From First Draft to Final Draft With Less Frustration

Remember, Writing Doesn't Happen By Magic

Last week I took you behind-the-scenes of organizing your ideas and outlining them. Things were a bit messy but rather exciting, right? There was so much creative energy, and there were so many right ways to reach the objective: being ready to draft.

So now I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that drafting is no problem. Seriously. It’s the least thoughtful part of writing. (More on that in a sec; I won’t leave you hanging.)

But the bad news is that after you draft, there is still the revising and editing process to go through. And they not only take time, they take extreme patience.

I should have said I had good news, bad news, and more good news, though. Just like gathering and organizing ideas, revising and editing your writing is an adaptable process that you can make your own.

Once you find the methods that work for you, getting from the first draft to the final draft will feel doable. It'll still take time and effort, but it won't be nearly so frustrating. Ready to jump in and choose your own revising adventure? Here we go!

First Drafts First

As promised, here’s the return to the drafting conversation. Will you agree to do two things?

  1. Always plan your writing in some way

  2. Always revise your writing in some way

If you’re game to uphold those two agreements, then I hereby grant you permission to write the lousiest first draft in the universe.

The first draft isn’t called the “smooth draft”; let it be rough, let it be imperfect. [Tweet that]

Why is the first draft so rough? Because you have to write it quickly! The secret to effective drafting is momentum. If you stop too long to think about what you’re doing, two things are very likely to happen:

  • You’ll lose your ideas. The things you thought you knew how to explain will slowly start to slip away, and you’ll have to work three times as hard to write them later.

  • You’ll lose your nerve. If you pause for too long, you’ll start to question your sentences. You’ll start to unravel your ideas. You’ll become more likely to scrap your writing and start all the way over at the beginning. And that’s a shame, because you won’t even have had a chance to see whether your idea worked before throwing it into the recycling bin.

So have a little bit of faith. Trust your outline to take you somewhere. Trust that you’ll revise your draft. In some ways, your draft parallels your brainstorm: you have to get everything out of your brain and onto the page in order to see what’s treasure and what’s trash.

Here’s how to make your rough draft easy on yourself:

  • Look at your outline as you draft and stick to it
  • Turn of your internal editor: ignore spelling, grammar, and typos
  • Use [brackets] around elements that are place holders: words you know aren’t quite right or spaces where you can’t think of the word or phrase you need
  • Write all the way through to the end before starting any revising
  • Whatever happens, just keep going!

Revising Your Way

Let me get your gut reaction to something. If you’ve just finished writing a first draft and I say to you, “You now have permission to change whatever you want about it,” how would you respond?

  1. “What a relief! Now I can go back in and fix all those awkward parts and make it sound the way I want it to.”

  2. “What do you mean, ‘make changes’? If I knew how to make it different, I would have done that in the first place!”

  3. “You’re out of your mind. That was hard enough. No way I’m gonna rewrite the whole thing!”

Do you know where you fall? Maybe somewhere between these points of reference? Maybe you’ve felt them all at different times or in response to different writing projects. When you finish a rough draft, take a minute to assess yourself using these landmarks; then proceed based on the guidelines below.

“What a relief!”

If you couldn’t wait to get through drafting so you could polish your writing, my hat is off to you! You must be highly motivated to write about this topic and share your ideas. Or maybe you’re just feeling that this isn’t your greatest writing, and you’re looking forward to taking another stab at it so you can show your best skills.

Make a list of what you want to change:

  • What isn’t working for you? Why?
  • Where do you want more detail?
  • Where do you want more explanation?
  • Where do you want more specific word choices?
  • Where do you need some more reflection?
  • Where could you use more transitions?
  • Do you have all your structure pieces in place, such as topic sentences?

“Make changes? Are you crazy?!”

If you feel resistant to making changes because you think you won’t do any better than your first draft, it can be helpful to follow a recipe so that you know exactly where you might make improvements.

Go through your writing with a highlighter or highlighter tool on the computer and look for what, in your own opinion, are the weakest components in your writing. Look for places that just feel off to you.

Identify your “worst” in each category:

  • Topic sentence (including a place where one is missing)
  • Piece of evidence
  • Explanation or description  
  • Transition (including a place where one is missing)
  • Concluding sentence
  • Worst sentence overall

Once you’ve got this list, you know at least five places you can improve your writingmaybe six; it depends on whether your worst overall overlapped with any of the other categories.

If you only address those elements, guess what? You’re way better off than you were before! But if you have more energy and time, start asking yourself Why? Why was that my worst topic sentence? Why wasn’t it working? Am I using that same ineffective pattern in other places in my writing?

The more you identify patterns in your writing, the easier it will be to revise now and on future writing projects.

This is why I always build Writing Toolboxes with my students, helping them see which strategies are effective for them, and which writing habits would be worth breaking

“No way I’m rewriting this whole thing!”

You’re right! There is no way you should have to rewrite your entire draft! You did so much work! You followed the steps: you brainstormed, you organized and outlined, you drafted—you shouldn’t be penalized.

So I want you to know that the feeling of injustice that might be coming up is well-founded. It would be cruel and unusual punishment to make you rewrite everything you just did.

I want to remind you of something, though. Your draft is not one solid piece; it’s modular. You can make changes to it in one place and leave other places well enough alone! That means revising is far from rewriting.

Try this. Use a checklist to give your writing a once-over and give your honest judgments about what you think could be better.

Follow a revising checklist

  • Do I have a clear, concise thesis statement?
  • Do I have clear topic sentences?
  • Do I have relevant evidence?
  • Do I explain my evidence and how it supports my topic?
  • Do I use the style and voice that fit my audience and my purpose in writing?
  • Do I make use of specific words so that my audience can clearly picture what I mean?
  • Do I use a variety of sentence types and lengths?

Once you’ve answered each question honestly, you'll probably see that there are at least a few places where you could improve your writing. Start revising those and see where it takes you. 

If you’re feeling stuck, why not enlist some help? Grab a trusted friend or family member and ask him or her these questions:

  • In your words, what’s my main idea? (if you disagree with the response, that’s a sign you need to state your idea more clearly!)
  • Is anything confusing?
  • Where would more explanation have been helpful?
  • Does anything feel repetitive?
  • Are there any awkward sentences?

Talking about your writing with someone else is by far the best way to improve at revising because you get a chance to defend your choices and take stock of the strategies that are working for you. 

You’re the Editor in Chief

Surrounded by so much (increasingly smart!) technology, it’s easy to think, “Editing, schmediting. My computer does that for me.”

Those little red and green lines from your writing software’s spellcheck and grammar check are a good place to start. But simply right-clicking on them is not the same as editing your work.

Editing is choosing what makes the cut. When you write a book or publish articles in magazines or newspapers, the editor is actually a separate person who gets the final decision about your writing. But when you write for yourself, for school, or for a blog, you have to be your own editor.

When you revise and edit your own work, some of the tasks will overlap, and that’s a good thing.

Revising your rough draft was like putting the first coat of frosting—what’s called the crumb layer—on a cake. This layer isn’t smooth, and it’s not supposed to be. Its job is to create a cohesive base for the next layer of frosting to stick to.

As you put on each layer of frosting (revise each draft), you make your writing smoother and smoother, so that eventually it’s ready for just a few final touch-ups here and there.

After you revise, your writing will look pretty tasty—uh, I mean interesting and inviting. So your job is to go through the whole piece one more time and do a final check for anything out of place. 

Use an editing checklist:

  • Check for accuracy of information (If you used quotes, did you copy them faithfully?)
  • Make sure the writing matches the intended audience and purpose
  • Tighten up any unnecessarily long sections
  • Correct any mechanical errors (missing words, extra words, misspelled words, typos, grammatical blunders, wacky punctuation, etc.)
  • Double-check your format and word count if those elements are important

I recommend a three-step editing process so that you can look for one type of problem at a time. 

Use Your Strengths

Whether you’re gathering your thoughts in a brainstorm, grouping them together in an outline, drafting them into paragraphs, or polishing them into a final draft, your writing process should be a reflection of your unique thinking process.

Even though your thinking and learning style is your own, seeing it for yourself can be difficult.  Especially if you’ve never been invited to investigate it. If you’ve always been made to write in a certain way, you might have to take some time to discover which writing strategies work best for you. But when you invest this time—to learn your personal best path from the beginning to the end of writing—writing will be less frustrating and more enjoyable. 

Join the conversation! What do find to be the hardest part of the writing process? Do you have any favorite strategies that make writing easier?