When is a Rough Draft No Longer a Rough Draft?

Written by Mary Pero

Have you ever labeled your manuscript, [TITLE]-FINAL-THE-ONE? Yeah, me neither.

Writing and editing feel subjective because, well… they are. The process is rarely linear. So how do you know when you’re finished?

Allow me to take you through my personal process of moving my work from rough draft to finished work.

The Rough Draft—Part 1

This is the very first draft you’ll ever write. It’s also the worst draft you’ll ever write. Author Anne Lamott labeled this draft the SFD, short for Stupid First Draft. *Chef’s kiss* I won’t even try to top that. (She uses a different word than stupid, but I like to keep things clean.) This is the draft where you write down everything, and I do mean everything. The slanderous things, the things you don’t dare mention to your therapist, and even the things you aren’t entirely sure are true. Do I really feel this way? It doesn’t matter. Write it down. Don’t try to make it eloquent, don’t edit yourself, just get the words on paper. This draft is for you.

Many first-time authors struggle with the Rough Draft because they’re worried this dreadful monstrosity is somehow a reflection of them. It’s not. It’s more like panning for gold—you have to scoop and filter through the muck if you want to get the gold.

Don’t worry about what Uncle Fred will think. He will never read this copy. Your unbridled feelings may reveal you’ve always admired Uncle Fred’s frankness, but you’re still mad about what he said last Thanksgiving. This could be gold! Write it down.

Your Rough Draft is about getting words onto the page. The big picture of your book. Write it down. Don’t stop to edit.

The Rough Draft—Part 2

Part 2 of your Rough Draft is your chance to see what you’re working with. Are there gaping holes? Information you skipped over that should have been included? Did you go off on a rabbit trail? This is NOT your moment to self-edit. We’re still looking at the big picture. What do you like about what’s on the paper? What could you say more of? What needs to be cut out entirely? What should be moved around to another section?

This second rough draft is what we typically call a developmental or structural edit, and yes, there are editors who can help you with this. A developmental editor will offer you feedback on your manuscript as a whole; its strengths, weaknesses, content, plot, etc. They look at the content itself. Sometimes a developmental editor will also include a structural edit as part of their service. As its name suggests, a structural edit looks at how your content is structured or layed out on the page.

Your Rough Draft Part 2 will require as much if not more writing than your original Rough Draft.

You may want to keep a separate document named “[TITLE] Cuts.” You may find this cut material useful later on.

The First Draft

In the First Draft, you’ll look at your work with a critical eye. It’s here that you’ll rewrite what you said about Uncle Fred. Keep the gold, remove the slander.

You can begin to edit grammatical errors as you see them, but your focus should be on your content and how it’s delivered to your readers. Have you included illustrations and personal examples? Is your work vulnerable and personable? Could you add more life with metaphors or similes? Can you be clearer?

There will be a lot of writing and rewriting in this draft as you consider your Ideal Reader; how does your work engage them, help them, or offer transformation? If the Rough Draft is about putting the big picture on the paper, then the First Draft is about getting all of the supporting content onto the page. You should have the majority of your content filled in by this point.

The Second Draft

The Second Draft is simultaneously the most exciting and nerve-wracking draft. Some authors never get this far. This is where you begin to self-edit your work. You’ll read your work as an editor, NOT as a self-critic with imposter syndrome. This is an important distinction: An editor uses language tools to improve your content—a self-critic judges the content. Almost every author I know struggles with this.

Please listen to me: If you’ve got the content on the paper, and if the content is developed and marketable* then you can make it literary. I promise.

I have another blog on the topic of self-editing, so I won’t get into the details here. Suffice to say, this is the point where you’ll begin to look at sentence structure, move around words, adjust your phrasing, choose more descriptive words, and CHOP, CHOP, CHOP!

This process is called copyediting. And yes, you can hire a copyeditor (different than a copywriter) to do this for you.

A word of encouragement to first-time authors: Writing and self-editing are skills you can improve. Push yourself to get better by doing more of both. Don’t give up. You can do it!

*Before you start writing, you should have a fully developed book concept that is both literary AND marketable. My course, “Discover Your Book’s Gold: How to Research, Test & Validate Your Book Idea BEFORE You Start Writing” may be where you need to start.

The Third Draft

Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, your manuscript is starting to look, feel, and sound like a real book! In this third and final draft, you’ll be reading through your manuscript looking for grammatical and punctuation errors, misspelled words, redundancies, and overall beauty of your writing. What’s great? What’s not as strong? What could still use some work?

This is your final draft. It’s the best you can do without outside help.

The editing of your sentences (prose) to make them beautiful is called line editing, and (surprise!) there is someone who can help you with that. Line editing is often confused with copyediting, but they are not the same. While copyediting looks at the mechanics of your prose (punctuation and spelling), line editing looks at your word choice as well as your sentence structure.

The Fourth Draft

The Fourth Draft is where you must enlist outside help. Depending on your plans for publishing, this may simply be a proofreader, which could be a trusted friend or a hired professional.

A few notes on proofreading. A professional proofreader will only be looking for typos, spelling, and punctuation errors. They will not be judging you or your writing. They will probably not give you feedback on the content of your work and they will not make your work better (aside from fixing the aforementioned errors).

Most authors planning to self-publish will need at minimum the help of both a copyeditor and a proofreader. Having not seen your personal manuscript, I cannot tell you how much help you need.

It is possible to enlist the help of a trusted (and competent!) friend to help you with the proofreading. When using friends, I always recommend you tell them what you want. You are asking for proofreading help alone (typos, spelling, punctuation), or you are looking for feedback alone (i.e. a beta reader). If you don’t specify the type of support you’re looking for, you will often end up with a lot of unsolicited and unhelpful advice.

While it’s nice to have a friend’s approval of your manuscript, it’s unlikely that your friend is your Ideal Reader and therefore, their advice, however well intended, may not be constructive.

Final Thoughts

This is my personal process of moving a manuscript from an SFD to a polished work. The labeling of my draft process as Rough, First, … and so on is by no means an industry-wide standard. This process is also not always linear. Sometimes you’ll end up with numerous First Drafts, and other times you’ll need to take parts of your manuscript back to the Rough Draft stage. Many authors move through this process without the formal delineation between drafts.

I’d also like to add that while I take individual chapters from Rough Draft to Third Draft before moving onto the next chapter, I don’t believe this is the best process for everyone. It may work better for you to choose the chapters you are most excited to write, or that you have the most content on and start there—finish the Rough Drafts Part 1 and 2. Then move on to the next chapter in whatever order you choose. I’ve found this process works well for first-time authors.



Want more editing tips and tricks? CLICK HERE to download your FREE EDITING CHEAT SHEET!

*Allison K William’s Book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book is a great resource if you’re interested in learning more. Her book is targeted toward fiction and memoir, but the second half is equally as useful for writers of nonfiction.


Last Updated On October 5, 2021

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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