Good Writing is Rewriting
or, How to Start Your Second Draft – and Why I’m Thinking About It Now
“He was a famous but charming liar,” George Plimpton once said of a fellow contemporary writer. “He always felt that if it didn’t happen that way, it should happen that way.”
Isn’t that just the definition of a storyteller?!?
However, many believed this charming liar took “rewriting” a step or two over the line. A notorious gossip, he nonetheless was told the most intimate secrets of New York society. The talk show circuit ate up the yarns he spun, and near the end of his life, we was more known for his TV appearances than his writing. That’s at least in part because of a particularly damning, thinly veiled snapshot New York’s rich and famous he published in Esquire in 1975. Everyone at least pretended to be shocked. I doubt given his reputation that anyone really was that surprised. (Mortifed though? For some, yes...) In any case, his charm was tarnished for the rest of his life. “What did they expect?” he said. “I am a writer.”
One of his most famous tips for writing was, “Good writing is rewriting.” It is, of course, very similar to that old adage that all writing is rewriting. But I like the charming liar’s take better, which is why I include it here. In underlines that fact that the first draft probably isn’t good writing. More than that, the first draft is not supposed to be good. It’s a theme I’ve tried to underline from the beginning in these pages. The first draft is a lump of clay, thrown down on the potter’s wheel to be formed into something beautiful later.
That “later” for writers is the second draft. Although we may not approve of the way that charming liar, Truman Capote, rewrote reality, we can take at least something from his writing life:
Good writing is something that comes after the first draft.
Why We Should Be Thinking about the Second Draft First
This post is on the suggestion of Tom Pendergast, who writes the Substack Newsletter: Out Over My Skis. Thanks Tom!
My posts up until now have been mostly focused on those early “let’s get started” steps of sitting down to write. When Tom suggested a post on second drafts, I was hesitant at first because it ventures into the territory of the next steps. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I think giving insights here into all aspects of the writing life is a good idea. But it did challenge – for a moment – my vision of what this Substack would be.
I quickly realized that there is value in thinking about the second draft even before we get to the first, as counter-intuitive as that may sound. There is that vague, “trust me” quality to saying that things can be fixed in the second draft, as opposed to showing you exactly how that’s done, isn’t there? So consider this post as the “show”!
Maybe a good way to look at it is that your second draft is your safety net. We’ve all seen trapeze artists flying through the air. The reason they can be so daring is that if they do slip or miss their timing or do one of a million things that makes them fall to earth, the safety net will catch them.
So for writers, having that safety net of the second draft – and all subsequent drafts, for that matter – allows us to take risks we might not take otherwise so that we can practice flying through the air.
5 Things to Do After the First Draft
So here’s what we can do to make sure those first draft ideas and fragments can become something a bit more cohesive that we’ll want to share with the world.
Detach – All writers fall in love with their work, or they hate it, or (most commonly) both. However, you need to get some objectivity before you start writing your second draft. Set you work aside for a week, a month, a season – however long it will take you to detach. (This is where a bad memory helps! You’ll detach faster...) The more detached you are, the more they will just look like words on a page and not your little darlings running around your feet. That makes it easier look at that lump of clay with a fresh eye and determine the best way to turn it into a teapot.
Read a Book on Structure – I’ve heard about many writers who look at the first draft and say something along the lines of: Great writing! Where’s the story? (That story throughline – or lack thereof – is definitely something I experienced in my novel writing, too.) Recently, I finished an excellent book that some people in a writing group of mine put me onto: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. I am also a big fan of Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). If you are a fiction writer, I’d recommend reading both of these books, either before or after the first draft. Note: although these are aimed at novelists, the basic principles can be used in short stories and perhaps even creative non-fiction. (Poems... not so much maybe.)
Find the Story – Your first draft is a blob – a lump of clay ready to be worked. Once you have a firm handle on structure, find the story in your piece. What is the inciting incident? Where is the midway point? (Or, more accurately, what scene/chapter that you have should be the midpoint?) Can you fit in the character arcs nicely to the plot? This will take a bit of work. But the good news is that it is so much easier to find the story from the first draft rather than the blank page. Although your first draft may not show it, you’ve already worked out many of these answers in your head as you wrote. The second draft is time to rework it all to fit that structure.
Physically Create Your Structure – Now that you have a firmer idea what the story is, take the scenes and chapters that you’ve written and physically move them into the different parts of your story. Of course, what these sections are depends on what structure you’re following. But let’s say loosely that you have the beginning up to the inciting incident, the early middle leading up to the midpoint, the late middle after the midpoint, and the ending and denouement. You might quickly see that there are too many scenes at the end – your pacing will be off. Perhaps you don’t have balance between the early and late middle sections. The point is, you’ll be able to physically see where possible problems are in your story length, pacing, and structure.
To do this, you could shuffle your scenes into different sections of the same Word document, use different Word docs for each section, or use index cards. Scrivener is another tool many writers use that can help with this.
Keep It To Yourself – You may be tempted to show your first draft to someone before going onto the second. Fight this temptation! Instead, get at least a second draft down and then start showing it to people. An exception: if you hire a developmental editor, you may want to bring them in early to help with the other points above. But even in this case, you’ll likely have more success with developmental edits after your second draft.
Key Takeaway: Your second draft is your safety net. Use it! When you’re writing your first draft, feel free to fly through the air without a care because you know you can catch any miscues before it lands in the hands of the reader.
Over to You – Do You See the Second Draft as Your Safety Net?
Let us know in the comments below! And if you have any other tips for us, by all means send those in too. I’d be particularly interested to hear how your second-draft safety net is working for you!
In the meantime, below is an interview with Truman Capote on YouTube. Skip ahead to 3:19 where he describes himself as basically a human tape recorder – what many to this day still believe was a charming little lie. (Personally, I hope it’s true!)
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
email me if you get lost.
Oh boy, this is terrific stuff Graham, thank you. I’ve been lurking about the edges of my second draft, taking little dips into it, but I’ve felt not quite sure I was ready and now I think I’m not. I’ve got some structural muddles I need to get straight in my head. It amazes me how much writing goes on in your head before you ever put fingers to keyboard! I appreciate those books recommendations; will check those out.