Book Editing: How to Survive the Second Draft of Your Book

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The next few months I’ve dedicated to finishing the book I’ve been working on for nearly two years. Inspired by Joe’s latest post, I’ve made the commitment to revise the second draft of my book. Book editing is hard—but if I don't sit down and do it, I'll never finish my book. (If you have a project you’ve been neglecting for too long, you have to read this.)

Book Editing: How to Survive Your Second Draft

I’ve had the first draft of this book done for a year. We all know the first draft is for writing everything and anything, spewing every thought and word onto the page just to create something, anything. And something is exactly what I have.

I believe, though, the second draft is the hardest. Actually, it's the worst. All the content of your book is sitting right in front of you like a huge slab of marble mined from your imagination, and you're expected to take the formless hunk and turn it into Michelangelo's David.

Your book is written. It's just waiting for you to turn it into a masterpiece.

5 Tips for Surviving Your Second Draft

In the last year, I've written three books and the second draft has gotten me to cry every time. It's honestly just really hard.

In finishing the second draft of three books and as I'm embarking on finishing this next one this fall, I've compiled these tips for the both of us. Here's all I know about book editing and surviving the second draft:

1. Embrace the Mess

Working on the second draft of a book is one of the messiest things I've ever done. My desk is normally filled with stacks of paper with sticky notes coming out of everywhere. I often seclude myself in the “white board” room at the office and draw charts and lists with arrows intertwining everything together.

You might decide to re-structure your entire book or add an entirely new chapter. This is the time to figure these things out, and carving away at your manuscript is never simple.

2. Use Scrivener

There are a hundred different reasons you should be using Scrivener on your second draft. I'm not trying to sell you on it; I'm just saying it works. It can give you a way to set and track goals, a place to brainstorm, a place to put research, a system to organize your characters and backstories, and so many other essential things.

To organize, edit, re-arrange, double-check, maintain flow, and not lose your mind, you need one place for everything. Scrivener does that. Enough said. (Check out details here and the book we wrote on Scrivener here.)

3. Create Goals

This tip I stole straight from Joe's productivity hacks article. You need an end date to keep you on track and smaller deadlines to make sure you make it to your end goal. For example, I want my book to be done by September 3rd, and therefore have a deadline of one completed chapter a week until then.

Goals are great, but are often not accomplished if there are no consequences. So I've come up with consequences for myself if I don't hit those deadlines. (Including deleting my Netflix account and forcing myself to eat salad for a week. [FYI: I hate salad.])

Creating goals will keep you accountable when you just can't get yourself to get through the second draft.

4. Ignore the Grammar

The second draft IS NOT the final proofread. There is a time for grammar, but it is not in this draft. The second draft is to look at the content and create something better. Book editing is hard enough, and if you waste your time in the second draft focusing on where that comma goes, you will cry even more.

But please, when the time comes, put the comma in the correct place. Our editor thanks you.

5. Find Friends

I cannot stress this point enough. You cannot do this alone. I recommend two things: find writer friends and find non-writer friends.

You need writer friends who can empathize in your book-editing misery. You also need non-writer friends to remind you that there is life to be enjoyed outside of your book.

But mostly, you need to find friends because you need people to hold you accountable.

You Will Survive

A few months ago I was working on the second draft of a book I was ghostwriting. It was 6:30 pm and everyone had already left the office. I sat on a table in the “white board” room and stared at the lists and arrows I had drawn. Then I stared back at my computer and back to the white board.

It wasn't long before I put my head down in my hands and cried out of frustration. I knew the chapter needed to be fixed, but I just couldn't figure it out. There was something really off about the sections, the story, the research, and the transitions between them. I wanted to give up on the book entirely. (Dramatic, I know.)

But I took a deep breath, stepped back, and kept trying. (And somehow eventually moved past the chapter.)

Recently, I found out that the book was picked up by a publisher. I couldn't believe it. I remember feeling like I would never even finish the project. But here I am on the other side. I survived, and it was so worth it.

You will survive too.

What do you struggle with most when it comes to the second draft? Do you have any tips for how to survive book editing? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Are you working on a second draft? More importantly, are you not working on that second draft and maybe you should be? The only way out is through, so take the next fifteen minutes to sit down with your work in progress and tackle that second draft.

Read through your manuscript and make notes as you go about the things that are working, the things that aren't, and anything you want to change. When your time is up, share your notes in the comments, and remember to respond to your fellow writers' notes as well. Together, we'll help each other through the mire of editing the second draft.

Keep these tips in mind and think about investing in a lot of sticky notes for that second draft.

Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book . She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.

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40 Comments

  1. Joe Sewell

    I’m one of “those kind of people” who despises deadlines. Deadlines don’t allow life to happen. When your wife is recovering from knee surgery, dealing with liver cancer, dealing with a recently-widowed father (and, therefore, her own loss of her mother), and always on-the-go, life happens. When you have panic-anxiety disorder and migraines that debilitate you, life happens. When I see a deadline bearing down on me like a Mack truck, I panic. When I see it whiz by, I give up. Hey, it was a deadline. The line passed. The project is, therefore, dead.

    Please don’t respond with, “don’t think of deadlines that way.” They’re deadlines. If my goal is to do my best, then I want the time to do it. I am not geared to be a procrastinator, but I’m also not built to push-push-push just to make an artificial mark on a calendar.

    Reply
    • Alex Loranger

      I have friends who say something similar to you.

      I understand the truth to what you’re saying, but deadlines are a fact of life.

      Let’s sy you’re a baker. If your boss needs you to make a wedding cake by this Saturday, you can’t have it done on Sunday. You can’t simply say “I wasn’t inspired to make the cake.” and you will lose your job.

      Treat your writing the same as a wedding cake. Open your mind to what you’re capable of. You’re so much more than what you decide you’re “good at” or not. You’re better than that.

      Stop limiting yourself.

      Reply
      • Joe Sewell

        You’re correct, deadlines in a job situation are one thing. I do not write books for a living. Why should I endure that kind of torment voluntarily?

        Deadlines don’t help me. Deadlines are a distraction that increase stress. I write for enjoyment. A deadline keeps me from enjoying myself.

        Reply
        • Sefton

          Hi Joe, I too suffer from anxiety disorder and like you, a deadline can send me over the edge. But a target, that’s something different. I’ve had to find ways to balance making myself complete work I really want to achieve – and not ending up sick as a dog through self induced stress. I have to focus on my reward for success, not the consequences of failure. If ever I come up with a foolproof system, well, there’s another book I have to write…. Sef

          Reply
          • sherpeace

            We must remember that we are all different. There is no cookie cutter way to be a writer. I, personally, have still not found the way to keep writing. I have a goal to finish & publish my 2nd novel (originally by Dec.), but it seems like that’s not going to happen. I had a lot of support for my 1st novel. I was getting my Masters & realized that I would have to keep paying tuition until I turned something in. Luckily, one of my advisors said it didn’t have to be a final draft. I also hired three different coaches to help me. Unfortunately, the best one died from Cancer so I kinda feel like I’m on my own this time around!

    • 709writer

      I’ve often thought I can’t write for a living, because I want to be free to write something and change it, for however long I want to, and not be restricted to a certain time period to finishing something. Guess I’m more of a free-writer. Definitely see your point here.

      Reply
  2. Doug Spak

    Part of the problem, as I see it, is this: we’ve gone out of our way to stress that the first draft is for shit, is just a mindless dump of words and concepts on the paper. We’re overly focused on completing the first draft to make ourselves feel like we’ve accomplished something great. Maybe the tears are tied to the fact that the first draft is messy beyond help, that the climb out of that mess is too daunting. I completed a first draft during NANOWRIMO a few years back and just recently pulled it out. It wasn’t as bad as I thought, but it was really messy and wold require more energy than I think I have to invest. I’m 80% through the first draft of my second novel (using Scrivener) and am actually looking forward to subsequent drafts as I know where I want to add and delete certain things; how research will life certain sections. But I don’t feel like it’s such a mess that I’m frightened to approach Draft 2 and beyond. Sorry for the length of this comment.

    Reply
    • Alex Loranger

      I would attribute the ease lf editing to your inproved writing ability. If you hadn’t gotten the practice—keyword here—from Nano then you would not have learned from the experience of writing an entire novel. I’m still working on my first novel and there’s no getting around it. I had started with a 50k run in Nan2014 and now I am aiming to complete the first draft with another 22/50k for the moment during this month’s Camp Nano.

      I know that it will be a mess during the 2nd draft, but I’ve set all my 2nd draft woes aside for now just so I can finish the thing. Sure, it’s going to be difficult, but you can’t just expect yourself to get any better without first doing it.

      I will have completed a first draft, and while I let it sit and begin the 2nd draft, I can start a first draft of another novel. It’s like practicing scales and etudes on a piano: you simply need to do it in order to make any progress.

      Reply
      • sherpeace

        I think the thing that many don’t realize is that the most beautiful gems come at the end. Each time you do a rewrite, you get better stuff to add to the story. What I discovered after taking half the 1st draft & saving it for later, was that I had a lot more to tell about this protagonist’s adventure! I was able to tie everything together & actually have several endings to the minor characters’ stories as well as an ending to the big over-arching story.
        Moral: The creativity is not over until the final edits begin!

        Reply
  3. Sally Spratt

    Couldn’t come at a better time. I’m knee deep in my 2nd draft and feel overwhelmed. I completed my first draft during NaNoWriMo too, and already have the interest of an agent. Scrivener is a life saver on these mornings when I get up at 5 am to work on my draft (and then put in a full day at the office). Thanks for the post.

    Reply
  4. EndlessExposition

    This is a second draft in the loosest possible sense of the phrase. I’ve been working on a new story over my recent vacation for a bit of fun, and just edited the first chapter. This is a new style for me, so any reviews would be very much appreciated!

    Jaime Malcolm celebrated moving into the very first home she’d ever bought and paid for in her signature fashion – by punching someone.

    The house was your run-of-the-mill, two story, suburban affair. It was a warm shade of yellow with cream trim. A narrow brick staircase framed by wrought iron railings ascended to the front door. On either side of said staircase were flowerbeds, where the marigolds and pansies planted by the previous owner continued to bloom cheerfully, blissfully unaware that they had changed over into less skillful hands. Jaime had never taken much of an interest in gardening before – flowers made her sneeze – but she supposed she would have to now. The house would look naked without it.

    All of these observations flitted through Jaime’s mind as she leaned against the door of her car, assessing this thoroughly mortgaged symbol of the inexorable change that had occurred in her life of late. Jaime Malcolm was a black woman of forty-seven, six feet tall and lean. She was attractive in a severe sort of way: sharp cheekbones, thick eyebrows, and her Marley twists pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her age was beginning to show, but she was one of those women for whom crows feet and touches of grey at the temples only enhanced her appearance, adding a hint of mature sex appeal that she was discovering women liked, younger women in particular. Considering that younger women had been her Achilles heel for the last ten or so years, this was not a helpful development.

    All in all, Jaime Malcolm – “Mal” to her friends, of which there were precious few – appeared to be the sort of respectable, put-together woman who should’ve taken up residence in a house like this, in a town like Crown Hills, ages ago. But it was only now, in the throes of middle age, that Jaime was bringing twenty five years of apartment living in New York City to a close. Jaime knew this was how things were supposed to progress in a person’s life: after working hard at an exciting, fulfilling job, you retired from it and settled down, and turned your hand to something a little more relaxing. It was the natural process. But given the circumstances under which it had all happened, settling down felt less like a natural process and more like a forced march.

    These pessimistic musings were blessedly interrupted by the arrival of a second car. The vehicle in question was a sleek, cherry red Jaguar, and as soon as it had parked an equally sleek woman stepped out of the driver’s seat. She was white – though well tanned – slim, and tall, but not as tall as Jaime, even in her four inch heels. Atop that was a pencil skirt, a chiffon blouse, a full face of makeup, and steel grey hair cut in a perfectly symmetrical bob. Even on a slow Sunday in June, Andy Santarelli looked like she’d just come from a photo shoot. Which was not entirely out of the question, given that she was the nation’s bestselling fantasy author. The moment she saw Jaime, though, her perfectly composed face split into a very unladylike grin. “Mal!”

    Jaime opened her arms to receive a bone crushing hug from her best friend, smiling for what felt like the first time in a long time. “Hey, Andy! Thanks for coming.”

    Andy pulled back, smirking. “As if I could miss witnessing your long overdue submission to the tides of conformity.” She punctuated the remark with a jocular sock to Jaime’s arm. A sharp pain shot through Jaime’s left shoulder and she hissed and clutched it with her other hand. Andy’s face fell. “Shit! Sorry! I forgot about your shoulder.”

    Jaime inhaled and exhaled deeply, willing the pain to subside. “It’s alright. I forget about it myself sometimes.” She was lying through her teeth about that, and Andy knew her friend well enough to pick up on it. She also knew her friend well enough not to call her bluff.

    Jaime started to head for the boot of her car. “I only packed a few boxes of essentials. The moving truck will be here tomorrow. I didn’t feel like dealing with everything at once on the first day. Would you help me carry this junk inside?”

    “Uh, no no no no no, where do you think you’re going?” Andy slung an arm around Jaime’s shoulders and began to haul her up the walk to the house. “Unpacking and other boring things can happen later.”

    “What comes first then?” Jaime queried as she was manhandled up the steps.

    “The very expensive bottle of brandy I’ve got in my purse, that’s what.”

    Jaime grinned as she slid her brand new key into the lock. “Well now, when you put it like that…” The door clicked open and Jaime crossed the threshold of her new sanctum sanctorum.

    From there, everything happened at once.

    The instant she stepped inside, Jaime sensed movement on her left, a person cloaked in the shadows of the room. On autopilot she cocked her good arm. As the chorus of “Surprise!” went up, Jaime swung her famous right hook and her fist made explosive contact with a jaw. The unknown person crashed to the ground. There was momentary chaos as peopled stumbled around furniture in the dark and shouted in confusion, unable to see what had just happened, while Jaime wildly tried to calculate exactly how many people were in her house. Finally, Andy managed to flick the lights on.

    Lying on the ground was a stocky woman with short hair, dressed all in black with a clerical collar. Her glasses were knocked askew, and she stared dazedly upward, a lump on her jaw that would soon sport a magnificent bruise. Ribbons and confetti were strewn everywhere, and strung above the kitchen door were shiny paper letters that read, “Welcome Home.” Jaime’s living room was filled with people she had never seen before, emerging from their hiding spots – and all of them staring at Jaime, with her fist drawn back for a follow-up punch, still standing over the minister she had just decked.

    Very, very slowly, Jaime turned around to look behind her.

    Andy, a bottle of brandy in her hand, smiled weakly. “Surprise?”

    Reply
    • Jennifer Shelby

      Well, I’m curious to know more. Why is her house full of people she doesn’t know? Why is she forced out of her fast-paced fulfilling job? Good work. I would recommend cutting the adverbs (the -ly’s), but this a solid draft. I’m not sure this is the best place to find reviewers though, and there is some caution to consider in posting work publicly that you may want to publish one day – ever heard of inked voices? There’s a small monthly fee, but you’ll have a private online critique group at your fingertips if you don’t have a local one. https://www.inkedvoices.com/

      Reply
  5. Stella

    One of my pet projects is a fan fiction I’ve been working on for a while. One problem I have is that my first draft contains too many unnecessary details. Cameos, backstories for characters, etc. Because it’s just too much fun to explore the details of the universe which the show didn’t. Have to resist that temptation and cut anything that doesn’t contribute to the story in the second draft. It might be fanfic, but I want the story to stand on its own too.

    On the other hand, I sometimes go to the other extreme. In trying to create an original story, I need to check that I’m not deviating from canon just for the sake of it. I enjoy movie prequels because they show me how to do it well. Like in Monsters University, it’s a nice twist that Mike Wazowski’s college roommate is not Sulley, but Randall. In fact, he’s enemies with Sulley. That was well-handled because they gave believable reasons why Sulley and Mike would dislike each other initially (differing work ethics and natural talent). But if they’d made them enemies just because, that would be surprising audiences for the sake of it. And that’s something I need to resist.

    And completing three books in the last year is amazing! I take my hat off to you.

    Reply
    • EndlessExposition

      I feel your pain on not deviating from your own canon when writing original stories. The little details of my characters’ personalities and lives tend to reveal themselves to me as I write, and I have to make sure the things I come up with on the fly make sense. I’ve actually always found people who can write fan fiction very impressive. I’ve tried it and I just can’t capture the voices of other people’s characters, so good on you for that! (I personally can’t get enough of minor character cameos, especially in AUs).

      Reply
      • Stella

        Haha really? I’ve always had an inferiority complex about writing fan fiction. If you can write, why aren’t you writing original stories, why are you parroting other people’s characters? Fan fiction will never become something you can make money from. So it’s really encouraging to know you think so!

        Reply
        • EndlessExposition

          I mean hey, E.L. James is doing alright (though she’s not exactly an example to aspire to).

          Reply
          • Stella

            Haha! Point taken. I didn’t know she started with fanfic – although I suppose that didn’t come as a surprise when I Googled her…

  6. Bruce Carroll

    I’m reading this article and the comments. NANO. Scrivener. Someone doing a 50k run on Nan. I’m afraid I’m too new to this scene to have a lot of familiarity with the lingo. (Okay, I know what Scrivener is. I don’t like it. Please don’t try to convince me how great it is: My mind is made up.) Perhaps someone could write an article on writer’s jargon?

    Reply
    • dduggerbiocepts

      Not really writer’s lingo – writing promotion site lingo. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Novel_Writing_Month). You can’t be all bad if you don’t like Scrivener. I wish I could offer something better than this overly complex Scrivener crap – but truly intuitive book writing construction software doesn’t seem to exist yet. Word’s fine for chapters, but putting a book together – takes feeble Word with its decade old bugs to crash city post-haste.

      Reply
      • Bruce Carroll

        Really? I’ve had no problems with Word, ever.

        Reply
  7. Amy Ritscher

    I am embarking on my 2nd draft. While I wrote the first draft, I made a list of things that I knew I would have to fix later. My biggest fear is creating a mess so huge and unfixable that I’ll give up.

    Reply
  8. George McNeese

    The biggest fear I have in writing my second draft comes before I write the second draft. I look at notes from writer friends and my own notes. I think to myself, “What was I thinking writing something like that?” I pick apart every sentence, every paragraph. I think each sentence is worse than the last. I try not to, but it’s a habit I can’t seem to break.

    Reply
  9. Sefton

    Maybe I’m crazy but I can’t wait to get to my second draft. There is so much I want to fix on my work in progress first draft, but I must not go back and do it yet! I love editing and fixing, and even cutting and ditching beloved scenes. I love being ruthless! I guess I just love rewriting. But I have to get the story told, and out of my head, before I can make it a thing of beauty. Grr, come on first draft just be done already!!!-Sef

    Reply
    • 709writer

      Something I love about re-writing is being able to step away from what I’ve written, then come back to it a day or several days later and immediately see what needs to go, or getting that light bulb moment when I know exactly how to make the most out of a sentence. Re-writing is fun!

      Reply
      • Jim Allen

        Yes! Editing is like sanding a fine piece of wood, each time I go over a piece I find something that can use a little tweaking, until I know that I have finally nailed it. I frequently need to take a break from a specific project and when I return to it I am able to see it with fresh eyes. For me, writing is a process to be nourished rather than coerced by artificial deadlines. I ‘ve always hated interruptions and still resent them at times, but I also realize that I need to balance my writing with physical activity, walking the dog, playing with the kids, mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, flushing the gutters, cleaning the garage, visiting friends, and even tolerating others whose company I may not particularly enjoy, etc, In short, the demands of life can be used to provide the perspective needed to polish the finish of a fine piece of writing.

        Reply
  10. strictlynoelephant

    OMG this is so what I need to hear today. Finished -elated- the draft 3 weeks ago. Got some feedback (including mine…) and I have to get version 2 started now. I feel depressed, it’s messy, it’s a maze, infeasible.. and the giving up stage is close… Or was, rather. Thanks Kelly, that was the perfect pep talk !

    Reply
  11. Beth

    This is the article I came to find. I’ve just realized that my precious, my completed book, the first one I don’t hate, which I was ready to play with and fix in enjoyable cosmetic ways, is a ghastly mess that has no voice and feels unsalvageable. Who did I think I was?

    Also, I did that thing where you tell everyone you’re doing this because you’re a serious writer, dammit, even if you’re not published YET. And you’ve waited your whole life and it’s so close you can taste it.

    Not alone, apparently.

    Thank you! Off to take more baby steps and start finding the spine of the story. I wish I was Rainbow Rowell or Megan Whalen Turner.

    Reply
    • Sefton

      Not some for sure! My book is structure free at present, but that’s the fun of the second draft. It will all work out if we just keep on. -Sef

      Reply
    • Rae

      Oh, to be Megan Whalen Turner! I know the feeling all too well – I’m doing the same exact thing as you. I just realized my main character is boring, has practically no personality or flaws, and yet I can’t get the image of who she’s been in my imagination for ten years out of my head.

      It’s maddening, but it’s a lot less so knowing I’m not the only one struggling!

      Reply
  12. LaCresha Lawson

    Awwwwwww, man! Rough Drafts. Reminds me of college. Just great.

    Reply
  13. Cathy Ryan

    Thank you, Kellie! Thought I must have been doing it wrong. This is very reassuring.

    Reply
  14. Viv Sang

    Not yet quite completed the first draft of my novel, but I know already it’s a mess. I’m looking forward, yet dreading the second draft

    Reply
  15. Hattie

    Cool tips….I’m feeling on track….feeling inspired….Hattie

    Reply
  16. Cara Perciaccanto

    Great read! #1 made me feel I wasn’t alone being a crazy post-it hot mess at my desk. Notes, ideas, reminders thrown here and there. I do take time to straighten it up but it takes no time to look like a writing tornado again!
    Thanks!

    Reply
  17. Clara

    Deadlines, finishing the 1st drafts and carving out useless parts that are often my favourite sections.

    Reply
  18. Clara

    Thanks for the helpful posts.

    Reply
  19. George McNeese

    I hate second drafts. It’s like I put my heart into the first draft, only to tell myself that it’s no good. I hate feeling that way. And I think I hate second drafts more because I get so stuck on how to make the draft better. I try to replicate what I wrote in the first draft with minimal success. There are times, though, where the second draft turns out better than the first.

    I think I get so hung up on making that draft perfect. Pressure on creating the best first draft is hard enough. Writing the second is worse. All the issues I have writing the first draft are magnified in the second. It’s very frustrating.

    Reply
  20. kbrigan

    Where is the link to the webinar today? 9/19

    Reply

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