Rough Draft to Polished Story Ready for Submission

So you wrote fast & dirty.

You’ve birthed a rough draft. And that thing is uggggggggly.

baby rough drafts are like little frogs

Because let’s face it. Rough drafts are called rough for a reason.

No one ever writes a good first draft.

Most first drafts are so bad they should be immediately shredded into parakeet litter.

If you’ve ever taken a first draft and sent it into the world for submission, shame on you. You deserve that rejection letter.

Most professional stories are the result of 5…6…7…12…drafts.

If that sounds like too much work, then you’re complaining to the wrong person, and you’re in the wrong business.

This is the life of a professional writer. You can put on your Grown-Up Writer Britches and get the work done, or you can go back to the Kids’ Area.


For those of you who are still here, holding onto your rough drafts and wondering what to do next:

You’ve got your Ugly Frog Baby Rough Drafts (I have this theory that newborn babies always look like frogs, even my own. I love’em, but they look like shriveled little tadpole thingies.) and how to morph these things into the Beautiful Swan Stories you read in the magazines.

Well, I’m gonna tell you.

You put that Ugly Frog Baby Rough Draft in a drawer.

(NOT your real newborn frog-baby. Child Protective Services frown upon that.) No. Put your manuscript in a drawer. Or file folder. Or thumb drive.

Now walk away.

Write something else.

I’m not kidding. Go.

Forget about it.

Frog Baby needs to ferment. Did you wrinkle your nose? Good. Because that’s what has to happen. If you enjoy a good wine (hellooooo!), then you understand that bacteria have to work into the organic matter, break it down, and release the sugars into the soupy compote before the concoction is palatable.

(Yes, this is a horribly mixed metaphor, but we aren’t editing yet so stuff it.)

Two or three weeks or however long you can stand it, come back and get Soupy Fermented Frog Baby Draft out of his folder.

Use tongs if necessary. Because he’s going to be a whole lot uglier than you remembered.

You see, in your memory Frog Baby was glorious. He was inspired. He was poetic. He was almost ready for submission.

This? In your hands? This is not the same Frog Baby.

This thing is beat-up, wonky, misspelled, rambling, chock full of adjectives and adverbs, and so pitted with potholes it might as well be a gravel road in Alabama. (I’m from the South. I’m allowed to say that.)

If you had sent this out on submission, you’d be kicking yourself right now. Or if you’d self-published Frog Baby and immortalized him in this incarnation? Yeah.

Bless your heart.

But you didn’t. Because I told you to shut Ugly Frog Baby up in a drawer, and like a good student, you listened.

So now you take Frog Baby Rough Draft and open him up in your processing software of choice.

You save him as a copy so you still have his original because even though he’s ugly as the devil’s arsehole, he might turn out to have a handsome freckle or two.

Read him.


Just. Read. Frog Baby.

Because somewhere in that primordial ooze are the bones of a real story. A beautiful story.

That’s what you’re looking for as you read. These bones may not be a full skeleton yet. They might be half Frog Baby and half Enchanted Unicorn, but guess what? Once you see the Enchanted Unicorn sleeping under Frog Baby’s skin, you can rebuild the Unicorn’s bones until they fill out Frog Baby’s whole carcass.

Slowly but surely you’ll begin to transform our ugly old Frog Baby into a beautiful Unicorn one bone at a time.

But first, you have to read the rough draft of your story.

And I’m willing to bet a wooden nickel that the story isn’t quite what you remembered.

Now, step away.

Sit in the yard. Take a walk.

And think about how you’re going to move around Frog Baby’s bones, so they slide into place and match up with the Enchanted Unicorn bones trying to peek through your story.

Once you have an idea of how you’re going to shape this new story, go back to your computer and sit down. Take a deep breath. One of two things will happen:

You’ll start at the beginning of Frog Baby, and as you read him again, you’ll tweak bits and pieces, adding dialogue, characters, maybe even scenes.


You’ll throw part or all of Frog Baby into the swamp and start over.

This is okay. Because now you know where you’re going.

This is rewriting.

In your mind’s eye, keep the shape of that Enchanted Unicorn. That’s the end goal you’re working towards.

If Frog Baby wants to stick his tongue out and make it curl over his head, you have to snip it off. It sounds cruel, but editing is not a kind process. If Frog Baby wants to spread his amphibious toes wide and flat, you have to bind them tight and make them into a neat, trim hoof.

This is called “Writing the Second Draft.”

When you finish, (let me disillusion you here) you will have something that looks like a cross between a goat and a salamander.

If you’re lucky.

If you’re unlucky, you’ll have a frog with a sparkly pigtail.

What do you do now?

Rough Drafts grow up to be unicorn drafts




Until you achieve the desired Enchanted Unicorn.

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