How to write a final draft

Categories Blog, Writer's Life

Good morning, writers and readers alike! It is *checks calendar* October … the … fifteenth?! How… what… when… 

Is time passing at warp speed these days, or is it just me? It seems like only last week I was putting the finishing touches on my novel before heading into the query trenches, but that was really a few months ago. Time flies when you’re waiting for life-changing news, I suppose, ha ha *sweats in nervous*

But enough about my not-so-patient patience for dream career updates. Today, I want to talk about final drafts. I don’t think they get enough love and attention. Whenever I hop on Pinterest, I’m bombarded with articles about how to start a first draft, how to craft a story idea as a new writer, how to begin writing, etc.. Sometimes, I find articles about writing second drafts, along with posts about how to outline a series. All are helpful, of course, especially for those new writers who might be intimidated by the task of creating a 90K+ word story. 

But the results when I search for articles about writing the final draft? Slim to none. 

On one hand, I get it. Maybe at that stage in the game, writers know what they’re doing. Even novice writers, after the countless drafts leading up to the last, have a good idea what they want to say, and they are able to say it. For a lot of writers, it’s just tweaking at that point. 

But on the other hand… the final draft needs attention! It’s the most important draft. It’s the last stage before querying or posting or simply reading to an audience, whatever your idea of publication is. It’s the anchor in a relay race, the last boss to beat in a video game, the final chance to get your work as close to perfect as possible. 

So where’s the love? 

It will not do. You must allow me to detail how I tackled my final draft before my outrage at the neglect makes me burst.  

So, without further ranting, here are four things to do while writing the final draft: 

Kill the rest of your darlings

I know what you must be thinking: you’re supposed to kill your darlings in the second draft, and maybe finish the slaughter in the third. You’d think that would get them all. But there are always a few that linger: passages, side characters, even whole scenes that mask themselves as important to the story, when, honestly, they’re just sucking up valuable word counts. And as sad as their execution may be, they gotta go. 

One of the last darlings I killed in The Marked Ones was a scene. My main character decided to bake cookies one afternoon, and she set off a fire alarm because she forgot to set a timer while they cooked. Then the next batch came out dry because she forgot to add eggs. I adored this scene; it detailed a failing for my main character, and she got out a few quips about it. And I saw purpose in it, because it led to a much needed conversation between her and another character. For those reasons, it survived many edits. 

But… while listing changes necessary for the final draft, I knew the scene had to leave me. The cookies did not make a reappearance in the story, and even when I forced them in, it felt just like I said: forced. And though I needed a scene to put my two characters in a room together so they could talk, I knew there was a shorter encounter that could bridge to that interaction. So, with a heavy heart, I hit delete. 

It worked out for the best. I’m quite proud of the new bridge I built, and I know I will use the baking scene in another book. And that’s the thing: killing darlings for one book doesn’t mean exterminating them for all other stories. Sometimes, they just need to move on to a better place. 

Make sure the basic outline fits 

Do you remember that first outline you wrote for your story? Plotters probably filled out a beats list or a hero’s journey template. Even if you’re a Pantser, you must have followed some general roadmap, some guiding star that led your journey to the end. 

Of course, much changes in the drafting process. Scenes transform, characters make different choices, and those choices lead to different situations. But that basic outline should, in theory, still stand. The overarching themes and big moments listed in the skeleton draft shouldn’t have changed too much over the course of writing, because they are the foundation on which the book exists. 

What I did when it came time to write the final draft was figuratively lay my skeleton outline over the story, like a stencil, finding where the moments matched up. Where a moment wasn’t clearly established, I shored up the writing. Unless I had a good reason for deviating, in which case I questioned whether this alteration to the outline served the story as a whole well, or if it would be best to return to the already established structure. 

Consult beta reader notes 

I won’t say that having people read your work before submitting it is essential. A lot of writers are very good at self-editing, and craft books have steered many storytellers in the right direction. But I love input on my writing, and the input I’ve received from beta readers has definitely helped me tell the story I want to tell. 

Depending on your reader, your notes may include tips for strengthening characters, reworking plot points, improving pacing, etc.. In my latest round of notes, I got a lot of feedback on my actual writing, and how I could nix a lot of my adverbs and dialogue tags in favor of more action. 

It can be difficult to receive criticism even before you send your book child out into the world, but that’s when it’s needed most. You wouldn’t go talk to someone you admire without having a friend check that your hair looks good and that you don’t have food in your teeth, and you certainly shouldn’t send your work out with food in its teeth. And the best readers will tell you about that food in the most respectful and encouraging way. 

Copy edit 

Remember what I said above about adverbs and dialogue tags? Yeah, those had to go in my final draft. 

Copy editing is the time to really get that word count down, if you’re an overwriter like me. Killing darlings may take out chunks of words at a time, but you’d be surprised by how little cuts add up overtime. Every unnecessary “said,” each “very,” and, of course, the dreaded “suddenly” in too many action scenes.  

Proper word counts are important to keep in mind if you’re seeking traditional publishing, because each genre has its limits. The Marked One’s word count might strain that limit for Young Adult, but when I finished the final draft, I’d cut nearly 10,000 words, and most of the cuts came from removing excessive phrases and simplifying sentences. 

Ask yourself, “Have I said it all?” 

At least in my writing, I always want to leave a reader with a message, as well as a good story. So I ask myself, is that message clear? Is the story good enough to keep the reader invested? Have I left them wanting more, in a good or bad way?

If I find there’s nothing left to say, I close the book (literally). Because at some point, we must release our babies to the world and let them face it. We have to tell ourselves, “I’ve done all I can do,” and let come what may. It’s hard, of course it is, but it’s the only way our stories can fly. 

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So, have I done the final draft justice? Do you feel better about leaping that last hurdle? Let me know, and, as always, happy writing! 

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