If you’re like me, rough drafts are like love affairs. You pour your passion onto the page, writing quickly as you try and get the emotion of your story onto the page. But after everything’s said and done, by the last page you’re not quite sure what you’re left with. There’s good intentions in those first drafts, but they often lack structure and perfection.
In order to turn your novel into a doting significant other, you need to spend a lot of time with it. Specifically, writing and rewriting until you’ve got a cohesive, moving story instead of a piece of work riddled with plot holes and clunky characters.
Whether I’m rewriting a novel or screenplay, the process is always the same. I’ve written (and rewritten) six novels and five features at this point, and I’ve finally settled on a foolproof system that works for me. Use what works for you and disregard what doesn’t: writing is a craft we must learn for ourselves.
Here are my six steps to rewriting your own work:
1. Get the big picture. After you’ve set aside your novel or screenplay for at least a month. You need to be able to see your project with fresh eyes and distance yourself. Then, read your work in one sitting. Some writers like to print out their work — for me, I like to read through it on my computer so I can fix minor distracting typos while I read, otherwise they’ll drive me crazy. Do not take notes on this first read through. Seriously, don’t. Just read like a reader would, and then take a few broad notes after you’re done.
2. Create an outline. Now, read through your work again, this time creating an outline and taking notes as you go. This outline will help you check to see:
- Whether or not the timeline of your story makes sense
- If there are any glaring plot holes or inconsistencies
- If there are scenes that can be cut
- If a subplot is commandeering the entire story
- If your protagonist is actively solving problems or just kind of wandering throughout the story aimlessly
3. Create a revision checklist. Going through your outline and taking notes during your second readthrough will most likely unearth a host of problems that look pretty daunting. That’s why I find it useful to boil down angry notes like “WHY DID I WRITE THIS CHARACTER HE DOES NOTHING” into more actionable (and friendly) checklist items like “get rid of Todd’s character.” Having a checklist also helps guide your rewrites. You also have to admit that it feels pretty satisfying to check things off of your list, crossing them off like you have something to prove.
4. Write a new draft. Go through your draft scene by scene, rewriting everything and addressing your notes. You may need to expand scenes or cut them — don’t be afraid to experiment and try different directions for characters and subplots. Always ask yourself, “how can I make this scene/chapter/character/plot twist BETTER?” Don’t settle for good, go for great.
5. Give your draft to a trusted beta reader. This is somebody who will be honest with you, but will also give you constructive feedback and understand that your work is still early in the revision process. Ask your beta reader to take some notes on your novel or script. The three things you should always ask your beta readers are:
- Does my story make sense?
- Do you feel for the characters?
- Can I improve this story?
The answer to question three should always be “yes.” Once you get a “no,” you’re getting closer to a final draft.
6. Compile notes and do a new draft. Read the notes your beta reader gave you, thank your reader for their time, and set the notes aside for several days. You need space from these notes before you figure out which ones to address. If your reader didn’t understand your plot or thought that the character you killed off on page 2 should be the real protagonist — well, these notes are hard to take because they come with a lot of rewriting. But if they’re right for your story, you should follow them. After taking some time away to, say, do those dishes you’ve been neglecting, you’ll be able to rethink your story and figure out what improvements to make. Then, when you’re ready, make a new revision checklist and go for round two.
By now, you should have a solid draft you can continue to workshop with more beta readers/victims. Reaching a final draft can seem like an impossible feat at times, but know that every draft you do brings you a step closer to how your story is meant to be told. Hang in there, drink lots of coffee, and enjoy your work. Not everyone gets this far — and seeing your words come together into a polished novel or screenplay is one of the best victories out there.