The first draft—the bane of every writer’s existence. It’s the most difficult to complete; it’s the worst in every way; and if you DO finally finish it, you have to go back and basically rewrite the whole thing anyway.
The difference in difficulty between the first and second draft is monumental in some ways. With the first draft, you have to create something from nothing. You have an idea in your head, maybe an outline if you’re an organized writer, but nothing else exists until you make it so. It’s daunting.
With the second draft, you’re taking what already exists and renovating it. Sometimes it’s a massive renovation that’s only a few steps from re-creating the idea from scratch, but it’s still easier than the first draft. Because the idea already has a shape, even if you don’t much like that initial form. It gives you inspiration for the next shape.
I always say the first draft is like a skeleton (I know I’m not the only one who uses this analogy), and editing and rewriting puts the meat on those bones. Each subsequent rewriting session and new draft refines that rough form further. You add more subtle changes each time until your creation is breathing before you, as close as it can be to your initial vision.
And the key to this process is the rewriting. With the first draft, the prime directive is to get it all out until you have a definitive ending. You put everything you think of on the page at that point, just so it’s all there. Everything in your head related to the idea comes out. But once you have the first draft, rewriting is what distills the mess into something readable—by reshaping, combining, separating, refining.
However, there is a line to be drawn, a place where rewriting begins to tip from having immense benefits to being detrimental. Too much refining can transform words from lyrical to overwrought. It can sink the plot back into the mire.
This line is not static. It moves depending on the project and the writer—or even for the same project and the same writer at different stages of the writer’s growth. The worst part, though, is that it can be hard to tell when you’ve crossed the line. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of feedback from people you trust. You need to have a great deal of honesty with yourself. And even then, you’ll miss it sometimes. It happens to the best of writers (there are some terrible books by great authors that make this case for me).
Something that helps me is taking a break between drafts. If I give myself some time away from a project, when I return I’ll see glaring problems I didn’t notice before. Sometimes that’s because I introduced them in the previous round of rewriting. Usually it came from a good idea or intention that went wrong in execution, or it resulted from focusing too much on a single scene (or paragraph or sentence) and not considering its larger purpose in the overall story. When I’m in the grip of a rewrite, it becomes harder and harder for me to be objective as time goes on. I end up thinking about the story constantly, which makes me feel productive, but that kind of tunnel vision is not sustainable. Not every idea will be a good one, but when I’m in the middle of it I can’t tell. It might go something like this, as a crude example:
Maybe there’s a power outage! And then a FIRE?! And then an EXPLOSION? TWO explosions!
In the moment, those all might seem like great ideas. They each add more drama! How could that be bad?* But when I reach that scene again after taking a break, I’ll realize that the power outage is all the story needs.
More often than not, the unnecessary parts are more subtle than that—when dealing with emotional development, for example, it can be harder to pinpoint when the scale tips toward melodrama. That’s typically when taking a long view helps: consider a character’s emotional arc throughout the whole story. Make sure it follows a logical trajectory from start to end. If it’s all high drama, fighting and tears with no respite or change, there should be a precise reason for that—and it has to be a damn compelling one. Stories, characters, and readers, all need breathing room, time for the pieces to fall into place before the next one is added or it’s all blown apart. If that isn’t happening after multiple rounds of rewriting, it could be because you edited right past clarity back into obscurity.
One of the keys to helping detect this is to emotionally disengage from the story and evaluate it objectively. That’s not easy—I still fail more than I succeed. I don’t think it’s possible for a creator of anything to completely disengage, and I don’t think you should be disengaged the entire time. But when you’re hunting for what to excise from your story and what to expand, you need the right amount of disconnect between yourself and the project to tell the difference.
In a terrible catch-22, the only cure to too much rewriting is, of course, more rewriting. But there is a big difference: when you know you crossed the line in the wrong direction, it’s easier to find the line. You already left yourself the path back. In fact, the more you cross the line on different projects and have to backtrack, the more you’ll get a feel for it. Eventually, you’ll see it when you hit it instead of when you’ve passed it—no matter the project.
So rewrite, and keep rewriting, friends. Don’t fear that line between just enough and too much—but be on the lookout for it.
*Apparently the process is different for Hollywood movies, where they never pause to ask themselves this question.