5 Drafts: Tips for Conquering the Dreaded Rewrite

Apr 19, 2010

Harmattan sunsetThe first time I traveled to Ghana was in January, at the peak of the Harmattan season. For two months, strong winds blow across the Sahara desert and down to West Africa, blanketing the sky with a thick coat of dust. It gets everywhere– in the corners, in the wall cracks, in your elbow creases. Just sitting outside, you can taste the thick, dirty air you’re breathing and walk back in the house ready for a shower. It hovers over everything like a dense, brownish smog.
Post-Harmattan view

I lived on a hill in the suburbs of Cape Coast, a bustling city with a booming fishing industry. One morning, it rained, clearing the sky for the first time since I’d been there and signaling the end of the Harmattan. As I walked down the hill to catch a taxi into town, I stopped in amazement, gazing into the distance. I had a view of the ocean! I had lived on this hill for a month, and never once had I realized that the Gulf of Guinea sparkled just within my view.

I like to think that rewrites are kind of like the rain that clears the sky of Harmattan dust. As you draft and cut and rewrite, the rain falls and suddenly, hey, there’s a story hidden in there! A lot of writers fear the rewrite, but really, it’s where you shape the story out of all the muck you just threw down on your paper.

So, then. Once you’ve got that first draft down, how exactly do you make that story come to life?

First, JOIN A CRITIQUE GROUP. Just get someone else to look at your stuff and give you honest feedback. Having another eye, especially another writer’s eye, go over your work is a tremendous help.

Now, my rewrite process actually occurs in several stages. Because I’m a pantser/plotter hybrid, I tend to do some of my rewriting as an actual part of my first draft. I still consider that a first draft, though. One thing I’ve never tried that I think I want to before launching into my next rewrite is the shrunken manuscript technique to better diagnose weaknesses before I even start.

Once my draft is finished, I take it through several rewrites, focusing each time on separate things. Now, keep in mind, these aren’t cut and dry, and they can vary depending on the needs and weaknesses of the particular work. Sometimes I mix them up a bit. Generally, though, these are the things I focus on in each draft.


  • Plot elements (try/fail cycle, rhythm and pacing, climax, plot points and structure, rehashes, foreshadowing, etc.)

This is where I do a great deal of actual chopping, rewriting, cutting, and pasting. I start with the story as a whole, figuring out what needs to go, what needs to be added, where I need to change the pace, where I should be foreshadowing, etc. This can be quite a long process, and is usually drawn out through subsequent drafts. A lot of times, I’ll look at individual problem scenes here too, and analyze for the same things within the scene.


  • World building (descriptions, society, religion, clear view of setting, world feels real)
  • characterization (strong, proactive, unique, memorable, act within their character, differentiated from other characters)
  • character relationships (show ups/downs in relationship, each scene is a new interaction or moment of discovering more of that character)

This is another very large draft. These things are all interrelated (I tend to think of world-building as characterizing the setting), and I take the time to make sure all of the above are taken care of. Sometimes I’ll do multiple mini drafts, where I focus on one single character who I’m having problems with, or a specific relationship that needs tweaking. This is one that I take on first with a whole-novel view (do they follow a good growth arc?) as well as a scene-by-scene view (do these characters interact exactly the same in this scene as they did three scenes ago?). Like I said, it’s a big draft that can incorporate some elements of plot already mentioned, as well as some of the following elements.


  • show, don’t tell (descriptions, feelings)
  • sentence structure/flow and word choice
  • tight dialogue
  • voice/viewpoint unique and error free (includes dialogue)

As I mentioned, some of these things, such as dialogue and voice/viewpoint get taken care of as I do my character drafts (or even in plot, if I’m working on pacing, for example). I go over them again, however, just to make sure things flow. I often kind of gloss over details in my first draft, using a lot of “telling.” This is where I fix that, if it hasn’t already been taken care of in, say, the world-building fixes.

After this, I LET IT SIT for several days to even weeks. (Especially if I’m thoroughly sick of the whole process.) This is imperative for the last draft to be what it needs to be, and for the book to be as good as it can be.

This is usually a good point for alpha readers to come in. The book is better, but now I want to know, once again, what works and doesn’t for the actual reader. Once I’ve gotten their feedback, I can incorporate any of it I want in the last draft.


  • Everything

In this, I take the comments from alpha readers, as well as my own feelings on everything already discussed, and make any final changes. This is often a much more painstaking draft, getting down into nitty-gritty details. This is also a good place to do a copy edit, looking for typos, spelling errors, inconsistencies like changing eye color, etc.

Oh wait, did I say final draft? I lied. Although, I guess the last one isn’t really a rewrite. Again, LET THE WORK SIT for a little bit. Then, go back and do another read-through and make any final adjustments.

And boom! Finally, the book is done, and the story has finally been revealed in all its glory. (Until the agents and editors get their hands on it, that is.)

So what’s your rewrite process? What scares you about rewriting? Let’s discuss!


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