Your First Draft Is Not Your Last Draft

by Fay Lamb

In my writing life and both as a freelance editor and an acquisition editor, I have discovered a disturbing trend among some new and not-so-new writers.

Self-publishing is not a bad thing if the author does it correctly. However, there is a generation of authors who have grown up without accountability for what they create. Some sit down at a computer, plunk out one draft of a story, and head off to publication. There are also some who send their first draft to a publisher. When they receive a rejection, the fault belongs to a “system.” They use that excuse to self-publish.

Say what you want about traditional publishers, but in most instances, they truly are the gatekeepers for an industry currently suffering from credibility issues brought on by mass self-publishing. Granted, there are authors who have studied the craft inside and out and write great manuscripts. Yet they can’t find a home in traditional publishing. The rejection has less to do with a lack of diligence on the author’s part and more to do with publishers’ trends. Those diligent authors who take the time to craft a story find new life in self-publishing by bucking those trends.

A first draft is never an author’s best friend. All it says to an author is, “I’ve taken the story from Point A to Point Z, and I have some bones to build upon.” The next draft, or drafts, however many it takes, puts flesh on those bones.

I’d like to share some very obvious clues that indicate to readers and to publishers that an author has not gotten beyond the first draft stage before submitting or publishing:

  • The author has not taken the time to get a command over the small stuff: spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency in names, hair color, eye color, even the spelling of key locations. Editors see these mistakes as lazy writing. If an author isn’t keen on these areas, finding an editor, or even a critique group that can offer this support, is imperative.
  • The manuscript usually consists only of bones, taking the form of stilted dialogue. Description and deep point of view (POV) are lacking or lax. A story that engages uses effective dialogue to relay information without the reader knowing the information is being fed to them. Deep POV is the best tool to draw the reader into the story and connect them with the main characters.
  • Speaking of point of view: in a first draft, even the most prolific authors will inadvertently switch POVs within the scene. Revisions will correct this mistake. However, an omniscient point of view is a sign that an author has not studied the elements of fiction. POV should always be one character per scene, and the character with the most to win or to lose should always be the POV character for that scene.
  • Often in a first draft, the plot will lack escalating conflict. Instead, an author utilizes contrived conflict, bringing it in and resolving it quickly before introducing another issue. One reason a synopsis is requested by publishers is to determine how well an author introduces and sustains conflict. If conflict is weak or non-existent, the story isn’t ready for publication.
  • Then there’s that old but relevant cliché: show don’t tell. A first draft is littered with telling words or phrases that draw the reader away from the story. This is easily seen in the use of adverbial time phrases such as suddenly and immediately or when she turned … Other telling words have to do with the senses: she heard, he saw, he noticed, he realized, and a host of other similar actions that tell rather than show.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that a first draft or even a second draft will produce a story ready for publication. Take time to revise and edit, to look for the minor mistakes and to implement the elements of fiction that put flesh on those shaky bones and build up a healthy story that readers can enjoy.


Writing Prompt: Rewrite the following short paragraph, utilizing some of the points discussed above to create a second draft:

Paula heard a noise that made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Immediately, she turned and peered out the window. What she saw terrified her.


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4 thoughts on “Your First Draft Is Not Your Last Draft

  1. You’re right. The first draft is the bones. I see if my characters behave and when I get to the end, if the plot makes sense. Then I got back and add layer upon layer of muscle and flesh. Thanks so much for your article!

  2. You are very welcome. I love that you, too, have to see if your characters behave. Mine rarely do until I get to the later drafts.

  3. I read this today in an interview with author Celeste Ng, whose sister is a mechanical engineer. She said one of the rules of engineering is first you make it work. Then you make it elegant. This perfectly defines the purpose of a first draft…and all the drafts it takes to make our story elegant.

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