Writing a book can be a lot of work. I’ve talked before about how even a complete amateur can get through a first draft in as little as three months with just a couple hours of work per day, but chances are you were thinking, plotting, planning, and obsessing over that manuscript for months, and probably years, before you ever wrote down the first chapter. That’s a lot of investment, and it’s not uncommon for a first book to take years to write when you’re just starting out (or are named George R. R. Martin, but that’s another story).

When you put that much of your heart and soul into a project, tearing it all down to do it again is daunting. “Will it actually improve?” “Is this the best I can do?” “Why redo it from scratch when the story is complete?” “Can’t I just, y’know, edit it a bit?” “What if I spend more time doing it right the first time?” “If it needs rewriting, doesn’t that mean it sucks and I’m a terrible writer?”

The answer to those questions, in order, are: yes; no; because it’s not actually from scratch; no author is that perfect; then you’re actually wasting time and effort; and stop telling yourself that.

One of my favorite quotes from G. K. Chesterton (though, to be fair, I have a lot of favorite Chesterton quotes) is if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. It doesn’t mean to not put in the effort, but rather that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing even if you suck at it.

Let me let you in on an open secret. Your first draft always sucks. No matter how good it is — and experienced authors can get some very good first drafts — the first iteration of any story can always be improved. You always missed something. You can always make it sound better. It might even need a complete rewrite, where you start over using your first draft as a roadmap; or it might be a complete rewrite of your third, fourth, fifth, or fifteenth draft, after you’ve changed so many things here and there that it’s the only way to hide the stitches.

At some point, you’ll hit diminishing returns; but having to do multiple drafts isn’t a sign of a bad writer. You’re not failing. By definition, you’re improving. Don’t agonize over getting the first draft perfect from the start. As you get more experience, your first drafts will get better, but the goal of the first draft isn’t perfection. It’s getting the story down.

If necessary, your first draft doesn’t even have to be 100% complete. Not sure how to write a scene, but you know how it ends up? Write a quick summary and move on to the next one. You know you need a chapter focusing on a particular character or event in order to set up the ending, but you need to write the climax first to know where it’s all going? Cool, just write “Awesome Chapter Here” and come back later. Do you have a dialog-heavy scene and you’re worried about White Room Syndrome? Don’t worry, you don’t have to LARP as Hemmingway, you can come back later and put in more stuff about character actions and furnishing the room; just write it out in script form so you don’t get distracted on choosing the right dialog tag or remembering whether this particular character drinks decaf in a blue mug or if he should be a tea drinker instead.

My authors are used to a simple little marker I put in for future edits, and I strongly suggest copying it. I got it from someone else, who attributed it to Jim Baen, who probably wasn’t the one to start using it. It’s just this: ///. Three slashes. It’s an easy key to hit, it can’t be confused for anything else, and it’s easy to search for. If you don’t know what to name some incidental person, call them /// for now. Don’t know what to call the fancy bottle of fictional wine? That’s okay, it’s named “/// wine” for now. Not sure what the ship’s engineer is supposed to say needs a four-day repair job but he’ll get it done in two? “Captain, the ///part/// is blown and I’ll have to ///technobabble/// the entire assembly!” Come back later after you’ve figured out what to say or a real-world engineer filled it in for you.

That’s not to say that you can skip over everything. Ten years ago this month (I remember it quite vividly) I had to walk an author through a massive rewrite of the first half of Act Two in her latest book because she had a courtroom sequence and she had absolutely no idea how a criminal case was supposed to go. She’d even wanted to keep it vague as to what state it took place in, not realizing how many different variations each US state has when it comes to the crime in question. It took a week of ten-hour days and two consulting criminal attorneys to make certain that the sequence went the way she wanted it to go. However, that’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about here; if it’s so vital to the plot that everything else depends on it, then it should be part of your prep work even as a discovery writer. If not, mark it for later and move on.

It is far, far more important to get your thoughts down. Even the most obsessive outliner can still hit hitches in the plot or through character development or realize there’s some important research that got missed. The more you can focus on the structure of the story and not stress about the incidentals, the better your story will be in the end. The faster you get through the first draft, the more excited you will be to come back to it, because it wasn’t a slog in the first place. That’s why I said earlier that spending extra time making your first draft better is actually a waste of your time. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Your second draft is when you start making it work better. Check the story structure. Make sure the pacing is correct. You might have to move stuff around, write new scenes, delete things that went nowhere, and make certain setups get paid off and payoffs get set up. Consult with alpha readers, especially the subject matter experts who can help you firm up the secondary worldbuilding by checking US Marine tactics, or the sequence needed to land a plane, or how a warrant needs to be executed.

Your third draft is likely going to be where you start making it pretty. That’s when you firm up who’s got a beard and what clothing they wear, what they eat and drink, and what you name that particular style of swordfighting. It’s where you decide on things like asked versus requested, check for repetitious words, and put in some choice phrases about the mountains in the distance during that romantic sunset scene.

The third draft won’t be complete, but now you can send it off to the beta readers. Betas are your test audience. You’re not looking for them to poke holes in the story; instead, ask them to write down a specific set of reactions. Steve Diamond has a simple “ABCDE” list, though I’ll modify it slightly and add an F:

  • A: What was awesome?
  • B: What was boring?
  • C: What was confusing?
  • D: What was dumb?
  • E: What was excessive?
  • F: What was flimsy?

You don’t want to make them feel like they’re doing homework, and you also don’t want to slog through their notes if they tend to be the wordy types. You want to know what they liked and what they didn’t like; the parts of the story that were too much and the parts that need to be expanded. The ABCDEF list lets them just mark one single word as a document comment, and if you don’t know what they meant you can always ask for clarification later.

Plus, if you’ve got ten beta readers, and five of them marked a scene as Awesome, one called it Confusing, and the other four didn’t say anything at all, you can tell at a glance that it’s probably okay to leave as it is unless you really want to know more detail. On the other hand, if you had the opposite feedback, then something’s definitely wrong and you have to figure out what.

When that’s all done, it’s time for a fourth draft. If all’s going well and you didn’t need a major rewrite, you’ll be ready to send it off to a publisher. If you’re self-published, though, you probably had an editor involved by now; and if you’re doing serialized web fiction, you’re likely publishing your third draft online anyway, and the comments are your beta reads; but I’ll talk about web publication at a later date.

As you get more experience, you’ll need fewer drafts; I’ve noticed that the more experienced the author, the less they get hung up on indecision in the first draft anyway and so the line between first and second (in the sequence I outlined above) gets blurred, and they have less need for beta readers especially when they’re several books deep into a series (while a first book in a new series tends to have more beta reads). I know of two very experienced, very professional writers in the same genre who started around the same time; one has pretty much minimal drafts and almost no betas, while the other goes through massive rewrites and has lots of eyeballs on it. Both make a lot of money, but the latter makes much more, so depending on feedback and rewrites isn’t exactly a mark of failure.

So don’t think you’re not a real author because you need to put so much work into it. You’re a real author. Or you will be, when you finish a book. You can’t edit something you never wrote. Get the story down first. Perfect it later.