I apologize for being a bit late with this today.
Revising a first draft is one of those things that sounds as if it’s easy to talk about until you try…and then once you start digging into it, you start wondering how it’s even possible to do, let alone define well enough to talk about.
The first problem is that “first draft” means different things to different writers. Among the professional writers I know, first drafts range from something that looks more like a collection of notes and dialog bits (which needs massive work just to get to the point where someone else can read and understand it), to a “talking heads” thing that reads a good deal like a screenplay, to an almost-clean manuscript that needs only a little polishing.
And just as there is a range in what the first draft looks like, there’s a range in what’s wrong with it. Some writers are brilliant at the word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level – the microwriting stuff – but have serious problems at the macro level – pacing, plot, structure, all the big picture things that affect the story as a whole.
These two things don’t necessarily match up. That is, the writer with the extremely clean and nearly-polished first draft may actually be the one whose microwriting needs more work, while the writer whose first draft looks more like an extensive plot outline than a manuscript draft may be the one with the structural or plotting flaws that need attention. Or in other words, the stuff that looks and feels as if it comes easily may be the places that need the most work.
Or they may not. This is where it helps for writers to be able to back up and take a clear, objective look at themselves and the work they’ve done…and if one can’t manage that, one needs to have critiquers whose judgment one trusts, who are able to point out that yes, the sentences are clunky again or that no, the plot doesn’t make sense. But a good critiquer also has to be able to roll her eyes and remind the writer that he always gets paranoid about the plot being senseless when really, it’s just fine and it’s the microwriting he should worry about (or vice versa).
This alone can drive a writer crazy. You need to have confidence in your work, but you also need to see its problems; you need to believe in your critiquers, but you also need to know when not to follow their advice. It’s a constant balancing act.
But then we come to the second problem, which has to do with keeping the revision balanced. The writer has to stay aware of both the micro and macro levels at once (or at least remember to look rapidly from one to the other). Because it is remarkably easy to focus so much on one half of the revision process that, in the course of fixing something, you mess up something on a different level that was working just fine before.
What I mean is the sort of thing that can happen when one or two words in a sentence get fixed: that’s enough to wreck the rhythm of the sentence, but one doesn’t always notice that it has unless one rereads the whole sentence with conscious attention. And even if the revised sentence works as a stand-alone, the new rhythm may throw the paragraph off. The fastest method I know of for finding this stuff is fairly time-consuming: read it aloud.
The other, related thing to look at (besides sentence rhythm) is the flow of the story. This can be difficult — the writer already knows what the sequencing is supposed to be and how all the pieces are supposed to fit, so it’s harder to see where there are missing or overlapping bits than it would be for someone who is not so immersed in the story. Rereading helps; reading aloud helps; practice helps; being aware of the problem helps; “cooling off” periods help.
Developing this kind of awareness is especially important when one is moving paragraphs or scenes or chapters around. It is perilously easy to develop continuity problems at the macro level because one added a phrase to a clunky sentence to make it flow better without realizing that one had already said almost the same thing three paragraphs earlier…or worse yet, one cuts or moves something without realizing that it established some information that’s used later, and now it doesn’t make any sense when Character A refers to it on the next page, because whatever-it-is hasn’t happened yet.
Awareness is the main thing. You can’t fix a problem that you can’t see, and you are unlikely to see it if you don’t look for it at all.