How to gain perspective on your first draft
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
You’ve finished your first draft and you’re wondering, Is it any good?
To evaluate your work and figure out what you want to change, you have to get some emotional and psychological distance on it. You have to read it as if you’ve never read it before. If this sounds impossible, stay with me for some ideas to try.
But first, celebrate your accomplishment! You’ve created something from nothing. You didn’t just talk about writing a book some day, you actually did it. That takes commitment and perseverance. Countless would-be writers have yet to do what you have done.
The next stage of writing is called “revision,” which literally means “to see again.” To see what you’ve actually written, not what you think you've written, you’ll have to shift from writer mind to editor mind. There are different levels of editing, and what you need to do now is “big picture” editing. Resist the urge to fiddle with words and sentences, as absorbing as that might be. Instead, you want to step back and see the manuscript as a whole — not to judge it and find it wanting, but to see what's really there and make choices about what to change.
Middle French reviser, from Latin revisere to look at again, frequentative of revidēre to see again, from re- + vidēre to see
Get into the revising mindset
You’ve already revised your writing as you went along, so revising is nothing new. But this stage does call for a more analytical or "critical" approach. By "critical," I'm not inviting you to unleash your inner critic, but to think critically. If you dread reading your work with a critical eye and you’re prone to negative self-talk, try to adopt an attitude of positive neutrality. Your goal is to look objectively at your work without running it or yourself down, or less likely, inflating your accomplishments. If your manuscript still needs work, that’s not surprising. It doesn’t mean that you’re a lousy writer. It just means that you can make this manuscript better. In the process, you’ll also get better at your craft.
Take a break
Set your manuscript aside for long enough that you’re not pulled into echo chamber of the writing mind as you read it.
How long the break should be depends on your writing habits. If you write in a fluid stream without constantly stopping to rewrite sentences and paragraphs, you will have built “time away” into the writing process itself. Your first draft might be a mess, but it won’t be a mess that you've worried over. Your first pages will still be fairly new to you, and so you can read them right away with fresh eyes.
But if you’re the type of writer who has to perfect a sentence before moving on to the next one, by the time you finish your draft the words will be embedded in your brain, and you'll be very attached to them. Each polished sentence imposes an inexorable order on the next sentence, and the next, and it may be gut-wrenching to change anything. If you realize after the draft is done that there are structural problems, you have to shake yourself loose from the lovely language and try again. And to do that, you’ll need time away.
Try to give yourself a few weeks, or however long it takes for you to come back to your manuscript as a reader, not as the writer.
Change the look and feel of the manuscript. If you’ve only worked onscreen, print out the pages so that you handle them as a physical object. If you’ve already worked with a printed copy, change the font, margins or spacing so that the pages look different. Use an e-reader so that you can read only.
Spread your pages on the floor or tape them on a wall, then scan the typography for too much sameness — too many long paragraphs or sentences, too many short paragraphs or sentences, too much white space or not enough. To assess a particular aspect of the story, such as the distribution of scenes, highlight them all in yellow. The pattern of colour can tell you whether there are too few scenes or too many.
Go somewhere other than your usual writing place to read the manuscript. A café, the library, or just a different room in your own home. If you can afford it, you could even go on a mini retreat. Going out refreshes the spirit, so it might well refresh the critical eye, too.
Read the manuscript out loud to yourself. Do you stumble over the words? Are you tempted to skip bits and revise on the fly? That's a sign that something isn't working.
Read aloud to a friend or writing buddy. The mere presence of someone else can make you conscious of how the story sounds to a reader. In addition to your buddy's feedback, you'll sense the weak spots yourself.
Try recording yourself and listening as if to an audiobook. Or ask a friend to record it for you so that you can hear the story in a different voice. Does your voice still come across the way you intended? Don't lie down and rest in your cozy place. Listen with alertness.
When to share your draft is a personal choice. Some writers like to keep their work to themselves because talking about it dilutes their energy. Other writers are revitalized by passing their pages to a writing group or trusted friend and getting feedback early on. For feedback from someone who doesn't know you, you could send your draft to a beta reader.
There's no right or wrong, but I suggest taking your draft as far as you can before contacting an editor. You don't want to pay an editor to tell you what you already know!
The good news
No matter how you approached the first draft, the good news is that writing is a forgiving art. You’re not working with cement or stone, but with words as fluid as water. In writing, unlike in life, you have as many chances as you need.
Have you tried any of these methods of gaining distance on your manuscript? Do you have other tricks to share? Please leave a comment.