We're always grateful to our contributors, and especially to Libby Drew for this great article on traveling with Dorothy from a first to a second draft. Enjoy!
The Writer’s Yellow Brick Road: Journey from First to Second Draft
First drafts are often wordy. We make them that way because at the divine moment we’re crafting a scene, adding words is the only way to get the details across. Soliloquies abound. Descriptions clutter. Characters chatter. We pour thousands of words onto the page, reveling when the moving, Technicolor scene in our head has been perfectly translated to the reader, undiminished. It’s beautiful freedom.
Second drafts hurt. These edits are by far the most painful because now we must hack into our beloved masterpiece to find the balance between overblown poeticism and straight-forward clarity.
When editing, keep in mind the reader’s motivation for choosing a story. They want to make it theirs. That’s the great philosophical unfairness of being a writer. What connects a person to the written word isn’t what we tell them, it’s what they envision. Let them choose their own details. Don’t always encumber them with yours.
How do we find that balance? Well…with extensive editing, time, and experience. Isn’t that encouraging? It should be. (Don’t roll your eyes.) Every writer can do this. Every writer can excel at this. No special credentials required.
Here are a couple of tips and examples to get started:
1. Avoid, when you can, adverbs and qualifiers. Allow your writing to carry the scene.
We may think we’re illuminating the reader when we add adverbs and qualifiers, but often we’re spoon-feeding. There’s no need to qualify. Trust me. Here’s a bare-bones example:
Suzy’s father has been murdered. At his funeral, Suzy doesn’t need to “weep with profound loss”. Her brother doesn’t need to “scowl with disapproval” at her dramatics. Her mother shouldn’t be “twisting the pearls at her neck nervously.” Friends shouldn’t be “whispering softly” or “studying each of them with suspicion”. Give your reader some credit.
“Suzy wept on her knees by the closed casket. Her brother stood over her, scowling, the toes of his shoes brushing her wrinkled dress. In the shadows amongst the flower arrangements, their mother kept vigil over them both, twisting her heirloom pearls around her fingers while friends of the deceased gossiped about which one of the three had killed him.”
Why is the casket closed? Why is Suzy’s brother standing so close to her? Is the mother’s watchfulness concern for her children’s behavior or something else entirely?
My point is: questions are good. They invest the reader and give the story depth. No two people, having read the above scene, will come away from it with identical impressions. They won’t agree on what type of dress Suzy is wearing or whether the pearls are salt or fresh-water. They’ll argue over the décor, the color of the casket, and the types of flowers.
But I promise they will all understand Suzy has experienced a profound loss (or so she wants everyone to believe), her brother disapproves, her mother is nervous, and the friends are discussing their suspicions quietly. Dialog and narrative alone should be enough to ascertain what the characters are feeling. If they aren’t, rewrite.
Not all qualifiers and adverbs are bad. But most are superfluous. Scrutinize each and err on the side of “not needed”.
2. Eliminate unnecessary words.
Advice we’ve all heard: cut unnecessary words; they add nothing. Actually, it’s worse: they bog down narrative. They muddy the scene. They make our writing less effective. And even though they were imperative for the first draft—when the story is spilling sublimely and flawlessly onto the page (smirk)—cut them.
These edits can be even more difficult than the ones suggested above. We’re often too attached to our work to identify dispensable words. Our best friend is time—taking a few days (or longer, if we can stand it) and coming back to the story with a fresh set of eyes will help. Read aloud. Once on the lookout for certain offenders, they’re easier to spot.
Here’s a short list of words and phrases that expand word count needlessly and weaken narrative:
As a matter of fact
It could happen that, As it happened
It is interesting to note, Interestingly
It is possible that, Possibly
In all likelihood
Without changing the meaning of a sentence, you can almost always cut:
Every one of us has been seduced by lush descriptions and adjective-heavy scene-building. We’ve also been swept away by tightly-woven, concise storytelling—the sort that leaves a firm idea of character, plot, and setting without having it spelled out. Which is better? As with most things, balance is key, but solid editing tips the scales.
The first step to a breathtaking story is a well-crafted one. From there, all is possible.