Guest Blogger: John UpChurch

The Second Draft: Killing Your Babies

Since I’m a full-time editor, writers sometimes look at me as the person out to kill everything good about their writing. Am I? Quite possibly—if you think your first draft was somehow given to you verbatim from God.

I reviewed a novel manuscript recently for a distant relative (probably a mistake), and after reading only a few pages, I could tell this was a first draft in need of serious work. After I politely informed the writer of my thoughts and braced for impact, he took his writing to have it self-published as it was. I’m certainly not against self-publishing, but in this case, it was a cop-out because he did not have the passion to fix the initial mistakes. He thought the first draft was “perfect.”

How about you? If you’re willing to spend the enormous amount of time and energy it takes to write a manuscript, are you also willing to invest just as much (if not more) time and energy into revision?

The first thing to realize is that bad first drafts are okay. There’s no shame in not bringing forth your masterpiece on the first try. The shame is in thinking that you’re writing on stone. In fact, assume that your first draft will suck. If you realize this from the beginning, then editors’ comments and your own changes will feel less like losing a limb and more like a flesh wound (they’ll still hurt some, yes).

Once you’re finished writing, remember that nothing is sacrosanct. In fact, I tell writers that they should most carefully consider the parts they deem their “favorite,” be it a scene, a line, or a character. Why? Because 99% of the time “favorites” are overwrought and stilted. Perhaps this is because the parts we love are the parts that we have spent too much time cultivating and adding flourish to. Or conversely, we love them so much we’ve been unable to see them clearly, or unwilling to change or improve them.

Sometimes you simply have to kill your babies and move on. Never put anything above your ultimate goal: your best possible manuscript. If you do, you’ve limited what you can do to fix your work. If you have to rip out an entire plot element and rewrite most of the manuscript, then do it. Need to cut a character that doesn’t add enough to the story? Then go for it—even if you think they’re hilarious or intriguing.

Finally, keep in mind that word count guidelines do not mean “words I still need to add.” In fact, I would recommend only having a general idea of the number of words you have until after you’ve finished the first draft. If you’ve gone too long, look to cut unnecessary scenes, verbose dialog or explication, and periphrastic phrasing (e.g., in order to show that). If it’s not long enough, well, time to work up a new outline and a fresh perspective. Don’t just add words to beef it up.

What about you? What helps you keep the fire burning during revision?

John UpChurch is a writer and managing editor; you can sift through his thoughts at
  1. Carradee says:

    >I’ll have been writing as my primary hobby for 8 years, this summer. In that time, I’ve started a myriad of stories in various stages of incompletion. Some didn’t keep my interest; some I stopped when I realized I lacked the skill to pull them off (yet). All are affected by what I’ve realized is a weakness of mine: I can come up with killer situations and fascinating characters, but my plotting often leaves something to be desired.

    And yes, I know that no plot = no story.

    My stories that I come up with that keep my interest are inherently hard to write. I’ve realized that and accept that. (You wanna try writing from the perspective of a paranoid character in first person, present?) I’m still figuring out what to do about it.

    I’ve tried starting the story from the situation and just seeing where it takes me, editing as I go and plowing through writer’s block. That’s ended up with something that had 1 major revision and looks like it’ll need another, so it’s workable, but not too fun.

    I’ve tried NaNoWriMo, writing everything just to get a draft out, then going and revising later. I admit, when I went back and looked at my NaNo entry last week, I was surprised by how much good writing was actually in there. But my plot sank, and most of those good scenes would probably have to be cut or completely rehashed.

    My current major WiP is trying something else: I started writing with the thought I had, but before I went very far I planned the world in a bit of detail (not much—I was to chapter 10 before I defined undead vs. live vampires). But I did get a very firm grasp on my characters. When the writing gets difficult, I’m stopping and asking myself and the friend reading it Why? This tactic is catching errors before they drive the story off-course, which looks like it will be dramatically decreasing the amount of revision this will need later, because I’m revising as I go.

    Yes, I know, editing as you go is a big no-no. But a variation of that no-no looks like it’s what works best for me if I actually want to finish a draft with a workable plot. Guess I’m weird that way.

    When my current progress in a story feels comfortable, I can let loose on the draft without getting stuck on the mechanics (too much; I’ve worked as a professional proofreader, so I have my limits). But when progress slows or starts feeling “off” or awkward, I go back and examine what I have, editing as I go.

    Sometimes, I just need to think about what I have, and the next step will come to me. Sometimes, I need to take a step back, pass what I have on to my reader, and wait for her to get back to me. But either way, I’m still editing as I go, so maybe it can be a workable method.

    Maybe it’s like “rule” in writing: you can’t break it until you know why it exists and why it works/doesn’t work for your current situation.

    —You know, like punctuation rules.


  2. Annie says:

    >I have never been published but when writing for my blog, I write a first draft and then let it sit, sometimes for a few hours, a day or a few days. When i return I am able to see things that need editing that I did not see initially. I think when writing something for the first time, it is to be expected that revisions need to be done. That is how to grow as an author and as a person. And if I ever decide to chase the publishing track, I also know the editor may have revisions they see as well. Obviously, no matter what you said, this family member was going to self publish anyway. It would be interesting to find out why he came to you for your opinion if he didn’t think his draft needed any changes.

  3. Cami Checketts says:

    >A great critique group. They give me insight and inspiration that gets me excited about revising.

  4. Robin Archibald says:

    >I’m a compulsive reviser, so I spend too much time on an opening even when I KNOW that as I write I’ll discover unifying ideas or stronger themes that may significantly redirect my opening, thus demanding further revision (I’m talking non-fiction since I’m currently working on a personal narrative dog story). And yet, it’s the (over)writing of my (current) opening that’s helped me envision the possible themes for the story before I get too far along. Is my focus “The dog taught me a lesson,” or is it “I learned how to be a better neighbor while walking my dog”? To meet the editor’s criteria, I’m combining the two themes. My current opening communicates that my dog taught me an important life lesson. Hopefully, readers will be enticed to read on to find out what lesson.
    So what keeps me going through all the revision is the fact that I’m a perfectionistic, compulsive obsessive, never satisfied person. I’ll revise until the deadline stops me and then look back at the piece with frustration that this or that isn’t as good as it could’ve been. What I badly need to learn is what Michael learned: Sometimes good enough really is good enough–do the best I can for now and let go.

  5. La Shawn says:

    >I’m on chapter five of a first draft now, and I have to resist the urge to go back and “fix” things. I know the draft stinks, but I’m determined to get ‘er done, then go back and revise.

  6. Pam Halter says:

    >What keeps me going is the thought that I’m improving my manuscript. And when I’ve improved it enough, an editor will buy it!

    And then improve it some more. 🙂

  7. RefreshMom says:

    >I’ve come up with a revision method that works for me. I go through each piece at least 4 times before it ever sees another set of eyes; each go-through has a specific intent.

    The most important thing I’ve learned about revising though is that I have two brains–the writer/creative brain and the editor/destoyer brain. It’s best never to revise when the writer is in control and best not to compose when the editor is in control. If the right person shows up for the task at hand, it all goes much more smoothly.

  8. Kristy Colley says:

    >Lovely reminder. I tend to look forward to my revisions. It’s when I see the piece take on real life and depth.

  9. Strikethru says:

    >Thanks for this post– I’m in this process now, and it is helpful to hear that it’s OK to take on favored passages or characters if it serves the whole. I wish there was an obvious way to know what isn’t working!

  10. elizaw says:

    >Right now, I’m almost finished with my final full rewrite. After my first draft, I said, “Yeah, me!”, took a month off, and began rewriting the book from scratch.

    Liked the second draft, but I could tell that there were some composition problems that needed to be sorted out. Other plots seemed to veer away from the book’s ‘foundation’, so to speak. So after my second draft, I took a break, then began a third draft from scratch. Now finally I’m happy with the plot and composition, so once I’m done, instead of rewriting, I’ll be going through with edits and polish on the previous chapters.

    Here’s the funny part, though. I know that my book wouldn’t have been as good if I’d stopped on the second draft. Yet when I try to describe even the full rewrite on that draft, most people tell me that I’m crazy, or a perfectionist. They’re boggled with the idea of doing it a third time. Writing is a long, hard slog, if you want your work to really shine. And it’s getting there.

    I think the secret is that when I was little, I heard that most writers do eleven rewrites of their book. I know this isn’t true now, but even so, I still think three drafts for a good book is great progress.

  11. Skribblegurl says:

    >I’ve been writing and editing my first novel for a total of five and a half years, which is fine as it was my very first that was presentable to show anyone outside my family.
    So currently, I’ve gone through a grammar edit and am grinding through a tough nuts and bolts (pov, loose prose, etc) edit while writing the sequel and plotting a third stand alone book. That way, I can do whatever I’m in the mood for–editing, creative writing, or bare bones plotting.
    I’m getting through the editing process because (even though I’m tired of this book!) of my system of doing what I want when I feel like it and I’m too stubborn to let it die.

  12. Anonymous says:

    >Alps, I agree it’s often harder to kill off an animal or pet than a person! In my novel, I couldn’t kill off a stray cat so I made her part of the plot and killed a rat instead. It worked not only cuz of the image but the symbolism. Whew!

    ps/When hiring editors, make sure they care more about preserving your voice than their pride/egos.

  13. John UpChurch says:


    That’s a good question, since no editor can divorce himself or herself (the ego) from the editing process. I’d love to say that I’m impartial, but that’s just not possible. However, good editors want to help you find your voice and remove or fix the parts that aren’t working; they discuss the issues with you enough that they understand what you are going for. No editor is perfect, but if they aren’t willing to hear what you’re trying to do, that’s not a good sign.

    Rachelle has a post with a list of editors in the left-hand column of the site.

  14. Richard Lexic says:

    >Not being a professional editor, I often have a hard time knowing when a novel is polished enough to be sent out to agents. I usually run through four different revisions where I go through and correct continuity errors, tighten up paragraphs, or remove sections that feel extraneous. But obviously there are some cases where extraneous detail ads verisimilitude to the world you are building, whether that world is real or not.

    As I’m trying to get my work published, I’m pretty much ready to jettison anything an editor feels should go- after all, the work doesn’t burst into flames just because I cut it. But how to know what to cut before someone else tells you it should go is another matter altogether.

  15. Amber Lynn Argyle says:

    >Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but I edit for the same reason I clean. I can’t stand messes. My story and characters simply deserve the best I have to give them.

  16. Laura D says:

    >My question is how do you find a really good editor? One who can be trusted to understand the work as a whole as well as in pieces? One who doesn’t want everything changed to be the book they should have wrote? One who isn’t allowing ego to get in the way of their job?

  17. kdk says:

    >My first draft took 3 months. 858 pages. So I thought since I’d written it relatively quickly, revising would be a breeze. I’d have the whole thing perfect in another 3 months. A year later, I stopped berating myself for having taken so long and thought it ready to go. Only then, I found out about word counts. Mine clocked in at a whopping 244k and no, it wasn’t a SF novel. So I had to cut and cut and cut. One scene was particularly painful as I had done massive research, going so far as to email an expert who lived in Asia. He’d sent me his 200 pg. dissertation which I dissected for needed info. Alas, all for nothing. Nevertheless, I pulled the whole thing out as it wasn’t crucial to the story line. Was it painful? Heck yeah. So much so, I had to wait a month to let the pain subside before tightening the gaping holes. And yet, I’m glad I did it. I got it down to 101k, 380 pgs and now it flows beautifully. I no longer have to worry that I’m an idiotic rambling writer who has no idea how to edit.* Now I just have to worry that my writing/story is good enough to publish.
    *blog comments don’t count.

  18. DCS says:

    >I am an unpublished novelist who has been writing seriously for two years. I am sending out queries on the first one, which I realize might never sell; editing the second one; and writing a third. I can tell that my writing has improved, so maybe I won’t have to kill off #3 when it comes time to take it to market. Maybe the first two will find homes. I find multi-tasking this way to be helpful in that I can always do something to push my career along: write new material, edit the old and polish my query letters while learning just how many agents are out there.

  19. Angela says:

    >Great post.

    One of the biggest blocks to get over is understanding that first drafts are supposed to feel like they suck as we write them and to keep going.

  20. Dara says:

    >My first drafts are horrible; nothing is cohesive because I am forever changing plot elements, adding/deleting characters, etc. as I go along. I’m sure that’s the wrong way to go about it, but I am keeping track of the changes made so when I go back again through the whole thing, I’ll see where changes were made.

    I’m actually in the process of re-evaluating my entire direction of the book since I’ve had to make so many changes.

    Now, what keeps the fire going is picturing the end result: a book that’s ready for submission and (hopefully!) for publication.

  21. Randy Mortenson says:

    >If revising is the work of marriage, then is setting aside a second or third draft (or getting published) divorce? Hmm. I’ve had some messy ones and some amicable ones, if that’s the case.

    I enjoyed Alps’s turtle story. Instead of “killing your babies” I’m going with “killing your turtles” from now on. Sure, we love our pets. But to others (our readers) they may be an annoyance and slow the narrative down.

    Built into the word “revision” is how I like to see it. Stepping back from a draft and re visioning it, seeing it anew and building and molding from there.

  22. T. Anne says:

    >James Scott Bell! I met you at the BEA last year, your workshop was GREAT! I love your valuable advise and refer to the notes I took in your workshop last year often.

  23. Chatty Kelly says:

    >This happened to me on an autobiographical article I had published. One paragraph, which I thought was very important, needed to be struck. At first I was upset, but my editor validated me by saying “I know this is important to you, but is it important to the reader?” Nope – it didn’t add anything to the story from the readers point of view.

    I figure I can have MY perfect story that will never be read in publication, or THE perfect story, by me, that will be read in publication. Sometimes you have to let go.

  24. Lady Glamis says:

    >Excellent post. Thank you so much. What keeps me going during revision? Well, revision is where I REALLY write the book. It’s all just rough draft crap at first. I see the vision of what I want the book to be, and I work towards that.

    Perhaps this is because I’ve been writing for awhile and know that first drafts are rarely perfect as is. In fact, I’ve never seen that happen. Ever.

  25. T. Anne says:

    >I just began revising one of my novels I hadn’t looked at in six months. I thought it was “clean” as it had gone through about four major revisions already. It was a mess. I couldn’t even hear the MC’s voice anymore. I was shocked at how much revising was still left to do but proceeded anyway. The novel has good bones, I like the underpinnings of the story, the MC and the resolution. There are still glimmers of hope in that monolithic text that make it worth while to me. I do refer to my novels as my paper children. They’re important to me and like any proud parent, I want to see them succeed. I’m going to put aside my WIP’s and focus on reformatting, rewriting, until every sentence sings to me. In this case I think it’s worth the effort.

  26. Kat Harris says:

    >Sometimes you simply have to kill your babies and move on. Never put anything above your ultimate goal: your best possible manuscript.

    This is why rejection — although it may sting at first — can oftentimes be a very good thing.

    If you’re open to it, it can make you take a long look at what might be wrong and take the steps to fix those errors.

    Great post.


  27. Lea Ann McCombs says:

    >James, your book Plot and Structure is on my nightstand! Thanks! Lots of good ideas.

    I actually look forward to revision–good thing, since it never seems to stop! Knowing I will revise forty million times before it’s good enough gives me the freedom to write a really horrid first draft and keep going.

    I heard it described as the first draft being the “naked toddler in you that wants to run free through the house.” The subsequent revisions are “the firm parent that loves the child too much to allow that kind of freedom for long.”

    That’s about the best explanation I’ve heard.

  28. Esther Jade says:

    >I quite enjoy revising once I figure out what needs fixing. I write out a checklist of all the things that need work and then go through it. It’s nice because I can focus on the weak aspects and fix them, rather than starting from scratch. I already know the plot and characters; now I just have to make sure the reader is getting from the story what I want them to get.

  29. Timothy Fish says:

    >My first drafts have improved, but I hate first drafts. Outlines and synopses aside, there’s just no way to know everything until the first draft is finished. The subsequent drafts are the fun part, when we get under the hood and start tinkering. It’s also when we get to experience the book. I love running across those forgotten nuggets in a story that catch me off guard and tickle my funny bone. It’s then that I know my timing is perfect, maybe not for everyone, but someone will laugh.

    I’ll agree with James’ thinking that developing the idea is falling in love, but I would say that the first draft is the wedding and editing is the marriage.

    From some of these comments, I’m getting the impression that editors have low expectations of writers. That’s good. What we really want is for editors to do all the work and still pay us. I think editors are spending too much time with the wrong writers. Revision isn’t just something that has to be done, it is what we do. If a writer doesn’t understand that, he isn’t much of a writer.

    Speaking only for myself, in response to Melinda Walker’s question, when I have time to write, I can finish a first draft in less than three weeks, the second draft in two to five days, the third and fourth drafts take one to two days each and the fifth draft takes about a day. But please note that can and do are not the same thing.

  30. Melinda Walker says:

    >Extremely timely topic for me as I will be starting the revision process on my first draft in a few weeks.

    When I must jump back to check or add something to the first draft, it’s hard not to be a little appalled by the rawness of the material. So I’m pretty sure my motivation will be to fix it to avoid the possibility of anyone ever seeing it.

    I’m wondering if anyone can give a ballpark timeframe of how long the second draft takes compared to the first draft. Doubtless, it’s individual with each writer, but I’d be interested to hear other’s experiences.

    Great additional material on your blog, John. I’m looking forward to perusing the archives and stopping by each week. Thanks so much!

  31. Anonymous says:

    >I look at revisions the same way a sculpter would look at a block of stone. I have the block, now I have to chip away the stuff I don’t need in order to find the work of art hiden inside all that stone.

    Cheers, Julie Rowe

  32. Karen Witemeyer says:

    >I’m one of those perfectionistic writers who has to edit and rewrite as I go. Makes for a slow writing pace, but leaves me with a well-polished draft.

    After James Scott Bell’s comment, though, it makes me wonder if maybe I’m in love with my marriage counselor. *Smile*

  33. Marla Taviano says:

    >Good stuff. Thanks!

    I know it’s obvious, but I have to let time go by before I revise. And them more time before I revise again. Helps me see which parts are truly great and which are just plain awful.

  34. John UpChurch says:


    We were just talking about your book. Thanks for the illustration—quite apt.


  35. Krista Phillips says:

    >I can’t imagine NOT editing. My first book I’ve edited for a year now and am still tweaking.

    At my first conference, I met with an editor and she asked what my next steps where. I told her they were to finish editing my book, start the next book, and find an agent.

    She acted surprised and said, “Good! a lot of authors don’t realize they need to edit their books, they just write them and go on to the next.”

    That just seems strange to me. If you’re trying to get a book published, wouldn’t you want it to be the best that you can write?

  36. James Scott Bell says:

    >Developing the idea is falling in love.
    Writing the first draft is marriage, newlywed style.
    Editing is marriage counseling. You go through it because you want it to WORK.

  37. Jen and Kev says:

    >What keeps the fire going on some days is what Ann Lamott says about crappy first drafts– that inspired me.
    Some days the fire is barely a flicker, and I just do it anyway, because I want to be excellent, not mediocre.

  38. Debra E Marvin says:

    >Rachel, I think ultimately you have to decide if you love that WIP enough to stick with it or move on.
    If you aren’t sure, then maybe you aren’t in love with it –know what I mean? I have a ms I’ve completed but put aside. The one I’m working on now? No way could I put it aside. So it’s worth every minute of editing to me.

  39. Randy Mortenson says:

    >Someone’s bound to mention Renni Browne and Dave King’s SELF EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, so I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way. 🙂 I much preferred THE WRITER’S MENTOR, edited by Ian Jackman, which has only one chapter devoted to rewriting. But it’s a highly enjoyable and (I found) inspirational book. I love author quotes, and here’s just one from the rewriting chapter….

    “It took me six years to finish [LEGS]. I wrote it eight times and seven times it was no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out it was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old and so was my novel and they were both the same height.” – William Kennedy

    Thanks for a great post, John!

  40. John UpChurch says:


    Some of the books that I’ve heard good things about are Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon. That said, I’d say everyone has a favorite when it comes to the “best” way to revise. Anyone else have some suggestions?

  41. lynnrush says:

    >The fire. Let’s see. I love editing because I get to put the flesh on things.

    After the first draft, it’s just a skeleton…as I edit, it’s nice to see the characters jump from the pages.

    Great post today.

  42. Rachel says:

    >I hope revising becomes easier when I get more confident in the value of my initial manuscripts. It’s hard to evaluate whether something is worth the kind of effort and overhaul that John describes or whether it would be better to start over on something else. Anybody have a good resource to recommend on revising? Several of my writing books have a chapter or so dedicating to rewriting and revising, but I would love to have more information.

  43. Katie says:

    >Revision is my favorite part!! It’s actually my downfall too – because I’ll write a chapter and instead of plugging along and finishing the ms – I get caught up in editing/revising the chapter (which I can spend days doing). I have been working on discipline – just crank out the first draft before I can start revising. Only when I finish, can I move on to the fun part. I do often have to cut A LOT from my first draft – and sometimes it is painful. I usually don’t “kill” my babies. Instead, I put them in “quarantine”. I cut and paste them into another word document, hoping to put them to use somewhere else. This fails to happen 99% of the time. But at least I can go visit them when I get the urge. 🙂

  44. Michael says:

    >Two comments for the price of one:

    (1) NEVER do business with relatives or friends. The business deal can kill the friendship or hurt the relationship…AND hurt the business.

    Years ago I sold something to a sister-in-law. She wanted to pay half of my wholesale cost, take 100 years to pay, get free delivery, free installation, and lifetime warranty. Even after a divorce and she was no longer a relative, there was pressure on me not to try to collect her debt because it might upset her kids.

    (2) When I was a writer on my college newspaper, I became the copy editor and got a job as a proofreader at the printer, so I could have complete control of my words, and no one else could mess them up. This also meant that no one else could correct the mistakes I missed — not a good way to work.

    When I was freelancing for Rolling Stone, I was always re-writing until the last possible minute. This was in the pre-fax, pre-email era, and I’d drive to the airport and pay to have my column air-freighted from NY to CA. There wasn’t much profit left.

    Words are almost toys for me, like a child’s building blocks, Lincoln Logs, Lego or Erector Set.

    Rewriting and editing — especially now with a computer — is fun. I love to play with words, to rearrange them and try alternatives.

    The danger is that a perfectionist never finishes anything. When I was working as an advertising copywriter, I was notorious for not “releasing” an ad until the last possible moment.

    Fortunately, someone older and wiser taught me a valuable lesson: sometimes “good enough” really is good enough, and I learned to let go.

    Now as a self-pubber who has to be a businessman as well as an artist, I realize that no money will come in if I don’t approve a proof and let a book start selling.

    However, I never stop editing.

    With P-O-D I can make improvements whenever I want to. While this means that a person who buys version 2.13 gets a better book than the person who bought 1.28, at least I know that each version was “good enough.”

    Michael N. Marcus

  45. Alps says:

    >This doesn’t answer the question, but a main character of mine had a pet turtle that she smuggled into the house for the summer.

    It was seriously hard for me to kill the turtle. Harder for me than most of the human characters I’ve had to kill off.

    But I did it.

    I knew in my heart that B.J. (the turtle) didn’t contribute enough to the plot and was slowing the pace of the story. Not just because he was a turtle, either.

  46. Mel Skinner says:

    >I cannot speak for anyone other than myself, but I believe what keeps the ‘fire burning’ for me during extensive rewriting is the same motivation that initiated my writing overall. A sort of personal demon(s) that drives me through endless difficulties, obstacles, and setbacks toward a goal. I cannot give up and I do not understand why, really. I only know that I have to keep on perfecting my craft, working toward my goal, and learning from my mistakes until I finally attain it. Or, at least, come far enough along so I can breathe normally again, if only for a little while. It is all very wearying I suppose, though I would not want to do anything else.

    Rewriting for me is simply part of an ongoing struggle. I do not so much look to keep the ‘fires burning’, as I know that I must and carry on. I guess what I am trying to say is that my own personal demons do not help, rather they demand that I keep the ‘fire burning’. 🙂


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