From First Draft to Final Polish

As I enjoy the very last pass through my novel, I’m struck by how different in its specifics each revision is. Of course, writers vary enormously in their technique and approach. Still, I think we can make some general observations.

Here’s what happens—at least, for me—between the first, rough draft and the final revision pass.

The first revision, (which I strongly believe is best left until at the very least a month after the first draft is completed, since I need to get distance from the work), is for most of us actually a partial rewrite, involving sometimes substantial work on characters, plot, and pacing. I expect to move, transpose, add or toss out whole scenes; new subplots may be introduced; information and backstory management will probably need work. In SFF, add issues of worldbuilding and infodumping. In the worst cases, or if the draft was written at breakneck speed (which is why I don’t do NaNoWriMo), this revision may amount to a complete teardown.

In my own work, I usually find I need to add wordage at this stage, mostly in the form of description and ‘stage directions,’ which I tend to skimp on in my first draft; I may need to amp up conflict, too, as well as introduce some foreshadowing. I fix inconsistencies such as abruptly morphing character names and physical details. And then there’ll be factual errors.

The second revision pass will hopefully be easier and more limited in scope. During this stage, I typically find myself refining character motivation and behaviour; replacing camera-eye narration with more subjective character judgment (yet another aspect of show v. tell); and tweaking dialogue so that it’s more distinct and true to character, trying to make it snap and crackle.

This is a good time to strengthen my theme, by which I mean asking myself what the book or story is really about, and making sure that I reinforce this wherever possible within the context of believable character and action. I also find myself noticing words and gestures I tend to overuse (the dreaded, ‘he/she nodded/smiled/sighed,’ etc.).

On my final revision, I’m getting really granular and looking at the fine detail: essentially, I’m copyediting, looking to smooth every bump and buff out the most minor defects. This polishing pass isn’t about what the story is and how it unfolds, but rather about how I present it to the reader in a way that’s efficient, engaging, and pleasurable.

By now I should have a really clear vision of who my characters are and what my story is about. I’m still tinkering with dialogue, ensuring that’s it’s as crisp as can be, and watching for redundant, leftover words from earlier revisions, as well as malapropisms and the like.

But most of all, I’m looking to make the prose really sing (within reason— where I once used to think a sublimely lyrical prose style was everything, I now care a great deal more about telling a really good story, because I think that’s actually what readers want. It’s what I want when I read).

What do I mean by making the prose sing? Well, since by this stage I’ve (hopefully) eliminated scene-level structural issues with regard to pacing and plot, I’m now looking at structural issues in the prose itself at both paragraph and sentence level. As I read, I’m looking to see if my paragraphs are properly structured and sequenced in relation to their neighbours as well as internally, within the paragraph itself (a subject which merits a post of its own).

Next, is the syntax working? Do I repeat words? Can I improve on word choice, strengthen verbs, punch up a metaphor, slip in some symbolism? Have I committed unconscious rhymes, or clunky sequences of sentences that all begin with the subject (‘He did this. It was Monday. He did that. She said this. The cat grinned.’)? Are there words or even sentences I can cut? Are there filtering words (direct speech such as ‘felt’, ‘seemed’, ‘thought’, etc., often accompanied by supporting adjectives) that can be lost and replaced with the stronger, deeper perception of free indirect speech either literal or metaphorical (e.g., replace, ‘he felt very tired’ with, ‘he was exhausted,’ or, ‘he could sleep for a month)?

Finally, as I work my way through the story, I’m looking for slips and inconsistencies in both voice and tone.

Voice needs to work at every level: dialogue, internal thought (free indirect speech), and narrative (in character viewpoint). It needs to be true and consistent to each character. Skill at handling voice is critical to making readers care about a character, as well as keeping them engaged during breaks in the action.

Tone is a slippery thing, best defined as the overall effect, quality, or mood of a work of fiction, the sum result of theme, voice, prose, and much else. A dark theme approached in a sober voice may yield a Tragedy; but a humorous, upbeat voice will change the tone and transform it into Black Comedy. The point here is to understand what tone you’re trying to achieve and not break the effect with false notes or drastic changes. Start as you mean to continue.

And now? I’m done. After this final revision all that should remain is light copyediting and close proofreading (best left to others), and the work is ready to go out and earn its keep in the world!

What’s your experience with rewrites and revisions? Is your approach comparable or different?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “From First Draft to Final Polish

  1. Although my technique varies slightly from yours and is less clearly defined draft by draft, the essence of the process is basically the same. The only thing I would add is this. Once you’re done, you’re done. Don’t over-rewrite. It can kill a good story. Learn to recognize when you’ve gone too far and be willing to back up to the previous draft, tweak minimally if you must and let it go. Enjoyed this post very much. Thank you.

    • Thanks! There’s definitely lots of room for overlap on the tasks each draft seems to require, isn’t there? And then there are those rare writers–Vonnegut was one–who do no rewrites at all; and I know Joe Haldeman’s first drafts are pretty much the final. For us mortals, it seems one rewrite and one or two more revisions are pretty standard.

      I totally agree about not rewriting to death–well said! I know writers who do this, and although it works for one of them, It’s not a habit I’m ever tempted to adopt. I DO believe the juice and energy risk draining out, and it’s frankly one of the things that disturbs me about the current fashion for everyone from agent to publisher’s marketing people getting involved in tweaking an ms (I ranted addressed this on an earlier post, “The Hollywood Syndrome“), and it’s something that Kris Rusch talks about too. And quite apart from anything else, if one wants to make any kind of a living and build an audience, one just can’t spend five years on a novel. Just accept it’s never going to be perfect, and most readers don’t want perfect anyway.

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