It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?

Why you never really lose ten percent in the second draft.

I’m in the middle of editing my third novel, Helter Skelter at the moment. I’m creating a second draft. So what does that mean exactly?

Good question. A draft means different things to different people. I regularly dip back into my story and sand down different parts of it, like a fisherman repairing a boat on the shore before setting out to sea. I read through, notice spelling mistakes, improving sentence structure, add fancy twirls. Some people would call this line editing. Others would call this drafting, but I wouldn’t. Really, this is tinkering. Drafting is the moment you commit to sea-changing your book for the better.

A couple of weeks ago I had a coffee with my fabulous agent, who edits my work ahead of submission. Never be fooled by fabulous and lovely editors though: they create a lot of work. Why? Because they’re in the business of making your manuscript better. Here are the notes my agent made while we talked about the story I’m working on:


Just a few words, right? Wrong. These few scribble equate to a lot of work, and a bit of heartache. They involve moving charactors from one part of the story to another, changing their interactions and motivations. Hiding parts of their personalities from the reader until later on, and generally strengthening the plot and experience.

Would I bother going to all this trouble unless I trusted my agent? No. But I do trust her, so the hard work begins.

One of those literary cliches which gets right up my nose (like the tired old overly-truism that you must alway show not tell) is that you’ll be sure to reduce your novel’s word count by ten percent in the second draft. Says who, exactly? I understand the point and sentiment of this: go through your work and deflab it. A sentence which you can write in twenty seven words can not only be shortened but also powered up to give it extra punch with fewer words in a second draft. You’ll add impact and shorten sentences to twelve words in draft 2.

But here’s what they don’t tell you: If your second draft is about improving the plot, not just checking spelling and grammar (which MS Word should mostly have done already) then losing ten percent of your wordcount is not really about deleting ten percent of your words.

Instead, it’s about unpicking your plot and losening it up so that you can squeeze new ideas into the gaps, and weave them imto the original plot. It’s about finding new pace and tension and rhythm, and then tightening the whole thing up again. So losing ten percent is really about adding five percent, ruthlessly cutting about twenty to forty percent (depending on whether your first draft was a work of genius or not) and then adding another five percent after that.

Oh, and in a nutshell, it’s bloody hard work.


3 comments on “Why you never really lose ten percent in the second draft.

  1. Pete Denton
    March 24, 2013

    Like you say, I think it depends on your style whether you will add or remove from your total wordcount. I do cut a lot of the words, but add equal number, it’s about honing the writing, making it better. Good luck with the next draft. It is BLOODY hard work 🙂

  2. beautifulorange
    March 24, 2013

    Great post. Thanks for sharing… it’s always interesting to get an insight from someone who’s doing what the rest of us wish we were doing!

    I was dreading going back to write my second draft but since I’ve started posting on here I’m now actually looking forward to it. Maybe I’m just a masochist!

  3. simon
    March 25, 2013

    stop whinging and get on with it… i am waiting for my 5%

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2013 by in Books, Editing, media, My Books, Research, Writing and tagged , , , , , , .
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