A Healthy Approach to Editing a Chaotic Draft: It’s About Mindset

what to do when you don't know which direction to take your chaotic draft

what to do when you don’t know which direction to take your chaotic draft

Right now, I am most definitely dealing with a chaotic first draft. The story is there, but it has issues on every level. Rather than give in for any longer to feeling overwhelmed–feeling overwhelmed has kept me from editing for the last few days–I thought I would explore the beauty that is a chaotic first draft.

Really, there’s no need to panic and throw in the towel when you finish a novel and think: this is garbage, and it doesn’t hold up, and I have no idea what to do with it.

Figuring out what to do with it can be as great an adventure as writing the draft was . And that’s where I’d like to start.

  • EDITING A CHAOTIC DRAFT IS A GREAT ADVENTURE. Like all adventures it is filled with ups and downs, small victories and small defeats. Like all adventures, you probably won’t be able to tell when or how it’s going to end, and that’s part of the fun. Let it be part of the fun. What is life if not an adventure, a journey? I need to enjoy and appreciate the journey!
  • YOU WILL DEVELOP ORGANIZATIONAL SKILLS. No doubt about it. To tackle a chaotic draft, you will need to organize not only your thought processes concerning it, but your approach to it. Maybe you’ll decide to get organized by crafting and playing around with an outline.Β  Maybe you’ll just organize how you tackle the issues: I’ll deal with this subplot first, and then that plot hole, and then point of view, and so on. However you do it, you’ll be getting organized.
  • CREATIVE THINKING IS FUN AS WELL AS HEALTHY. Crafting order out of a draft with many problems will definitely test–and expand–the limits of your creativity. It will exercise your brains muscles, and that kind of “exercise” really can keep your brain strong and in good working order.
  • LIFE IS CHAOTIC. Always. I know my life has rarely felt as chaotic as it does to me right now, as I’m looking to move back home and find work and just in general get my life together. Sometimes I feel that this is a horrible time to be dealing with a chaotic draft. The chaos spills over and I need some downtime, some release. Well, I can get the downtime elsewhere. Dealing emotionally (as well as practically) with a chaotic draft will give me the skills and the tools to craft sense and order out of my chaotic life.

So, those are my thoughts on chaos in a draft: chaos means adventure, and adventure is good! Adventure is healthy. Adventure means action and growth.

I’ve been reading a lot of G.K. Chesterton lately–especially Orthodoxy, as I mentioned in my post about multiple protagonists and patterns of narration. The joy of adventure is part of Chesterton’s major argument, especially when he discusses the philosophical truths we all recognize as children in fairy tales, and it’s stuck with me.

You see, I tend to prefer organization and routine to action, adventure, and chaos. But that doesn’t mean adventure is a bad thing: far, far from it.

So, I’m curious: what have been your experiences with chaotic first drafts? Do you have a healthy love-hate relationship with them? That’s what I’m trying to develop πŸ™‚

Feel free to leave your thoughts. And don’t forget that if you enjoyed this post, you can follow my blog by email so you don’t miss future posts: just sign up at the top right of the page.


61 responses to “A Healthy Approach to Editing a Chaotic Draft: It’s About Mindset

  1. Your post is very well timed! I’m currently starting to go through an extremely chaotic first draft. The novel I just finished from Camp NaNo is a total mess. There is a great and thrilling story buried in all those words and some great characters- I just have to dig them out, hehe.

    At first glance it almost seems hopeless. But I know with the right amount of attention it can become a well manicured story. For the record, editing is my least favorite part of the writing process. It is my nemesis! πŸ™‚

    Always a great post, Victoria!

    • I tend to hate editing too. It’s a great mess. Someone suggested I just rewrite my draft, and the changes I need are so substantial that rewriting might make sense. I’ll have to figure things out. πŸ™‚ Best of luck!!!! My chaotic draft is also from NaNoWriMo, it turns out.

      I don’t know how I feel about NaNoWriMo, after doing it. It’s great for getting words down fast, but is that worth it when I end up with total drivel I just have to rewrite from the start?

  2. I do indeed have a healthy love-hate relationship with them. Somedays it feels overwhelming and as though I might never sort it all out or fix all of the problems. Other days I am excited to dive in and sift through the entire thing and tackle problem after problem. In both cases, I keep working at it little by little and eventually, even if it means it turns out completely different than I had ever imagined – there is a great feeling of accomplishment and success when I finish and it all finally makes sense and comes together in a coherent and entertaining way. It’s kind of like that moment of joy when I finally solve the rubix cube and get all the stickers to finally align and I can sit back and enjoy staring at the finished product and marveling at the hard work I put in to get it there.

    • I totally agree with that great moment when everything falls together. There’s nothing like it! πŸ™‚ There really isn’t. And there are definitely days that I feel more motivated than others to dive in, that’s a great point to. The drive ebbs and strengthens.

  3. Hey, Victoria. Even though I used an outline for my WIP, my first draft was utterly chaotic. I hadn’t understood my characters when writing the outline, and didn’t know them much better in the first draft. As I’ve mentioned on here before, I rewrote the entire story from the beginning, rather than editing the first draft. This was because the first draft was just so bad, I didn’t want to untangle it. I had a clearer vision after writing it of who the characters were and where the story should go, so I just rewrote the whole thing. Sure, I kept the first draft to refer to, and copied some of its text when it felt right, but I started over with a blank file to rewrite the whole thing. I wasn’t happy with the way the second draft was going, so half way through it I started over with a blank file again and started the third draft. This time I felt more comfortable with the characters and the plot, and this draft is worth editing.

    Rewriting from scratch is something to consider in your case too. Instead of frustrating yourself with untangling a chaotic mess, just start over and see if the story unfolds itself a little better now that you know who the characters are and what story they want you to tell. Just a thought.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Michael! I’ll have to think about it. Regardless of whether I rewrite everything I know I’ll need to rewrite the final section πŸ™‚ Maybe I could just start over…. Hmmm…. something to consider, for sure! I had thrown the idea around, and I guess if I rewrite I could copy and past a paragraph here or a section there.

    • Michael and Victoria — I can say (from experience) that Michael’s approach has a lot of merit. However, I’ve also found that endless from-scratch rewrites can be a perfectionistic crutch; it’s the lure of “I”ll do it better next time” which (for me) often becomes an excuse to put off the harder but possibly more effective work of untangling the mess and working with what’s on the page in front of me. I was a serial from-scratch rewriter who had nothing but vastly altered (but not necessarily better) drafts to show for her efforts. The day I quit that was the day I moved forward. So … like any approach, rewriting from scratch has positives AND negatives. “Writer, know thyself” is probably a good rule of thumb.

      • πŸ™‚ Fantastic point!!! Thanks, Lisa! πŸ™‚ I think I figured out I’ll TRY to get the edit working, and if it’s just too much of a mess to edit, I’ll move to rewriting. I’ve never rewritten a completed draft ever, so hopefully I wouldn’t fall into that trap, but that trap definitely exists!!!

  4. I’m close to wrapping up what has been a chaotic first draft. I think it’s been as hard as it has because it wasn’t fully thought through, but its near an end now and then me and my writing partner can get it properly tidied up πŸ™‚

  5. I take it piece by piece. I may even take a break to work on something less chaotic to get my head back together. The chaotic draft can be a problem and I know a lot of people do see it as a bad draft. The truth is that there has to be something salvageable in there. Even one character or scene makes the draft worthwhile.

  6. I think we have a brain/mind link, because I am just about to tackle a very chaotic first draft! This is just what I needed to feel some validation. Thank you!

  7. Ha! I just finished some of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brother mysteries!!! Twins separated at birth!
    Anyway, all of my first drafts are a big ol’ mess. The revise is where the fun begins. Since I’ve already done the hard work of conquering the white space by getting the draft written, now I can relax and really let the story take shape.

    • hahaha! Oh my gosh, twins indeed! how does this always happen???

      I love what you say here: at least, for sure, when you have a messy draft you do have a draft. That means you’re a writer, and hopefully that’s enough to give us confidence to conquer the edits πŸ™‚

  8. I find it insulting that when “genius burns” anyone would think that it wasn’t perfect the first time around. πŸ˜‰ However, when I let a piece rest and go back to it, I’m thankful I didn’t sent it out to the world.

    I may love my little “fractal,” but few others appreciate them. Oh, to learn to love editing! – or convince the world that my rough draft work is in vogue!

    I’m saving all the posts on writing a novel. I have a half-written novella on my computer. I plan to work on it in my free time (whatever that might be), and the information is very helpful!



  9. Been meaning to read some G.K. Chesterton. I always enjoy the quotes of his that I come across.

    On the topic at hand, I think the amount of revision required has been one of the things keeping me from writing a novel. I’ve made several attempts, but just hadn’t been able to get over the fear of the amount of work. I need to remember your second point – “dealing with this subplot first, this plot hole next…” Looking at the work as a whole would make anyone faint. It’s important to break it up and trust that it will all come together in the end.

    Concerning rewriting, I’ve found that I need to rewrite my short stories at least two or three times to get it somewhere I’m happy with. I feel the initial drafts, even if I’ve planned and outlined, are still discovery drafts. Once I have a good feeling about where the story is going, then it’s on to more minor revisions.

    • That makes total sense. I love the idea of rewriting short stories. Somehow that feels much more manageable and doable for me, personally, than rewriting a novel would be. πŸ™‚ Editing is a monstrous task. It’s like any long-term goal…. you’ve got to break it down in chunks. That’s the only way to get it done. You’ve got to, like you said, trust that it will all come together in the end.

  10. Hi, Victoria. Timely indeed, as I am writing my last chapter, so it won’t be long before I tackle picking apart the first draft. As backward as this may sound (because I know a lot of writers do it at the beginning), the first thing I will do is create a proper timeline to make sure I have set things down in proper chronological order. At the same time, I’m thinking of rearranging several scenes to better suit the tension I tried to create. Then and only then do I think I will enjoy editing and revising. Does this make any sense to you? πŸ™‚

    • That makes a lot of sense to me! πŸ™‚ I could never craft a timeline before I write because I don’t know what I’m going to be writing πŸ˜›

      Once a draft is done, though, and I have an idea of what needs to happen and when, a timeline would be a great idea. That’s awesome, Jennifer. Best of luck with your edits and thanks for the tip!!!

  11. Perfect time for this post, Victoria. Thank you. It’s been an encouragement. I’ve been stuck for a bit with a “chaotic” first draft that has been driving me crazy. I don’t like chaos … I like routine and order. And of course, this draft is giving me nothing of the sort. I already feel better about approaching it after reading your post. So thanks!

  12. I am right there with ya. My first draft is all sorts of crazy. It is so overwhelming it’s paralyzing. I happen to love editing. It’s my favorite part, but it’s hard when I sit there thinking this is all garbage. How will I ever sort it out? I definitely do what you’ve suggested: getting it organized and breaking it up into manageable tasks. I have to have it all printed out and take one chapter at a time. I cut out each paragraph and work on one paragraph at a time. Move them around, change their placement, cut them out, and edit the crap out of them. I am mega visual and hands on so it brings a lot of clarity to what I’m doing when I have it tangible and not stuck on my computer screen. Rewriting is definitely something to consider, but sounds painful.

    • Wow, I’m not visual that way at all, so it’s cool to learn about your process πŸ™‚ I only have a printed version when I get to the proof copy phase, which is quite different…. so cool!!!

  13. Editing is not my friend, but I am starting to learn how to bring it into my world. Something I am learning that is making it much more manageable is Scrivener. With the draft I am in edits with now, I have been able to break it up into sections and dig through those sections to find problem areas.

    The organization makes it so much more conducive to getting through the work. Instead of one big monstrous beast I am working through smaller bites.

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  17. Cate Russell-Cole

    Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    Keep a copy of this post in your writing survival toolkit! Thanks Victoria!

  18. I suppose chaos can be my friend. My first drafts are, like all initial attempts–chaotic, shitty, embarrassing, seemingly beyond repair. Ultimately, I tend to over-edit, however. Perhaps in an effort to compensate.

    Came here from CommuniCATE. Great post.

    From Ecuador,

    • Ecuador, que bueno πŸ™‚ I have studied TONS about Spain and Latin America in grad school πŸ™‚

      CommuniCATE is an awesome site, and Cate is wonderful. I’m glad you stopped by and glad to meet you!

      Overediting is a problem for me too. When I start changing things, and then changing them back, and then wondering if I should change them again, it’s time to stop editing and let someone else look at the piece. That’s the rule I go by.

  19. Oh goodness…our first drafts are always chaotic. They tend to be mostly junk since our main goal in the first draft is to get the words on the paper, no matter if the grammar/syntax is correct or not. Our current novel is being written completely out of sequence (on top of the confusion of dual authors AND multiple plot threads), which will be an adventure to sort out later. It’s good to know that others go through this also.

  20. Life certainly IS chaotic. And it seems to become more so with the information overload we’re all exposed to!

  21. I have the first draft of book one and my own NaNoWriMo book to edit and every time I look at them I want to run away.
    So far I have not done any actual writing since NaNoWriMo Camp as I moved from Mac OSX Pages 09 to Scrivener. Instead of editing I am working on book 3 … is it really that obvious that I am trying to avoid editing?

  22. How funny! I just finished a novel and after two rounds of editing, I feel like it is garbage! I am planning on sleeping for two days straight. Then, I will try to tackle it slowly chapter by chapter :p. Good luck to all of us!

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  25. I hope you don’t mind me being truthful in response but to me it felt like you were willing yourself to see it as a positive experience. Even if this were the case, I just don’t see how you get from positive experience to adventure.

    Do you think that bringing order to a chaotic first draft will mean you are on a fantastic adventure? How do you see it as an adventure? I really struggle when reading back through what I’ve written, thou my excitement usually lasts till the third or fourth re-draft out of probably 15 (I don’t know as I haven’t finished it yet) I just can’t see that not knowing when the end is as an exciting adventure.

    • I definitely agree with you that I was willing myself to see it as a positive experience. Editing is tough and so I try to be positive about it rather than grudge it, if that makes sense.

      And you are totally right that positive experience doesn’t always equal adventure.

      For me the adventure is in the not knowing how or where things will end. The adventure is in the uncertainty and risk. In realizing, “I have to do accomplish this goal, to get to this point, and I’m not sure how to do it or what it’s going to take.”

      For me at least, adventure always involves some uncertainty, difficulty, and risk. So that’s where the adventure factor comes in for me.

      And I don’t mind at all expression confusion and disagreement πŸ™‚ I never mind that. That’s what comments are for. I’m glad you opened this discussion πŸ™‚

      • Yes I often struggle to see things in a positive light, I find myself overwhelmed and stressed at how long it can take to edit and rework scenes.

        Do you have any tips on finding good beta readers? I need my short story looked at by fresh eyes but will never have the money to get it done professionally.

        So you enjoy not knowing? I really like to know how long things will take, I like to have a good idea where I’m headed. So for me I guess its an adventure but not really a happy one, where I get far too overwhelmed.

        • I hear you! It’s really weird because in life I am totally super organized and structured and like to feel in control. I guess writing is my outlet of spontanaiety and how I live a little on the wild side πŸ™‚

          I know there are groups on facebook and google+ that you can use to help find beta readers. You can also go to the World Literary Cafe (www.worldliterarycafe.com) and use their forums to connect with people.

          I found my beta readers at school/ in class.

        • Will check the website out thanks πŸ™‚

  26. Editing chaotic manuscripts… I find mine evolve. I am not saying I am typical, but I tend to write my (non-fiction) books at least twice or thrice. I do not rewrite them completely so much as refine them obsessively and they do get better. But having written a dozen or so published books and 5 million words of journalism, I have also lost at least two books to over-writing – i.e. I did not know when to stop.

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