The Crash: Braving Your Second Draft

The Crash: Braving Your Second Draft

Tell me if you’ve been here before.

It’s May, with finals lurking around every corner, and you’re stuck in your room barreling through the paper on which your entire future depends. Or at least that’s how it feels right now. You’ve worked on it all day, and all night, and also all of the previous three days and nights. You’ve cared for it. It’s smart and strong and eloquent and, finally, finished.

Then, in some deep, dark recess of your computer, you hear a terrible whir. You scramble for your flash drive, but it’s too late. The Blue Screen of Death flashes into your monitor, and all your work is gone.

You have to start all over again.

I feel like we’ve all been through this. Maybe it’s not a college paper. Maybe it’s an intricately programmed website or a message board post on why Avengers is way better than Man of Steel. Maybe it’s weeks of progress on Call of Duty. Maybe it’s a blog entry just like this one.

Whatever it is, in a single instant, it’s gone. And when you lose something into which you’ve put that kind of time—all those hours and days and weeks—it can feel outright impossible to start again.

If you’re an author, feedback from your editor can sometimes feel pretty much exactly like that.

I recently worked with an author whose mystery novel, a perfectly interesting story, had some pretty serious problems. The most significant of these problems were logic issues, and those logic issues were so deep and fundamental—so endemic and so consistent—that any revision was going to involve rewriting much, if not most, of the manuscript.

Think about that. You know how much work you’ve put into your manuscript. And on top of that, maybe you’ve already done a major revision. Maybe this is already your second draft. And knowing that—knowing just how much work you still have to do—how do you carry on?

There’s no easy answer to that. The truth of the matter is that a lot of would-be authors don’t carry on. They put their manuscript in the figurative or literal drawer and never look at it again. Few things feel more hopeless than the figurative Blue Screen of Death.

But there is hope. And if you want to see your manuscript to the end, there are some important ideas to keep in mind.

Bad First Drafts Are Never a Waste of Time

Here’s something to remember: Every single great book you have ever read has a problematic first draft behind it. Every one. How problematic varies, sure, but rare, if not nonexistent, is the author who gets it right the first time.

Moreover—and this is crucial—each draft is an essential step on the road to the completed manuscript you’re trying to write. Without that flawed early draft, you can’t learn the lessons you need to learn to write a stronger subsequent draft. You can’t know what to do right until you see and understand what you’ve done wrong. You can’t reach the top of a ladder without stepping on the rungs in between.

One of my proudest moments as an editor came a number of years ago, when I worked on a novel by one of the most talented authors I’ve ever had the opportunity to edit. The first draft of her novel certainly had its merits, but the third act was a melodramatic, illogical, uneventful mess. And that’s basically what I had to tell her.

The author told me later that she came very close to tossing that manuscript into the fireplace. It’s a natural response, when the idea gets into your head that all the work you’ve done is wasted time.

But again: There is no wasted time. That manuscript did not go into the fireplace. The author worked with it, crafting an entirely new third act. And it was brilliant. That novel, published now, is one of the best I’ve ever edited. And for the novel to be what it is now, it needed that flawed first draft.

This is the fundamental way in which receiving a daunting editorial letter is not like the death of your hard drive. You’re not doing the same work again. You’re building on what you’ve already done, and that makes all the difference.

Plan Your Rewrite Attack for Your Second Draft

There’s another opportunity provided to you in the next draft, and it’s this: You know a heck of a lot more about your story now than you did the last time.

Maybe you plotted out your novel before you wrote it originally, and maybe you didn’t. Either way, when it comes to learning about your story and your characters, there’s no substitute for writing them. And you’ve done that. Maybe your villain was a bit of a question mark when you started. Maybe your major plot twist was something that only occurred to you ten pages before you got there. Maybe the romantic subplot took even you by surprise.

But it’s not a surprise anymore, is it? Now, if you choose, that romantic subplot can occupy the heart of your manuscript. You can build around it. You can foreshadow your twist by dropping hints in the very first chapter. You can craft your villain from start to finish knowing exactly what makes her tick. Maybe you create a new outline or post index cards to your wall, or maybe you just internalize the lessons and write, but no matter what, you know your story so much better now than you did when you set out to write that first draft.

In other words, a major revision doesn’t have to be an obstacle. It can be an opportunity.

Take a Break From Your Second Draft

If the Blue Screen of Death is making things a little daunting right now, remember this: It is okay to take a break. You don’t have to leap right into the next draft. You can let it sit for a while.

Some authors—the more successful amongst us, with deadlines and readers—don’t have this luxury. But if you do, and if you’re having trouble working your brain around the next draft, take a break. The reason this helps is that, when you make your way back to your story, you are inevitably a slightly different person than you were before. You’re in a different place. You’re no longer just responding to the editorial letter. You’re rejuvenated. You’re relaxed. You’re ready.

Now, the danger of this is that, when you set your manuscript aside, it can be hard to get back into the habit of working on it. That’s why you should mark a day in your calendar, two months or four months or six months out, on which you will get back to work. On that day, when that reminder pops up telling you to work on your novel—work on your novel.

Of course, if you feel inclined to work on it before that point, then absolutely do.

Remember Why You Wrote This Story

If all else fails, don’t forget how you got here.

Most of us don’t write for money or fame, and if you do, then believe me, you have chosen the wrong hobby. We write because we have a story to tell, and whether it’s a quiet drama or an epic space war, it was important enough for us to devote months, or even years, toward creating it. It’s not uncommon for me to work with authors who have spent five or ten years, or even decades, dreaming about the story they’ve finally decided to tell.

And this story? That story that was worth your time when you started? It’s still worth it now. You set out on this journey with a goal, and just because there’s a big blue obstacle in your path doesn’t mean it’s not still the same goal every bit as worthwhile as it was when you started.

In the aftermath of a major editorial letter, especially the first, it can be hard to remember why you started writing. It can be hard to remember that spark of excitement that got you going. But it existed, and it will exist again if you let it. What better reason to carry on?

Of course, sometimes it feels like we genuinely can’t. Sometimes, we feel like Sisyphus shoving the rock up the hill. But don’t mistake fear and frustration for inability. And maybe that’s the final thought.

You Can Do This!

You can. Just look at what you’ve already done. You’ve completed a draft. There are so many gifted writers out there who never have the drive and determination to do even that.

Even if your hard drive is so broken only the Blue Screen of Death remains, even if it feels like you’re starting all over again, know, and know well, that if you had what it takes to write this manuscript in the first place, then you have what it takes to finish it.

Tell me your opinion: What challenges are you facing in your second draft?

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About Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick

Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than seventy published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning screenwriter whose first feature film, Ape Canyon, is currently in post-production. He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir.


  1. I found this very relevant, as I’ve just started editing my second draft. There are lots of articles encouraging people to finish their first draft, but never their second, so this was very helpful. 🙂

    I had a year break from my novel after I finished it, because it was daunting how much editing was needed for my novel to function. In the break I made a lot of progress in terms of writing knowledge, but I hardly touched my manuscript. Now I’m just getting back in the groove.

    • Good for you for getting back on the horse! That’s no simple task in itself. Getting back into the groove isn’t going to be easy, and of course, even once you are, there will be challenges ahead, but that’s how writing goes. Some days, you love it; other days, you’re banging your head against your desk. Either way, as long as you keep at it, you’re still moving forward.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I had just received feedback this week that made me want to tear everything up, throw it in the air, and just walk away. Today is a do-or-die effort to whip something into enough shape to move forward. Thank you for the inspiration to move this from a drudgery to an inspired (I hope) effort.


    • Rick, I’m glad to help! Sometimes, we editors become so focused on the problems that we forget about the solutions, and the simple fact that we *want* writers to pursue the next draft. We’re here to critique, sure, but fundamentally, we’re here to help. Or that’s how it should be.

      But don’t forget also that if today’s do-or-die effort doesn’t turn out anything particularly inspiring, it doesn’t mean tomorrow won’t. Your manuscript isn’t going to live or die on one day.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Harrison!

  4. I just put my first draft in hibernation mode a couple of weeks ago. As tempted as I am to jump right back into it, I KNOW that doing so would be a big mistake. I need the distance, that only time can afford, to give me some breathing room. I liken it to being locked in a house for weeks on end with someone you love. I mean you love the person, but you’ve got to get away from them every once in a while so that when you see him again you’ll remember what you loved about him in the first place.

    • That’s a great analogy, Grace. What I would suggest is taking that time away from your draft to work on something else. That way, you’re still writing regularly, and keeping those muscles loose and sharp for when you return to that completed draft.

      • Thanks, Harrison. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m working on a couple of short stories and the second novel in the series.

        • Sounds good to me! What sort of series is it, if you don’t mind me asking?

          • I’m writing my first series in the romance/chick-lit category, and despite the hard work, having a blast. The short stories are a part of my marketing strategy to introduce my target audience to my work through a couple of mini-romances that reflect the tone and style of the first series. My plan (ha ha to plans, right?!) is to introduce the short stories early in 2015, followed by the first full length novel in the series in the summer. Thanks for asking!

  5. Marissa John says

    Thank you for the post. I put a work that was 95% done into hiatus because I couldn’t end the thing. I realized I was not telling the right story. The more I tried to fix it the muddier it became. I’ll see it more clearly on 2nd round.

    • Marissa, that’s definitely true. And should the right direction remain elusive, maybe that’s the time to bring in another pair of eyes. (And that’s important too–when we run into trouble in writing, it’s okay to ask for help!)

      • Marissa John says

        Harrison one of the things I’m seeing is that a major plot point right now occurs as the defining moment in the middle of act 3. It’s a game changer for the hero (I write romantic fantasy) & it doesn’t leave enough time to resolve the main focus of the story, which is The Romance with the heroine. I’m thinking it needs to occur earlier in the story.

        • Possibly! But if you’re in the middle of Act 3, then you may be talking about the climax, in which case your defining moment is in just the right place. It may be that it’s the romance itself you need to readjust so that it, too, climaxes at around the same time.

          It’s hard to say sure–but I’d be happy to talk more with you about it if you want! You can sign up for a free consultation here:

  6. So true. Yet so hard. But onward we go….And love the pictures. It goes perfectly. 🙂

  7. Very helpful, thank you! I’m finishing the first draft of one project, and getting ready to jump into the 2nd drafts on two other related projects, so this was especially timely.

  8. Spot on perfect timing. As Joe stated above, thank you for giving second drafts their due. I finished the first draft of a second novel in March. A six month break from that to rewrite my first novel (countless drafts, that). September will see me pick up the second novel and I’m really so very excited to slice it open, after so many months of letting it stew in its juices, to see what I have to work with.

    • Julie, it’s my pleasure! And good to hear that your breaks are breaks from individual books rather than writing itself. It sounds like you’re pacing yourself very well, and that will surely lead to very good things.

    • This is such a great post for me right now, and also, this reply! I got myself into a loop where I was going back to edit the previous work, just like Julie, but also, spending too much time on non-writing, non-editing stuff during the year. Last month, it was good to be able to see that, and say, ‘OK. New Deal.’ 🙂

      • I’m glad to be helpful, Margaret! It’s always hard to say what strategies and approaches will work best, because we’re all different writers with different writer-brains. But as long as you’re being productive, consistently, your movement will be forward.

  9. I wish I had you as my editor for my first novel. With the benefit of hindsight, it could have used a second draft.

    • Hey, you can always have me as your editor for your next novel! Like it says above, I’m offering 10 percent off any developmental service for anyone who reads Helping Writers Become Authors, as long as you sign up for a consultation call by next Friday. (Of course, if you sign up for a consultation but opt against editing, that’s okay too!)

  10. Thank you. For taking second draft I have just started. Like you were referring to me, a three hours work gone. It took me three days to recover from that tragedy. Thanks again.

  11. Your post is highly relevant for me as I am in the process of revising and editing a second draft. I always like to focus on Anne Lamott’s chapter, Shitty First Drafts in Bird by Bird. It always eases my pain a bit from the qualms of starting over at the beginning. If that first draft is shitty, it definitely needs cleaning up!

    • It sure does, Sherrey! But the one thing every second draft has in common is a weaker first draft in its wake. And it’s impossible to reach the top of the ladder without stepping on the rungs in-between.

  12. I’m past the second draft, now, but I’d say it was extremely editing to work at.

    I’m writing a trilogy of novels and working on it as a single story, this means I wrote the first draft of the entire trilogy, then I redraft the complete trilogy, and now I’m working on the final revision of the first book.

    If I were asked, I wouldn’t be able to say whether the first draft or the second was the most exciting. I loved the first draft (wrote it in 5 months, the entire trilogy) because of the discovery, but I loved the second draft (that took me nearly two years) because of what you said: you know the story, you now can shape it the best way you can… and boy did I reshape it!!

    And you know? This third draft (but actually I write at least two more drafts for every chapter now) is also exciting, because here is when I can introduce the nuances. The story is there, the structure is (mostly) fine, characters are fully developed. Now I can focus on foreshadowing and refining, and here is where the story really takes up her face, I think.

    It’s the first time I do this kind of job. Before Ghost Trilogy, I had only just written short stories, so writing this trilogy was a learning process in itself. After four years, I’m still extremely excited about it.

    • That’s fantastic to hear. It can be so easy sometimes to get so lost in the struggle of writing that we forget the fundamental truth: This is supposed to be *fun*. It won’t be fun every day, of course, but we do it because we love it.

      In your case, short stories to trilogy is quite a leap! But it sounds like you’ve approached it smartly and logically. I attended a talk once where the speaker suggested that you shouldn’t start with the biggest, most epic idea in your head–that you should, instead, save that, hone your skills, and attack the grander project when you’re ready for it. There’s a certain logic to that, but I disagreed. Absolutely you can work on the project you want to work on–as long as you understand that it’s going to be very difficult, and that it will take a lot of time to get it right. It sounds like that’s exactly what you’ve understood through this entire project.

  13. This is EXACTLY where I was last summer, Harrison. I FINALLY landed a literary agent for my fourth completed novel. She loved the concept, she loved the characters, but the plot needed a massive overhaul. Because she was a former NAL/Penguin editor and her suggestions rang true for me, I agreed to the changes. However, they were so HUGE I had to go to a blank page one and rewrite the whole book.

    It took me 1.5 years to do and massive amounts of blood, sweat and tears. However, the I loved the finished version. Sadly, when I emailed her that my novel was done, she emailed back that she was leaving agenting. I’m still deciding “what’s next for my book”, but I proved I’m a much stronger writer than I ever dreamed possible.

  14. thomas h cullen says

    Thanks Harrison, for the post.

    The absolute driving principle, for The Representative, was paying respect to reality – would allowing something, a plot point, a character motivation or a future expectation etc continued existence contravene it?

    I never eased the pressure on this: the entire duration, I remained committed, always prepared for whatever tangible changes required.

    In the end, it more than paid off… an excessive margin, The Representative’s the most structurally and visually unique literary text ever created.

    • Thomas, I wish you the best of luck with it!

      • thomas h cullen says

        Thank you – if you like, I don’t mind sending it to you. I’m desperate for some exposure, having thus far had barely any. (At the moment, it’s only status is as a self-published item, on Lulu).

        If you do decide to take a look, I swear you this promise:

        You’ll be experiencing a both work, and kind of literature never before known of – anywhere in the world.

        • Exposure is tricky! And possibly the most frustrating part of the publishing industry. I can certainly give you some advice, but I’m not a marketer myself. If you’d like another pair of editorial eyes, though, that I can definitely provide.

          • thomas h cullen says

            Harrison, I’ve just used your fill-out form, uploading The Representative onto it……thanks!

            It was the complete truth:

            You’re about to experience something, which there aren’t the words for to describe.

            This isn’t a standard text to be read – it’s one to be looked at.

          • thomas h cullen says

            Sorry about this……I’ve just re-used the fill-out form:

            Please ignore the first upload (the Nov 11th 2013 date, existing in protected mode) – it’s now the second to instead look at, dated July 29th 2014.

            Apologies for that.

  15. Don’t forget about the third draft and the forth and the fifth! But yes, I certainly agree the second draft is the most difficult and daunting of them all. I used to agonize over deleting carefully crafted sentences and witty paragraphs, but now I’ve adopted the somewhat fatalistic point of view of Stephen King: sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

    • Kate, that’s absolutely true. Though it’s also true that the darlings you kill aren’t necessarily dead forever. Sometimes those perfect sentences and glorious moments find a home elsewhere in the manuscript–or even a different story entirely.

      Sometimes they don’t, but knowing that your darlings may well return makes killing them a lot easier.

  16. Harrison–
    Thanks for this post. The only thing I’d add is: when you say “It’s okay to take a break” after getting feedback on a first draft, it’s also okay–in fact a very good idea–to take a break after finishing draft #1 before handing it over for someone’s critique. Time often creates the necessary distance the writer needs to see what he couldn’t “in the heat of battle.” That way, when he does send on the first draft, the editor can focus on what the writer has truly failed to see.

    • That’s a good point, Barry. And in that respect, the end of the first draft is not necessarily writing the last page. The last screenplay I wrote, I “finished” four times before I considered the first draft actually to be done. And that’s when I sent it around for feedback. (Because editors, of course, need editors too!)

  17. Will think about it when the time comes. Right now, I am the excited kid working on my first draft. 😉
    That mark is at least 1 year away 🙁

    • Maybe, Kinza! It could be a lot less time. Or more. But it’s good that you know from the start that it takes a lot of time and energy to write a novel. A lot of would-be authors don’t, and consequently give up when they realize that novels, in fact, rarely write themselves.

  18. I finished a second draft of my novel, cutting 25,000 words for a much tighter, less telling version of my story. Immediately following my revisions, I received three full manuscript requests from agents and I knew my edits were for the best! Then I received three prompt rejections!!! I heard so much good feedback that ultimately told me the story needed re-written…again. I also considered scrapping my story because I had just put in so much work and I never wanted to sit with this story again! I was done! But the story wasn’t quite there yet. I am grateful for the kind words and suggestions I received, because already this third (and hopefully final?) draft is shaping into an even better story.

  19. I love, love, LOVE this perspective! I tell ya, I recently worked on a draft that was discouraging. I opened the laptop, began reading the draft, and promptly closed the laptop. However, I later went back to it with fresh eyes and created a spreadsheet of each chapter and what needed to be done within that chapter. I was much more clinical that time around, and now I’m eager to get back to it.

    • Julie,
      So true! I have a MG mystery that I set aside after two rounds of non-responsive agents. The story just wasn’t good enough, and I shivered when I opened up the manuscript to fix it. I decided to leave it and started a new project. But I just couldn’t let it go. I picked up back up for NaNo this month and am 12K words into the revision. Loving the story I have know! Good luck with your rewrites!

      • Janelle, that’s a fine goal for NaNoWriMo! A middle grade mystery sounds like a blast. At the risk of being presumptive, if you find yourself looking for an editor once the revisions are through, please let me know.

    • I didn’t realize new comments were still coming in on this!

      Julie, that’s great to hear. Once the anxiety and fear fade away, what remains is the challenge and the fun of creating a story you can be proud of.

  20. Jacqueline Thomas says

    Thank you so much for this post. I just picked up my second draft after putting it away for awhile. I never imagined I would write a first draft, let alone a second. Now, that I have pulled it, I see some major flaws. I wasn’t sure whether to toss it or rework it. I have the idea for the second book in the series. Thank you for the wonderful information and the encouragement to keep going.


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