Cathy and I spent the afternoon clearing out our landscaping, which mostly involved cutting away old growth to make way for new growth this spring. It strikes me that moving from a first draft to a second one involves a similar process. After we know exactly what our piece is exploring, we have to cut the old to prepare for the new. The old—that scene, that image, that line, that thought—has served us well. It’s made possible the complete draft that we have before us. We should thank it for its service and file it away somewhere for possible future use. We should, then, turn our attention to what wants to grow up in the space we’ve created by removing that which no longer has a role to play in the second draft.
Here are some questions we should ask ourselves in our second drafts:
- Are there new scenes to be written? Has something become clear to us about the piece after getting initial responses from trusted readers, or from our own insightful reading? This is a chance for us to do what I call writing away from the first draft. Open a new file and write those new scenes without worrying about how they may fit into the next draft. This is a chance to see what else there is to dramatize.
- Do all the details fit? Some distance from your first draft may give you a better understanding of how all the details work toward a coherent whole. If something doesn’t fit—if it isn’t earning its place—it has to go. Again, save it for possible future use.
- Does something need to be re-arranged? What may at first seem like an ineffectual scene, line, character, thought, detail, or image may actually be the result of it coming at the wrong place in the piece. Think about how each section, each scene, each thought, each line makes possible the next. Make sure you have all your ducks in a row as you make possible the end of the piece.
- Do the characters contain surprises? Characters become memorable when they surprise us with what they say or do or think. To have dimension, they must at some point act against the expectations we have for them. They might even surprise themselves. A second draft is a chance for us to make sure we’ve seen everything there is to see about our characters, even if we’re talking about ourselves in a piece of creative nonfiction.
- Does the end resonate? The second draft is a chance for us to know what emerges at the end that’s memorable—something present from the beginning but submerged; something that takes the pressure of plot, or detail, or language, or thought to bring it to the surface. Not only do we face the question of what resonates, we also have to consider how to keep the surprising thing hidden as long as we can as well as how we can plant the seeds throughout the piece for its eventual growth.
An overgrown landscape will choke out the plants, or at least diminish them. We can say the same about an overgrown piece of writing. Cutting out what no longer belongs can make space for exciting new writing that will help the piece more fully realize its intentions. I hope these five questions help you think about what comes next in the second draft.