Should You Finish a Broken First Draft Or Go Back And Fix Its Problems?

It can be hard to press on and finish a first draft, especially when you discover there is a critical problem with the way you have been writing it.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel with an awesome story and a great main character. Everything seems to be going along nicely until you realize you want it also to be a love story, and you’ve already made it to 50,000 words with no hint of a love story. Should you go back and revise to introduce the love story elements? Should you read back through and assess whether a love story is the right move? Should you ask someone else to read what you have and give their opinion? Should you ignore the desire to add a love story and finish the draft as intended? Should you pretend from this point forward that you already had introduced the necessary love story elements earlier on and just add whatever feels right as you finish the story even if it doesn’t align with the earlier sections?

There are a lot of options. I will illustrate a couple of them in this article.

It can be valuable to sit with this new revelation. If you want to make a change, does that mean what you have doesn’t feel right?

Be honest with yourself. Know your own games. Sometimes we have an “honest internal voice” that isn’t actually honest.

Maybe the complaints are loud. Maybe they’re quiet, more like a subtle inner knowing.

But OK, something just doesn’t feel right. So sit with that. Who’s to say that it’s supposed to feel right all the time? There are bound to be moments where you are certain you’re doing it all wrong but actually are on the right track.

Ask questions that reveal the subtle truth

  • What do you love about your story?
  • What do you want to see more of?
  • If you step back and ask yourself what the book really wants to be, is that the direction you’re taking it or a different one?
  • What will it take to get there? Is it possible?

Making adjustments

Once you have decided that what you are feeling is new information and not merely noise, it’s time to make adjustments.

The sooner you make adjustments, the less material you have to change around.

Hence the benefit, when possible, of starting with an outline — even a rough one. If you are late in the outlining phase and you make a discovery that means you will need to add or remove or augment something in chapter one, there is a lot less material to shift around than if the same thing happens while drafting.

It is much more efficient to work at high elevation for awhile before actually drafting the manuscript. Nevertheless, whether or not you do a ton of planning work beforehand, it’s still possible to find yourself 50,000 words into the book and faced with a problem for how (or whether) to continue.

So what if you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of needing to make a major shift to your book?

Option 1: Press on and revise the beginning later.

Yes, if someone were to pick up the book as-is, it won’t make sense. It won’t be unified. Things haven’t been set up properly. But you can simply proceed, ignoring the fact that the beginning will need to be fixed later.

As an example, maybe you decided to change the gender of your main character. In chapters one through 24, it’s a he, and then suddenly it’s a she — a different character, basically.

But you decide there’s no real sense in going back and making those edits. You’re in the flow. Those edits can wait until the second draft.

Yes, it doesn’t read like a unified book, but it’s workable. Better to stay in the flow and clean things up later.

This choice follows the conventional wisdom to press on and finish the first draft regardless of how you feel about it. Even if the first draft is really bad, it’s better to finish it. An unfinished draft may feel more malleable, yet going back and reworking an unfinished first draft is actually likely to make it harder to finish. Too easy to get bogged down and overly focused on the problems. The choice to finish a problematic draft can be the choice that honors the life and spirit of the book. All the details can be fixed later.

Option 2. Outline or leave notes for how you want the ending to go, then go back and revise the beginning

Do this if you really need to see what ramifications the changes will have on the other facets of the story. If it’s a big shift, one that will involve many characters and potentially derail the dramatic pacing as-is, it can feel necessary to actually go back and make the changes in the draft.

Before doing this, it’s helpful to jot out where you see things going towards the end. Of course, this might not be possible, but jotting out what you do know — or at least what you suspect — can be fruitful since the time you spend working on the first parts of the book can take the details of rest of the story out of mind.

Conclusion

So there you have it. A couple of options for how to proceed when something comes up in the middle of a draft that causes you to rethink everything. Once you really sit with the new information, the solution can potentially become clear. When in doubt, press on. If it becomes impossible to press on because you truly know in your gut that things need to change, then you can proceed with the new change, or go back and revise. . . or simply rewrite the whole thing.

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