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Editor's advice 2 - Another draft...


Another draft...

Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. is a long-serving WritersServices freelance editor. This new series, based on the advice she has given writers over the years, deals with the most common problems she has encountered in the manuscripts which cross her desk.

In the second article Maureen writes about why she suggests another draft.

Why Does She Want Me To Write it All Over Again?

I have just finished writing a report on a novel. I’ve pinpointed various areas of weakness and made various suggestions that the writer may or may not wish to follow. But the nub of the report is a recommendation that the writer produce a further draft of the novel rather than trying to submit it to a publisher now.

I wonder sometimes how writers feel when they get my reports and see that recommendation. It must be very disheartening, when you’ve spent eighteen months sweating buckets over 150,000 words of fiction to have a report coming winging back, effectively saying ‘do it again’. Now, it could be that I just like making authors cry. Possibly, and I’m sure one or two writers do think that’s why I do it. However, rest assured I don’t make such recommendations lightly. A rewrite is a huge investment of time, and faith in what you’re doing, but it can pay dividends in terms of improving the novel. Here’s why I suggest doing it.

The trouble with writing a novel is that you’re living cheek by jowl with the thing, day in, day out. After a while, you lose any sense of proportion where it’s concerned. Think of it as being like someone auditioning for, oh, say The X Factor. What people hear in their heads as they sing is not necessarily what the audience and judges are hearing. Sometimes the result is downright terrifying. Sometimes a singer is just a little off-key and will improve with practice. It’s the same with a novel.

You know what you had in mind when you started to write it, you know what you were intending to put into the story, you think you can see it when you read the manuscript. But actually, what you see is perhaps not quite what’s on the page. I am your impartial listener, or reader, while I will be brutally honest, I may also have some ideas about how to improve things. However, it’s up to you to act on them, or not. And that’s where the second, the third, sometimes the fourth draft, sometimes more, come in.

There are all sorts of reasons why I might suggest writing another draft. It could be that the novel’s plot is a bit threadbare and you need to work on developing secondary plots, in which case another draft helps you to try out extra story ideas. Alternatively, you may have thrown in everything bar the kitchen sink, in which case writing another draft is a good way to prune out the excess material.

And I do mean ‘write’ rather than ‘edit’. The whole point of writing another draft is that it gives you a chance to work an idea through with fresh words. You may need to write another draft because that character you hadn’t given much thought to previously really needs to be brought to the centre of the stage. Or you’ve begun the story in entirely the wrong place and you need to start again in the right place.

There are a hundred reasons for writing another draft, all of them good. The point is, writing another draft is about practice, and writers need to practise as much as everyone else. It’s worth doing.

However, as there is a right way to produce another draft, so there is a wrong way too. I’ve had situations where I have identified particular problems in a novel, pointed out examples of what I mean to the writer and suggested a redraft. Back comes the novel a few weeks later (always a bad sign in itself) with the examples I’ve pointed out neatly corrected and the rest left exactly as they were before. That is not a redraft. That is an author taking a short cut. I can understand your impatience, but you’re not being fair to yourself if you take that route.

In fact, the best way to approach another draft is to do nothing with it for a few months. Really, I’m entirely serious. Shut the rejected manuscript in a drawer, ignore the siren rustle of its pages as it tries to attract your attention. Or save it on a disk, and put it away somewhere safe so you can avoid its fluttering pixels. Don’t stop writing, but write something else. If it’s your first novel that’s come winging back, start a second now. That is good practice too. Then, when the rejected novel is no longer fresh in your memory – three months should do it, six is even better – take another look at it. Cringe at all the terrible mistakes you made, then start rewriting it. In the end, it really is that simple.

An Editor's Advice 1 on Dialogue
An Editor's Advice 2 on doing further drafts
An Editor's Advice 3 on genre writing
An Editor's Advice 4 on planning
An Editor's Advice 5 on points of view
An Editor's Advice 6 on autobiography and travel
An Editor's Advice 7 on manuscript presentation

See also Maureen's many reviews of writing books in our Resources section.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian.

© Maureen Kincaid Speller 2007