The Second Draft (Is Not a Draft)

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Take Helen Sinclair's (Dianne Wiest) advice and "Don't Speak!" about your work in progress.

Congratulations, you now have a first draft, the raw materials for your Story.

The first draft is what Steve Pressfield calls “covering the canvass.”  It has nothing to do with anyone else but you.  Refrain from talking about your first draft or any particular section or sentence you recall fondly from it to any outsider…even your spouse.

You’ll probably end up cutting or changing the best parts or lines anyway and there is definitely something to not voicing creative work until you’ve thrashed it out until you’re, if not satisfied, exhausted.

When your friends ask, “How’s the book coming along?” just smile and say, “I’m making progress.”  Leave it at that.  If they press you for details just say that you are a superstitious person and that you made a pact with yourself that you won’t talk about the work until it’s ready for other eyes.  When they ask when that will be, you can say, probably after about five drafts.  Then get out of the conversation.  If you can avoid it, and I highly recommend you do, don’t tell them anything about the project.  Not a title, not a concept, nothing.

I can’t tell you how many writers, myself included, who regret saying anything about their works in progress.  I’ll tell you why.  You cannot “pitch” a project that is not complete.  You’ll inevitably screw it up or worse, fudge it and recast it to please your audience.

And when you get back to your desk the next day, you’ll feel like shit.  You’ll feel like you’ve betrayed the work that you’ve already done.  Pulled off the towel and revealed the naked truth of it…that it’s half-baked, it’s derivative etc.

The fact is that your first draft and/or notes on writing the first draft aren’t even close to half-baked.  You are merely pulling together the ingredients to make something later on.  How can you describe a brand new kind of cake if you haven’t made it yet?  You can’t.  So be quiet.  The first draft and everything in your head that is swimming around on the entire project is sacred.  If you can, don’t even tell anyone that you’re writing.  Seriously.

Okay, so now you have a blob of material called a first draft.  You have no idea if any of it is working.  You don’t know where the problem areas are, nor do you know the strengths of the work either.  How can you possibly figure that out?

The first thing I’ll advise is NOT to begin on page one and start polishing the prose.  The prose is the last thing you should worry about.  It’s the subject of however many you need drafts later on, to be confident that you are writing your best line-by-line possible. It is the furthest thing you should worry about now.

Here is a truth I discovered over twenty-five years or so:


If you take that truth to heart (you won’t really until you’ve ignored this advice at least five times), it will save you from a lot of pain.

That doesn’t mean what I’m going to tell you to do will be easy.  It’s extremely time consuming and difficult work and at times you will curse my stupid methodology and me and abandon it.

You’ll go back to it, though, sooner than you think.  I know it.

Because when you do do it, you’ll grow immeasurably as a writer.  When you’re through with THE SECOND DRAFT THAT ISN’T EVEN A DRAFT, you’ll look back at the way you used to work, shake your head and cringe.


It’s Editing.  Here is something right off the bat about Editing that you need to understand:


Here’s something else you need to know:

Editing is an extremely analytical, objective, left-brain skill.

Writing, though, is a creative, no-holds-barred, subjective, right-brain skill.

Don’t try and Edit and Write at the same time.

It won’t work.

I you do, you will quit in despair.  No matter how much progress you think you’re making as you grind through your sentences, paragraphs and scenes flip-flopping between the two disciplines.

You’re probably nodding your head in complete agreement now, but when the times comes to begin work on THE SECOND DRAFT THAT ISN’T EVEN A DRAFT you’ll ignore this advice and you’ll make the mistake of Editing a little bit and then writing shortly thereafter. You won’t be able to help it.

That’s okay.  You need to make that mistake.  You’ll make it a lot.

But after you’ve made it a bunch of times, you’ll come to understand this fundamental thing about Editing.


Now the beautiful part of this onerous task is that when you finish THE SECOND DRAFT THAT ISN’T EVEN A DRAFT (EDITING), you’ll have a prescriptive list of fundamental things that have to address in the first draft of your Story.

You’ll have the equivalent of a building inspector’s punch list of fundamental structures that you have to fix in your Story Building.  It is not remotely about line-by-line sentence polishing. Editing is about seeing the macro and the micro of your Story structure so that you can shore up the weak spots, and spotlight the innovations.

So what are the beginning, middle and end of Editing? How do you complete THE SECOND DRAFT THAT ISN’T A DRAFT?

Well, I’ve spent the last six months or so at to explain what it is editors do.   And the website is the basis of my upcoming book The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, which is just about to go to the printer.

It would be terrific if you bought a copy, but you don’t have to.  Everything you need to know about editing is free at Really.

But to answer the above question simply:

The beginning of editing is creating a Story Grid Spreadsheet.

The middle of editing is creating a Foolscap Global Story Grid.

And the end of editing is putting together the Spreadsheet and the Foolscap Page into a complete Story Grid for your first draft.

Once you’ve finished Editing or THE SECOND DRAFT THAT ISN’T A DRAFT, you will have a clear understanding of what you’ll need to do in the drafts to come.  You will not fear these drafts.  Rather you will be re-energized to tackle the obvious problems in your first draft with vim and vigor.

You’ll have that confidence because you’ll know exactly what you’ll need to do to fix the problems and you’ll have a strategy to get that work done.

That is what THE SECOND DRAFT THAT IS NOT A DRAFT is all about.

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  1. Mary Doyle on March 20, 2015 at 5:11 am

    Thanks so much for this Shawn! Wise advice about keeping one’s mouth shut. I’ve had a few of those “how’s the writing going?” conversations, have wiggled out of them and usually go home feeling like a complete slacker after hearing “when on earth is that book going to be finished already? How long can it possibly take?”

    I’m printing and keeping this post close at hand to remind myself that THE SECOND DRAFT ISN’T REALLY A DRAFT. Tongue-in-cheek, I think it’s possibly a critical suicide-prevention phrase for writers everywhere! As always, thanks – you have no idea how reassuring you are!

  2. Stacy on March 20, 2015 at 6:41 am

    Are you kidding?? After all the great advice at, I am definitely buying the book. One thing your advice has done is made me realize I had to go old school and write out everything by hand first so thst I’m just WRITING. And I’ll tell you what: it’s been very freeing.

  3. Steve Hill on March 20, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Can’t wait to buy a copy, put me first in line!

  4. Susan on March 20, 2015 at 9:25 am

    Great column with sage advice. I have made the mistake of starting to polish prose in the second draft. You’re right: “It is the furthest thing you should worry about now.” I’ve polished myself into a corner where the prose are shiny but something is missing from the story. At that point, tearing open the manuscript to make major changes is so much more difficult because I’ve tightened up the prose and am reluctant to rip them apart. I plan to follow your advice on the next project.

  5. Joel D Canfield on March 20, 2015 at 11:03 am

    I am so flipping glad I made those mistakes eleventeen times before we ever met, so now I can move on to using what we in the biz like to call “the right way.”

    Beyond the technical bits and bobs (and dumptruck loads) of info you’ve shared at the one thing that has made me skip about like a lamb at springtime is that once I do the hard work of pouring my heart onto the page, my heart gets to rest for a bit while my brain aligns, adjusts, measures, and dials in the Story Grid stuff.

    I hope Steve doesn’t get jealous that we all love you more than him now. (Callie is better looking than either of you, but that’s a different category.)

    • Mary Doyle on March 20, 2015 at 11:26 am

      Amen Joel!

  6. Stacy on March 20, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Is it possible to love anyone more than Steve, really? 🙂

    • Joel D Canfield on March 25, 2015 at 10:35 am

      I guess the “more” is debatable, Stacy 🙂

      I’m at the part of my journey where I’m spending more time at Shawn’s campfire than on the trail with Steve, though every time I step out with Steve, Callie shows up and it’s good all around.

      When the student is ready, etc.

      • Stacy on March 26, 2015 at 4:41 am

        Right on, Joel. 🙂

  7. Marilyn on March 20, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    IMO, this advice applies equally to composing music and probably most other artistic endeavors. It’s never a good idea to “run by” one’s unfinished creative output until satisfied completely. We need to have the strength of our convictions and FINISH it (as much as possible) before showing it to anyone else!

  8. gwen abitz on March 20, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    LIKED “The first draft and everything in your head that is swimming around on the entire project is sacred.”

  9. Andrew lubin on March 20, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    I seem to do my best work with a ruthless use of the ‘delete’ key and liberal use of the ‘cut & paste’ function!

  10. John Reps on March 21, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Gold nugget reminder. I will be looking for the print version. I like most, believe that the energy you have put forward is translatable into currency. Cheers

  11. Heidi Haaland on March 24, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    This really resonates. I have a writing acquaintance with whom I meet very occasionally to work on our respective projects, in fact we met yesterday, and although it pains me to say this, she is a poster child for all the things you warn about here. Over-sharing. Reading aloud. Treating this first draft as if it’s the final by editing each page before moving on to the next. I hope she finishes it, but am really dreading the day she asks me to read. Are there any apps that allow you to forward content anonymously? Otherwise I know she will want to have a lengthy discussion about this and I.Just.Can’t.

    • Joel D Canfield on March 25, 2015 at 10:37 am

      Writers speak truth. It’s the only reason to write.

      If she doesn’t want to hear the truth, she’ll albatross you big time.

      But maybe she does want to hear the truth, and doesn’t know it yet.

  12. Sinakhone Keodara on March 25, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    Hi Shawn. I’m so glad I found this post cause I’ve written a first draft, submitted it into screenwriting competitions when it wasn’t ready and gotten notes from it and it’s been collecting dust. I was gonna go back through it and apply your Story Grid Spreadsheet, Foolscap Global Story Grid. Thanks for clarifying for me that we’re to combine the first two tools into a Story Grid for your first draft. I guess I’m on the right track then.

    One question I have for you though, since I’m writing my second feature length screenplay that is a beast cause it’s a historical drama/sci-fi action-adventure and I’ve been outlining the hell out of it through ScreenwritingU’s ProSeries online class. I found it helpful to pitch my concept first to my “muggle” (non-writer) friends and get their reaction to see if the concept is even viable before I invest so much time writing something that might not have an audience. This I find to be helpful. I’m on my 5th Pass of the outline and have 5 more to go before I launch into writing scenes, etc. I was gonna go through my FINAL outline (once I get there) and apply your fools Story Grid Spreadsheet, Foolscap Global Story Grid and Story Grid just to see if the structure is sound before I begin writing scenes. Truth be told, I’ve been itching to write the script already and have to calm my urge to do so cause i don’t want to waste precious time. The first screenplay I wrote was a 1-hour drama and I gave myself permission to sit down and write without having read any screenwriting books or knowing anything about character, structure, dialog and it came out in two weeks and it was pretty good. The second script I wrote was a feature length screenplay where it took me about 4 months to collect ideas on note cards, napkins, or whatever it is I can get my hand on. Then one day I felt compelled to write so i took the notecards out of the box, rearrange it and wrote an outline from that. Mind you I’d already started writing these scenes even before I was done collecting ideas and I wrote it out of order. It took 2 and half years later that once I figured out the ending, I went back to the beginning and put the story together. That process worked but now I have story logic problems. The ScreenwritingU’s method seems to be a great way to work out the story logic problems before beginning the work. And, I believe once I’ve done the first draft your 3 tools will fit nicely into the editing and rewriting process. Thank you so much for what you’re doing for us writers. I’m looking forward to your book. Truth be told, I’ve gone through all your posts and have copied it into one document just for reference. I hope to have time to read all of it.

    One question for you: What do you think if I was to use your 3 tools up front in the outlining process before writing the script? Do you think that it will work or are they specifically useful to the editing/rewriting process? I mean, I think it would be a great idea to see a macro and micro view of the entire story before I begin writing. Lord knows the writing part where you have to think about dialog, subtext, beats, character and the whole nine yards isn’t a piece of cake. Although I’ve experienced inspiration as in my first script where I was writing furiously and didn’t really think about any of that cause I didn’t even know what they were but then it came out just fine. Please advise!


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