be a reminder of what you’re doing, when you’re lost in the nitty gritty or moments of despair.

Work on the outline, plot holes, and moving stuff around.

This is when it starts to get messy. Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a control freak, so the idea of cutting, editing, switching, and rewriting sends me into a dizzy spin. How to keep track of it all? Everyone’s different, but for me endless lists and keep updating the plot/chapter record helps. Seeing them side by side helps to see how it’s evolving, and if all else fails to keep me chilled I know I have the original manuscript saved. It’s not going anywhere.

How many characters do you have, and how do they interact?

Could there be fewer? Can two become one (cue the music)? Sometimes a character is just a shade of a person, and it’s not until you’ve combined them with another that you see a real personality start to shine. This might mean some plot altering but it’ll be worth it, honestly. You’ve also got to think about the path of each person – where are they going, what is their position? And what is their use in this story? I’m not someone who thinks everyone should be a device, mainly because life isn’t like that. People do come and go, seemingly pointlessly, but they do have an effect on you in some way. They always do. Book personas can be like this too. Some of the most beautiful works of fiction speak very quietly.

The voice.

If you’re writing in first person it might be too early to worry about this properly, but it’s never too soon to start experimenting with it. How does your novel sound? If you know how your protagonist sounds, then you know who he/she is. When writing in third person it’s just as important to work this out – and even sooner than first person. The sort of authorial voice you use to watch your characters do what they do will completely dictate how much insight you get into their thinking and emotions. The tone also must either reflect the story, or else contradict in it a startling and vital way (I do like it when this happens). An example would be a very everyday scene, but described in a nightmarish way. Think Angela Carter. As I said, don’t feel like this has to be spot on during this draft, there’s plenty of time to work it out, but this is definitely the time to experience. Maybe even write a few scenes with different points of view?

Create brilliant first and last chapters.

Whether you keep them or not is up to you, but see them as the framework for your whole manuscript. Imagine a reader could only experience the beginning and the end – what would seem different to them? You read a lot about how much action you should show immediately and bumph like that, but I don’t know whether that’s true. Just be true to the story you’re telling, and make sure you’re making someone curious, thoughtful, or exciting. That’s about it at this point.

Start the inevitable writing!

You’ve procrastinated enough with timelines, notes, pie charts, Gantt charts and everything in between. Now you just have to go for it. Don’t panic, see each little session as a one-off. You’ve done this before – you’ve already created this huge story out of literally nothing. How amazing is that? You’ve filled the sandpit, and now it’s time to make some beautiful castles. It can be fun.

Don’t take a break.

Once you’ve started, persevere. You can take another break when you’ve finished the second draft. It’ll be worth it, I swear. Have some ice cream. Treat yourself. And be proud that you’re doing something so many people want to do and yet haven’t. Pat yourself on the back!

At this point, we should have a complete second draft of our novel!

It’ll look totally different from the first draft, though will most likely tell the same story. It’s an evolved version, an upgrade. It should plunge you into new depths of meaning, and in my case (because I love ‘em), be even more rich with metaphor.

And then you’re ready for draft 3. And potentially doing all of this again. Find out how to go about it in my step by step guide to writing and editing your third draft.

If you’re still stuck, take a look at my absolute favourite free resources and tools for writers. I’ve collected together my top 5 author tools – guaranteed to help jump start your creativity or assure you that you’re not alone.

See you on the other side!

Editing your novel - the second draft

18 Comments Add yours

  1. Spent awhile on google looking for advice on writing a second draft. This is the first sensible, functional list of now-what advice I’ve found — exactly what I needed! Thank you so much for writing this!


    1. You’re so welcome! I’m so pleased it was helpful! In the next couple of months I’m going to do another about what happens after the second draft, so look out for that one too!


  2. mphtheatregirl says:

    I have my first draft done. Taking a break now- soon to start my second draft. I am only writing my first novel. I am writing a novel not knowing how to write a book. My first draft- I wrote without thinking. It is a children’s fantasy for ages 8-12.

    My second draft- I know scenes need to be added. Things need to be improved upon. That second draft seems scary, but seems exciting when the time comes.


    1. Well done for doing the first and preparing yourself for the second! I had a huge gap between drafts and was quite terrified at starting the second. It’s the most scary bit of the whole thing. You can do it!


      1. mphtheatregirl says:

        Just don’t know to accomplish in my second draft- I know I need to add in scenes. I am going to make sure characters stay consistent. My book can’t get overly complicated- my book is for 8-12 year olds


  3. Think of it in stages. If you’re adding in subplots, weave in each one one at a time. Or if they’re just extra scenes imagine them as miniature short stories with their own beginning, middle, and end. That always helps me!


  4. This was extremely helpful, thank you!


    1. You’re very welcome!


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