5 ways to revise a 1st draft

Diving into my first draft revisions this time around feels freakishly different than last time.

The last time I started a second draft, it was 2012-ish (…WHAT IS TIME, YOU GUYS). I had never revised a novel before, and I thought I was going to shift a few commas around and have a bestseller on my hands.

It took me five drafts and three years to figure out that I am not, in fact, historical fiction Jesus. So, like, my first drafts? Yeah. They don’t come out perfectly the first time.

I know, right. *brains* *’splosions* *side-eye*


This whole learning-to-revise process has been really humbling for me, because I spent all 1.5 years of Privateer‘s first draft season getting instant feedback from my incredibly generous beta readers on Figment. A lot of it was positive. So I somehow got into the mindset that I was going to have minimal work to do, if any.

…omg, though.

As I start hail the pumpkin king edits, I want to be reasonable about my expectations.

But I also recognize that this novel is not like any I’ve written before. It’s a patchwork book. By that, I mean I didn’t write the first draft in chapters like I usually do; I wrote it as one long, 108K-word chapter, basically, with scene breaks every few pages or whenever I felt like it. I also wrote it entirely in lowercase (aside from names), without thinking about the nightmare that it would cause when Word decided to literally stop working.

Since my sole strategy for the first draft of HTPK was to finishI decided I needed to have a couple of strategies for the second draft. I’m posting them here just in case any of you find them remotely helpful:


Hey, you know that girl who’s talking to herself in the corner of the coffee shop, plugged into her laptop and totally oblivious to any and all annoyed stares? Hi, that’s me. Reason #4203984 why I should not be allowed out of my apartment.

In my defense, reading out loud helps me catch errors. Of which there are many.

I type really fast – like, up in the 100 WPM range – and I still skip words (usually articles like “a” or “the”, but sometimes I will also start sentences in the middle of other sentences, like a boss), because my fingers don’t move as quickly as my brain does when I get excited. I have the freaking cerebral cortex of a goldfish on speed.

I didn’t realize how often I skip words until I had a college writing professor actually require us to come to his office and read our final essays out loud to him while he sat and listened. True story. But because I got/get serious stage fright reading my own work out loud, I would practice beforehand. Just sitting at my desk, mumbling. It wasn’t a good look for me.



There are a lot of variants on this technique, but here’s how I do it:

I summarize every scene so that each fits on a single, color-coded Post-It note. And then I arrange and rearrange them on the giant blank, white wall in my room that I procrastinated decorating, until my novel’s structure freaking makes sense to someone other than me and my goldfish brain.

Blue is main plot/present time, green is flashback/historical anecdote, pink is dream sequence (this is specific to this book… there are a lot of dreams), yellow is a fairy story/interlude (also specific to this book).

Y'all, my room currently looks like it belongs to an actual crazy person.

LOL, this picture makes my process look so neat and Instagram-able, when currently my bedroom walls look like Office Depot and the set of Sherlock had a baby that exploded.

The reason why I’m doing this is because Post-Its are movable. As in, you can pick them up and put them down, shuffle and reorder them. With your hands. And as I have some kinesthetic learning tendencies, it helps me remember all my subplots to have to physically write out what each scene is about, and then cluster pieces of colored paper into chapters so I can see where there’s too much of one color or too little of another.

Admittedly, I’m also doing this because I am obsessed with Post-Its. And most… office supplies.


I totally cheated on world-building when I was first-drafting. I focused on character voices, and shied away from digging into the world of the fantasy land I’d created. This book may be character-driven (like most YA), but that doesn’t mean that the world should exist solely as an empty room to hold them.

The world of a novel is essentially another character in and of itself.

So this time around, I’m going to dig in. I’m going to ask the ‘why’ questions (Why does this happen instead of that? Why is this a tradition that is accepted by the characters? Why does magic function in this way in this world?) and I’m going to ask the ‘how’ questions (How did this character relationship come about, even if it began “off-screen”? How do the rules of the world shape the interactions between two characters from different social classes? How is the environment of this world playing into the power dynamics that move the plot forward?). 

I’m going to throw things. I’m going to cry, probably. It’s gonna be great.


I have a habit of cutting words without saving them, thinking I’ll never need them again. Even after doing five drafts of the same novel, it’s still not second nature for me to save my cuts. It’s astonishing. My subconscious is determined to make my life difficult.

So in this draft I will save my cuts, but more than that, I’m saving my gems, my little unicorns that appear out of the depths like magic and remind me that I can occasionally write a thing. I’ll appreciate the shockingly coherent lines that I wrote at 2 AM and forgot about. I’ll save my literary narwhals, and I’ll hopefully remember why the hell I am putting myself through this again.


A few years ago, I sat in a room with Neil Gaiman while he spoke to a group of nerds (I am included among said nerds) and said this about first drafts and revisions:

“Remember, if you’ve ever made a pancake, there’s always that first pancake – where it turns out like something that doesn’t look like a pancake. It’s lumpy, weird, and black, and you either feed it to a child or eat it yourself. Writing is like that. Rewriting is about making yourself look clever.”

So. I’m giving myself permission to do a read-through without editing.

This. Is so. Hard for me. (Come to think of it, this should have been step #1, but my life isn’t in order so why should this list be.)

I haven’t touched this book since October 2015; I need a little refresh before I can properly become a Post-It-obsessed lunatic. I need to give myself space to find out what this book is really about, see the themes that I accidentally threw in and didn’t develop (as I always do), and fall in love with it again. Enjoy the lumpy, weird pancake. Etc.

Those are my strategies for Draft 2. Do you have different strategies/goals for different drafts? Or do you have one blanket set of rules for revisions? Share them in the comments! I’mma steal them. #SaveTheNarwhals #LumpyWeirdPancake

Samantha Chaffin 


10 thoughts on “5 ways to revise a 1st draft

  1. Olivia S says:

    I’m almost done my first draft and already feeling daunted by the thought of editing… I’m out of practice, too, and reading this helped put my brain back in that place again – you have some awesome ideas! I esp love the reading aloud one. And I like the idea of just reading it through once before editing… giving yourself a little time to enjoy it before you begin making major overhauls. Do you take notes during the read through, or no? I think I’d find so many things to fix and be afraid that I’d forget them if I didn’t… but maybe that would be a good thing somehow (?)
    Speaking of which, that’s my major editing strategy. Notes. Lots of them. It helps me not to explode when I have 45288 things to fix and only two hands+one keyboard. I have a list already, (because I don’t edit during 1st drafts but I already have lots of details to fix…)

    anyway, super helpful post! much love. 🙂

    • samchaffin says:

      I totally feel you, girl. So glad that my obsessive strategizing was helpful in any way!

      I do take notes (usually about stuff that I know I won’t remember if I just gloss over it) but I forbid myself from actually making the edits right then and there! Because otherwise I get sucked into the black hole, never to resurface. Haha, but I also keep a list of things I need to add/remember to the next draft at the end of every draft of mine. The number of Word documents in any one of my novels’ folder is kind of insane.

      Thanks for sharing a bit of your process! I love hearing about it! Much love. ❤

  2. Tracey Joseph says:

    Great tips, especially the one about reading it aloud. I’m currently editing my NaNo novel. I found editing chapter by chapter, separating each chapter into its own document, works well for me. At least, so far.

    • samchaffin says:

      So glad you found them helpful! Yessss, the reading out loud thing definitely feels weird when you first start. But it’s so much easier to catch typos when you’re not silently mentally filling in the blanks, you know?

      And yes, I actually did that with my last novel! I will probably split the chapters into different docs again with this novel, but first I need to actually *ah-hem* separate the novel into chapters. Ha. Ha-ha.

      Good luck with your NaNo novel!! 🙂

  3. Alyssa @ The Devil Orders Takeout says:

    OMG, this is so great. I use the post-it alternative of powerpoints — I always like to make little edits to the post-its so it didn’t work, but electronically I can still drag everything around. I definitely need to work on worldbuilding, but maybe in the next draft. Also YES TO THE NARWHALS. I post these to Twitter to keep myself motivated 😀

    • samchaffin says:

      That’s a great tip about using Powerpoint! I’ve also used this website called Listhings.com, which has been a pretty good alternative for me when I needed to digitize everything.

      And YES NARWHALS OMG. I ❤ your Twitter narwhals. Yours, Emily Warren's, Topaz's, Christina's… they all make my life better.

  4. aimeemeesterwrites says:

    Oh, I totally read my stuff aloud. And look insane for it, but hey, I pretty much already have that reputation. But I can’t think of another way to catch all the errors I make that my brain likes to skim over, so there we go. My second drafts are usually just total re-writes, though — it’s easier for me to figure something out if I give myself a blank slate, now that I’ve figured out all the stuff I want to change and what my story is really about.

    • samchaffin says:

      YAS GIRL. So glad that I am not alone in the crazy rambling read-alouds-to-myself. Haha I remember at one point I had a college roommate (now my best friend) who used to read her essays and research papers aloud to herself in our room while I was there. And every time, I would think she was talking to me. And she’d have to explain that, no, Sam, everything is not always about you.

      That’s really interesting that your D2’s are usually total rewrites. How does that affect your D3?

  5. Topaz says:

    Reading my stories aloud is truly my saving grace, tbh. I am a madly fast-paced typer, like you, and so I tend to either type articles twice or forget them altogether. (It’s normal, I swear!) Actually taking the time to speak the story helps save me from some slightly awkward encounters with readers. 😉

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