September 20, 2011

What Comes After a First Draft?

A baby's hand on an adult hand

Last week, we talked about how stories change from the initial story seed to the first draft.  Then it dawned on me that I’ve experienced that same evolution between a first draft and a finished draft, where so much changed that I hardly recognized the original story any more.

For fun, I’ve used Microsoft Word’s Compare function to see if a finished draft is really as different as I think it is.  (If this sounds like fun to you too, it’s under the Review section in MS Word.  And if you’re like me and don’t keep copies of old drafts, check your emails for pre-revised versions sent to critique partners or beta readers.)  One story changed about 95% across the pages throughout the various editing and revision rounds.

I think that’s a good thing.  I know I’m still on the learning curve, and I want to apply what I’ve learned to my work.  And beyond the typical word choice and sentence structure, I’ve learned to deepen the theme, add subtext, and change character motivations.

I’m proud that I’m able to look below the words themselves to see the meanings and impressions left with the reader.  Those intangibles are what make stories worth reading.

Still, I know I have more to learn.  Even after submitting a full request to an agent, I’ve continued seeking feedback and revising to make the story better.

This concept of continual evolution of both my skills and my stories doesn’t help my perfectionistic nature.  After all, how can I ever call a version a final draft.  That sounds so…well, final.

I think one thing we can do is be more aware of how to push our stories to the next level.  Our first drafts might be our babies, but we have to force them to grow up and mature.  A first draft is just the first step of many a story goes through on its way to becoming not just good, but great.

I chose this very topic for my guest post at the Writers In The Storm blog.  Visit my post, Forcing a Story to Evolve—From First Draft to Finished Draft, to see my 6 tips on how to help a story grow.

And if you’re looking for general editing tips, check out The Perfectionist’s Guide to Editing.

How much do you revise your stories?  Do you ever revise so much that you hardly recognize the first draft anymore?  Have you ever used MS Word’s Compare function to see how much your work has changed?  Do you have a hard time calling a draft the final draft?  *smile*

Pin It

Comments — What do you think?

Click to grab Unintended Guardian for FREE!
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Gene Lempp

First drafts for me are just getting the thoughts out on paper. In general, between the first and the “final” (and no it is never really final), the story will be pulled apart without mercy and transformed from a mouse into a flying elephant and then possibly into something that will still be able to chew solid food. So, yeah, 95% shift from first to final sounds about right. I’ve never used the Compare function but I’ll give it a try when I launch into the next new project.

Loved both of these posts, Jami. Nicely done 🙂

Jenny Hansen

I love that description too, Gene. You always make me laugh. I just can’t wait until your book is out where I can buy it. 🙂

Shain Brown

I change anything at anytime, and the main thing that affords me the luxury is saving a new copy of my WIP everyday. Each day I save my WIP with the current date and I dive in ready to change, add, cut, and or even slash. The part I like is when I am done I can always retrieve parts or all of it with out fear, just in the chance it didn’t work.

And now I am interested in checking out that compare function. Thanks.

Raelyn Barclay

I use the compare feature all the time, LOL. When I revise I do it in a completely new document so that my original draft stays true to the manic getting the story down stage. I’ll end up with a bunch of files of the same story before it will be considered finished.

I’ll have to get back to you on whether a draft feels like the final draft 🙂

Ava Jae

Oh geez. I sympathize with you completely. Calling it the “final” draft doesn’t leave room for…you know…deciding a year later it needs more revisions after all. Heh.

With the WIP I’m editing right now, it looks entirely different from the first draft. It went from first person to third, I completely changed a major character, changed names around, added some scenes and deleted others altogether…really the only thing that’s stayed the same is the plot. And I haven’t finished editing yet.

I hadn’t tried Word’s compare feature, but I did once I saw you mention it and…wow. Lots of changes. 😀 I’ll definitely be checking out that feature again.

Melinda Collins

Oh wow…. I’m with you and Ava Jae on this one – I have a hard time calling something ‘final’. There’s always going to be something that can be improved, revised, re-written, etc. My left eye is twitching even thinking about it! LOL

I revise about 5-6 times before sending to a CP, then I usually find myself revising another 2 times after that. I’m going to try and find myself some Beta readers so I can look forward to revising a few more times before querying agents. So that makes……. at least 10 times? Not too shabby, I think! 🙂

But I completely understand what you’re talking about. We can revise so much that the latest draft is nothing like the initial and it’s really hard to even remember what it started out as. And if you do find what it started out at, you find yourself thinking “Whew! Glad I did revisions!” <- This is why I haven't done the compare funtion in MS Word. I think I'm almost afraid to see where some of my stories started as, but then again, I might feel better and have a greater sense of accomplishment if I do *starts scanning through sent emails*

Great post, Jami!! 😀

Laura Pauling

I usually have sections that I need to rewrite b/c they are totally lame, but others just need reworking. I wouldn’t say it’s completely different that would be more like a rewrite. 🙂

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

What happens after the first draft:
* Whew, that was a lot of work. I think I’ll sleep on it for 6 months.
* Ok, lets look at this first chapter. Oh crap. It’s crap. Rewrite…
* You know, I better read the rest to remind myself of the plot
* None of this makes sense. I think I’ll cry now.
* Who the hell is this character and why is he in here. Well, let me write a little story about him so I can get to know him.
* Wow, he’s different than I thought. I’ll have to cut a quarter of the book, and shuffle these ten scenes.
* Does my health insurance cover mental health?
* Ok, I’ve shuffled a bit. I think I have a plotline that could work.
* Rewrite the first few chapters to be consistent and pretty
* Crap, these are boring. Gotta raise the stakes.

I’ll let you know the rest when I get there.

Eve Harris
Eve Harris

Hi Roxanne & Jami, this is exactly what I’m facing right now. I felt burnt-out after I finished my first draft last month, and now I don’t know how to get the momentum back to do the revision. When I take a look at the feedback/critiques and reread the early chapters by myself, I find that I need to fix a lot of things. When I revisit my outline and brainstorm for changes, I find that I might need to alter the whole plot. You know, like a chain reaction when you tweak X then you need to tweak Y, etc. It’s so different that I feel like I’m writing another story.

Also Jami, I remember you said to ask and trust your characters, but what if the feedback/a part of the changes in the first draft is about your character? What if after you dig the backstory the character becomes so different it alters the scenes or even main plot (or vice versa)? If you like the original characterization but it doesn’t fit to your plot (or doesn’t compatible with the pairing, in romance), what would you do?

Sonia G Medeiros

I just finished putting all my scenes for my MIP on index cards (for a storyboard) today! Woohoo! Still not ready to finish the first draft yet. I want to patch those plot holes and play with scenes. Hoping all this prep work makes the first draft that much closer to a (mostly) finished draft.

Jenny Hansen

That is AWESOME, Sonia! I’m so glad I commented after you so I would know that. 🙂

Kristina Stanley

Getting to the final draft is exciting. The trick is to not get so hung up on early drafts that it stops you from getting to the final draft. It’s okay to write scenes that get deleted, edit out characters, and on and on it goes. I’m not surprised 95% had changed. I’m sure your novel is a better book because of it. Great blog, by the way.


I wasn’t aware there was a Compare tool. Thanks for the tip!

Nancy S. Thompson

The only way my draft would ever be considered final is if I never open it again. I don’t think I could stop revising if I kept reading it over & over. So it’s closed & off limits until I’ve queried it for a few months. As far as comparing it to my first draft, well, the story is the same, but the writing is completely different, the characters deeper, & subplots more complex. There are no passive verbs, few adverbs, & no info dumps. I hope I’ve learned enough this time around that I don’t have so much cleanup work on my second novel, which I’ve just started this week.

Lisa Gail Green

I’ve never used that function! What a cool idea. I love the rough draft stage. But yeah, there’s a reason they say real writers revise!! 😀

Kerry Meacham

For lack of a better term, I call my first draft throwing up on paper. I know you’ve seen some of my writing Jami, so you can stop shaking your head up and down now. Anyway, you have to get it out before you can start editing, so there you go. Was it Hemingway that said, “All first drafts are shit.” If he didn’t he should have. It sounds like something he would say. I’m throwing up words on your reply box now (rambling), so I’ll stop. TTYL

Kerry Gans

I don’t believe a story is ever done – you just stop working on it! In fact, I blogged about this very thing last week on my blog.

I’ve never used the Compare function, but now that I know about it, I will not be able to stop myself!



[…] Gold asks, “What comes after a first draft?” and also discusses how a story evolves from seed to final draft, and the different elements that go […]


[…] “What Comes After a First Draft?” — Paranormal author Jami Gold posits this question and then answers it. I love this reminder about the importance of revision: “A first draft is just the first step of many a story goes through on its way to becoming not just good, but great.” The comments feature many people’s perspectives on post-first-draft work. […]

Jenny Hansen

Well, now that I’ve tromped all over your comments section, I’ll leave my own little note just to say:

1) Thanks again for guest posting on WITS…that was so much fun. And WOW to the post-guesting linky love. You rock. 🙂

2) I really dig this post. I know about that feature in Word – hell, I’m an instructor…I know about ALL the features in Word – but I never thought to use it on my novels. A thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but thanks bunches!

Click to grab Stone-Cold Heart now!