I always enjoy working on draft 2. Sure, draft 1 can be full of surprises, discovery and moments of brilliance (or least if feels like brilliance at the time) but it can also be quite a taxing task. Draft 2 is more like the second time you make a new recipe: you’ve worked out what works and what doesn’t and can’t wait to try it again, this time with fewer mistakes. That’s not to say that drafts 3 to 3,000 won’t have their moments of difficulty, but they exist to continuously refine what drafts 1 and 2 have established.
Now, once I get to draft 3,000, give or take a few drafts, I’m over the story. It’s too much. So I’ve devised a way cut down on the number of drafts needed by following several suggestions I’ve read about, learned from personal experience, or have outright stolen from other writers.
1. Know your story.
If any element of it isn’t clear, it will be a point of frustration for the reader. Keep a list of names, characters, and important events, as well as a timeline. That way you’ll be able to find them easier, and you don’t have wait until the next draft to figure out if your character’s brother’s name was Dale or Derek.
2. Add specifics whenever needed.
For example, don’t just mention that your main character drives a car, give the car a make and model, using details that show something about your character. They aren’t driving a red car, they are zooming around in a Thunderbird. They aren’t drinking coffee, they are taking dainty sips of a French Press brew. Leave nothing vague or incomplete. (But don’t take it so far that it becomes distracting.) The reader should be able to experience each scene as if they are there, and ideally this should happen using concise details. The reader should know everything the protagonist is aware of at the time, plus maybe a little more.
3. Don’t let your story wander.
Make sure every chapter has a specific purpose. When a chapter or scene doesn’t change a character in some way, ask yourself if it’s needed at all. Make sure each chapter challenges the characters in some way.
4. Figure out, to your tastes, when to show and when to tell.
Did draft 1 get away from you? Is there too much detail before your story point is made? Make sure you aren’t boring your reader. One suggestion I’ve heard is that you should “show” when a character is being altered in some way such as their physical condition, their status, their relationships, their safety, if they are revealing a secret, an attitude or perspective, or when the stakes are changing. You should “tell” when these sorts of things aren’t the main focus, or in other words when you simply need to move your character from one of these events to the next.
5. Make sure every chapter or scene contains a new step in the direction of a character.
The more they try to achieve their goal, the more problems they should cause themselves. Or another way of looking at it is to say: obstacles should get in their way in order to reveal who they are under stress, and to show how much achieving their goal means to them.
6. Choose details, metaphors, and witty phrases carefully.
Everything should add up as part of the whole. Nothing should be simply there to show off how clever you are, or how an interesting a piece of information or point might be. These sorts of things can be integrated into the narrative only when it is relevant to the state of the protagonist. Otherwise, it may simply be self-indulgence.
7. Make sure every character wants something.
And make sure that that “something” has a reason for being such as showcasing the theme, conflicting with the protagonist’s goal, contrasting the protagonist’s goal, showing a different take on the same theme, or causing conflict that helps reveal character.
8. Make sure that every time a character makes a choice they are risking something.
Some of those risks might include: their life, their reputation, their understanding of the world, their relationships, their health, their own happiness, etc.
So if you keep these ideas in mind, your second draft should move forward smoothly. To me, good writing is about clarity of thought, and I find that these suggestions usually help me to focus in and tell the story I see playing out in my head.