If you’re a writer looking to be published, second drafts are a way of life. But to new writers, there a bit of confusion about what a second draft actually is and what you should be doing with it. Since I’m about to tackle the second draft of a project, I figured I would share my thoughts.
First of all, let’s start with what a second draft isn’t. It is not just taking what you’ve written in the first draft and doing some light copyediting. That’s the lazy high school approach to a second draft, and it doesn’t work in the real world unless your first draft is 95% on the mark already.
During your first draft, you’ll discover ideas that you didn’t have in your outline or (if there’s no outline) initial thoughts that triggered whatever you’re writing. It could be that you’re writing an essay piece and you have come to a somewhat different conclusion — that happens sometimes when you’re making your thoughts more concrete by the process of writing them down. It could be that some part of your fiction change because, now that you’ve seen it on paper, you see different problems and different solutions. Whatever it is, things happen between “I had an idea” and “the first draft’s done” that can change things.
That’s the point of a second draft. These ideas may come within a few minutes of putting pen to paper. They may come midway through the process. Perhaps some come right at the end. And often, they come after you’ve finished the draft have put it away for an hour, day, week, whatever. It’s usually all of these.
Those that come early are pretty easy to deal with. It’s those midway through and later that cause issues. No doubt you’ve seen people (maybe even yourself) write sentences that seem to have completely changed partway, as if the writer’s brain shifted to something totally different and didn’t realize it. That happens at different scales, where a sentence might show that change in thought, or two sections are contradictory because one is based on an earlier idea and wasn’t changed in that first draft. When you have new ideas midway through, you’re going to have vestigial pieces.
The ideas that happen after you shelve it and your mind starts processing it in the background can only happen after the first draft is done. So naturally those can only happen after that’s over.
But the biggest benefit I see between first and second drafts is that of voice. Voice is key in text; it’s what gives a piece flavor & emotional resonance that will connect with a reader beyond just transmitting facts. Frankly, when it comes to RPG text, voice is one of the most powerful tools in getting people to remember whatever the hell your rules are. And voice is something that gets discovered over time.
Part of the reason I have had to rewrite a lot of Mythender is because of voice. Early drafts were technical & purely procedural — playtest stuff. Then I wrote drafts that were trying to be serious, an RPG text that was also trying to be like a saga. That was the wrong voice, one I wasn’t having fun with. The most recent voice, that of, well, me when I’m GMing the game, is the one that’s right for it. But it took writing it dry (so I knew the content) and writing it saga-ish (which, like any experience, taught me what worked and what didn’t) to get to where I am with the game.
And that’s what I saw as I went through Don’t Hack This Game submissions over the last few weeks. I had to reject some because they were effectively cleaned-up first drafts, devoid of voice. Voice is hard as hell to get right in the first draft when you’re not sure of the entire contents of said draft, and it needs that second draft to fully develop. And without that voice, you aren’t going to get anyone to give a fuck about your game, article, whatever, when there are plenty of people who do develop voice also producing great stuff.
I know some folks who do entire rewrites on second drafts. Others (like me) like to print out hardcopies and mark them the hell up with revision notes, so as to remove the temptation to nickel-and-dime revise as I’m going through. There are various ways of tackling the job, as long as you go from simple copyediting to examining the piece’s structure & voice, and making sure that from start to finish, it reflects your latest thoughts and doesn’t hold onto any old, erroneous stuff.
P.S. I rarely do a second draft of a blog post. When I realize one is crucial because my idea shifted, I tend to shelve it for days (or longer, with some remaining unfinished). But that’s partly because blogging is an exercise in Being Done, and no one is paying me to create fully polished text.
 Side note: defining by the negative first is one of those things I tell people to never do when I’m editing their work. It’s a specific tool. But that’s another post.