Maintaining Motivation through the Second Draft: 11 Tips

A fellow writer recently asked me to do a post on how to find the motivation to do a second draft. I was up to my ears in my second draft for a pen name novel, so held off for a couple of weeks, but now with that novel published and a blank page ready to start on my fourth Derivatives of Displacement novel, I have time to do a couple of posts (and catch up on the consulting work that I skipped while intensely proofreading).

A second draft means different things to different people.

A second draft even means different things to me, depending on whether I am working on a short or long piece and whether I am working on something I’m going to publish under my own name, or my pen name.

Everyone’s editing process is slightly different, especially for the second draft. Some people will read their book through in its entirety and make revision notes, some will start working on the prose while they do an initial pass, looking for plot holes and structural issues. Some will approach it in a linear fashion starting from page one and working their way through page by page, whereas others will go where they know the biggest problems are and work on those one by one.

There is no right way to do it. The important thing is that you do it. Generally, a second draft is reserved for more structural edits, fixing plot holes, addressing major issues, adding or deleting scenes. Thus it is generally inadvisable to spend a lot of time polishing prose until later drafts as some of it may be deleted anyway. I tend to do a combo with stuff I publish under my own name, doing an initial non-linear blitz of problems that I have on my revision list, and then a complete pass through where I sharpen the prose, fix the no brainer sentence structure problems, amp up the characterization, and look for other structural or major problems to be fixed. For shorter stuff and my pen name stuff, which tend to be less complex, I combine these two steps into one linear pass through.

A second draft is tough.

You don’t have the euphoric high of creating new stuff, although in reality you will (or should) be writing many entire new scenes and sections of scenes as the novel demands, and worse, all your writing faults (yes, we all have them) will be right there on display, which can be discouraging. And a second draft can also take a long time and seem like a grind, especially when you just want that high of being done and hitting publish! But you can’t without doing a second draft.

Eleven Tips for maintaining motivation through a second draft

1. Take a short break after finishing your first draft.

You’ve just written a short story or a whole novel for goodness sake. You deserve a short celebratory break, and you will start your second draft far more refreshed and motivated if you take one. But don’t let that break be longer than two weeks, or you might get accustomed to quaffing margaritas on the beach or watching The Walking Dead, and never come back. I take a one week break between drafts of the stuff I publish under my own name. The pen name only gets a one-day break. She’s hardier, and my pen name generally writes novellas that require fewer revisions.

2.  Use your revision notes as a motivating “to do” list.

You have revision notes don’t you? The things you jotted down while you were doing your first draft that you intended to go back and deal with or check on later, the holes that you thought might be in your plot, the cool things that happened later in the book that you now have to go back and foreshadow earlier in the book. If you don’t, you should. I fix a lot of things in my first draft as I go, but in the interest of pressing on and getting a first draft done, I keep a running list of fixes. If you don’t keep a list of fixes, do a quick read through of your first draft and make that list. Include things like plot holes, foreshadowing opportunities, issues with character motivation, and other general problems. This revision list serves as your “to do” list, and if you are anything like me, crossing off all the items on that to do list, and eventually making that crossed out chicken scrawled piece of paper disappear from your desk forever, is a great motivator.

3. Set a realistic, but firm, deadline for completing your revision and then set a daily word or page target based on that deadline and meet it.

A realistic deadline is going to depend on a few things—the length of your WIP, how drafty your first draft is, and how many hours a day you have to work on it. For a long short story of about 16,000 words, I give myself a week to two weeks to do a second and third draft. The pen name only gets four days (I’m so mean to her). For a novel, I often give myself three to four weeks for a second draft, which means spending a week to a week and a half blitzing the fixes on my revision list in a non-linear fashion and then moving page by page through the entire manuscript at a pace of about 4000 words a day, which is doable even if I can only work at night (which is often the case when I am working) especially if I can do 6000 words a day on weekends, giving myself a bit of leeway for those nights my head is drooping over the keyboard (which happens, believe me). The pen name gets about seven days for a novel, which since they are shorter means a pace of about 7000 words a day.

If those deadlines sound short, keep in mind that this is just the second draft. I’m still going to do a third, fourth and fifth and potentially a sixth draft on the work I publish under my own name (don’t be totally demoralized by this… some of those drafts are just quick read throughs—they are excruciating, but necessary). Also keep in mind that I am now at a stage in my writing where I can usually pull off pretty polished and put together first drafts—the second draft of my first novel took me four years. If you think your first draft needs more work, allocate a longer and more realistic deadline. But don’t belabor the second draft (i.e. do not take four years). You will have to do additional drafts, and a quick, but complete, second draft is better than agonizing over each chapter for a month and never finishing.

4. Remember that if you want to be a writer, it has to be done.

This is a very simple motivator. If you want a finished piece of work, a second draft is necessary. Nobody can do it for you, and there is no way around it. Every single book you have read started as a first draft that someone had to turn into a second draft, and quite often a third, fourth and fifth draft. It may seem daunting, but you made it through the first draft didn’t you?

5. Don’t get bogged down in how awful your WIP is or how much work it needs.

We all have that feeling sometimes when we look at our drafts, but don’t let it paralyze you, prevent you from starting, or cause you to get stuck on a particular section or problem that you don’t know how to fix. If you encounter something you don’t know how to fix, sometimes the best thing is to just flag the problem (yup, make another list!) keep moving, and get through the entire manuscript. Sometimes after thinking about it for a day or two I can go back and fix that thing that I wasn’t sure about on the day I was revising that section. But also expect that you will need to do a third draft and you will catch additional things then. Keep doing additional drafts as long as you need to, hopefully doing them more quickly with each draft. Your draft will get better with each revision, you will become more confident with and accustomed to revising, and eventually, after writing many pieces of fiction, you become a better writer you won’t need to do as many revisions.

6. If you are working on a list of things that need revising, pick appropriately for your motivation that day.

On days when you are feeling less motivated, look for the easy wins. Is it just a name that has to be searched and replaced, or a small but easy red herring that needs to be woven into a scene? I do these on the days I’m exhausted. There is nothing like being able to cross things off of on your list at the end of the day and see the list get shorter—yay! Conversely on the days where I have a few hours to write at the beginning of the day and am feeling more motivated, I tackle more challenging problems.

7.  Remember that not everything about your manuscript is going to suck.

Some things will suck and you need to fix them, but there will be good sections, and great sections. Knowing that you don’t need to fix everything can help keep you going. In my first novel, I had to rewrite about 60 to 70 percent of the first draft. Now I probably rewrite about 30 percent. I’m getting better, which means the second draft is less work.

8. Bring all of your tricks for writing a first draft into play.

What do you do when you get stuck on a first draft? Go for a walk, dreamstorm a scene, decide what could logically happen next, guzzle coffee or whiskey, play with your cat, noodle on Facebook for a couple of seconds? All of those things work on a second draft too. We all know the key to a first draft is keeping your bum in the chair—and that’s the key to a second draft too. You’ve already developed that discipline in the first draft. Now is the time to test your fitness level. If the first draft is the running blissfully through the woods section of your workout, the second draft is the squats section. Learn to love it, or at least tolerate it, and your blissful run will be all that more fun.

9.  Speed it up by keeping a checklist of your own writing peccadilloes or developing a process.

Revising is easier if you approach each scene with an idea of what you are looking for. I devised this list of things to look for in getting from first to second draft. K.M. Weiland offers this look at her own revision process, complete with a list of things she looks for. It is much easier to go through a list when you check out a scene to figure out what needs to be changed. Eventually this list will become ingrained in you, and you will automatically look for those things, but in the short term, a list is handy.

10.  Understand that nothing is a waste of time.

Adding scenes, deleting scenes, fixing sentences that will eventually be deleted, rewriting the entire last half of your book—it can all seem like an incredible waste of time and energy. The nice thing about a first draft is that it is whole and complete and if you walk away from it and never do a second draft, you can imagine it is great. It's painful to take apart something you have painstakingly put together, and sometimes seeing your novel in pieces on the virtual floor can be terrifying. What if you can’t put it back together? What if it's a huge amount of work to put it back together? Those poor scenes on the cutting room floor represent hours of your precious time. It is tempting to never take your novel apart. But be confident that none of these steps are a waste of time, and even if you delete scenes, chapters, or entire characters, they were part of the scaffolding that was necessary to build your novel. I know… it hurts, but it’s necessary.

11.  Remember why you wrote the book in the first place.

There are a lot of reasons for writing a book: a burning idea that just won’t leave your mind, the prospect of fame and fortune (although this might not be the best reason for writing), building a writing career, recording a piece of history. If you are having trouble with your second draft, think about these reasons to inspire you to keep going.

Those are my best tips for keeping motivated. Chocolate helps too. What keeps you going through your second draft?