How to Write + Revise Your Story in 5 Draft Phases

For a long time, including when I first began working on my current WIP novel, I was under the impression that my drafts would happen in a very linear, logical fashion. I believed there would be a defined ending to draft one, where I'd write "THE END" in bold, capital letters. Then, in draft two, I'd slowly but surely work on through my messy draft and fix it up with ease, looking for character consistencies and plot holes while looking at comma placement and intricate details. For some reason, I thought things would be very cut and dry, defined, a step-by-step formula I could just follow without issues.

I believed that first, I would write chapters 1-12, and I would clearly know when I was done writing. Then I would revise chapters 1-12, and I would know when I was done revising. Then I would edit chapters 1-12, then I would polish chapters 1-12, and that would be it. 

Perhaps this works for you, and if so, that's AMAZING. If you can be organized and logical and linear, you follow your process, my dear friend, and don't mess it up. 

But this does not work for me.

As of right now, the first draft of my novel is complete. It's messy and filled with plot holes and there's still much to be written. Things need to be added and rearranged. Characters need to be deepened. The heart needs to emerge. The details need emphasized. There's typos and it doesn't say "THE END" and there are massive sections that are unfinished. It's not yet ready for the printed page, even if it is only for my own eyes.

And yet, my first draft is "done" in my eyes. I've moved onto the second phase of my drafting process, even if that does technically mean adding more new writing on the page.

Many writers talk as if each draft is a final, complete end of a phase. They know exactly when they've finished one draft and started another. But I have a hard time following this. I'm not finished with draft one when I write "THE END", but rather when I feel as though I'm ready for draft two. I guess I have a different kind of process than most, but what follows is what works for me.

I move through drafts not as a need to achieve the next logical step in a numerical order of completion, but rather as a need a shift in attention to a specific craft element and a different mindset. 

The way I go from BIG IDEA to finished story is kind of weird. I always thought it would be this linear, very defined approach, but I don't function like that. My draft phases follow building the anatomy of a story through specific, key craft elements. My phases aren't defined by "The End" or "Draft 4", but by mindset and attention to certain story pieces. If you're curious what a "skeleton draft" is (or what a "freckle draft" is), click through to read how I write, revise, and edit my stories to completion in five distinct phases.

The way I complete a piece of writing doesn't follow the linear, completed sections that have a defined beginning and end to each phase. My draft phases seem to flow together, cross over on top of each other, and blur. Or perhaps, I know I'm in phase four, but I will be doing phase one work. The way I write and revise lives on a fluid continuum of working with different focused bits of attention that build off one another, instead of completing and following a checklist in a certain order. I do a lot of moving around, backtracking, and checkups, so the way I think about the drafting process is a bit different.

The 5 Draft Phases of Story Writing:



3»FRECKLES Revision


5»Tone It Up

A lot of writers agree on a certain order of draft creation and revisions. Your first draft is the messiest and your only goal is to get it done. You've got to get out something that you can work with. Then, you make big, macro changes on it. You add a structure, you fix any major issues, you bring it all together. Then, you make more micro edits on it. You make it pretty. You make it connect. You make it flow. Then, you tighten and polish it up. You focus on word choice, spelling, grammar, consistencies. And finally, you test it with beta readers. They help you diagnose where things aren't working so you can focus on fixing those.

This is roughly how my process functions as well, but I've also discovered I focus on different elemental pieces in each phase. Since each phase builds off the last, I create my story based on more of an organic, feelings-based, craft-element-by-craft-element approach.

How to go from first messy draft to finished product in five distinct phases. Writing, drafting, and revising included. Click through to read the whole post!

Phase 1

The Skeleton Draft

If you've read anything on this site, you know that I'm a very wordy person. I speak and think and write in long sentences. I over-explain to make sure my points are clear. And I elaborate whenever possible. This is true for my fiction as well. My characters, even when they're quite different than me, ramble and go on and on and say everything they could possibly say.

But when I start a new story, this isn't the case.

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.
— Terry Pratchett

My first messy drafts are bare-boned. They are the absolute basics needed to tell the story. I write only the required pit-stops from point A to point B, from beginning to end. They are surface level. They are plot-heavy. Character motivations are driving the plot, but those motivations are hidden behind action and dialogue. These drafts are the skeleton the story needs to hang on.

My incomplete, messy, first draft sits at 40,000 words. Hardly long enough to be considered a novel at this point, and yet, all the necessary plot pieces to tell the story are there. I know what happens and how it happens. But all the worthwhile, interesting, deeper meaning components are missing. There might be traces of them, but they're mainly invisible.


  • Shitty, messy, vomit draft focused on getting it all out

  • "Draft" Mode = all writing; no revising or editing; Turn off the internal editor/critic!

  • Exploration zone where new ideas rule

  • Lots of plot holes and missing pieces; may be incomplete

  • The bare-boned skeleton that tells the gist, the basics of the story

  • Plot-heavy surface-level events that get from point A to point B


Finish the draft. Silence your inner editor and get words onto the page. This phase is also called the "messy" draft, the "vomit" draft, or the "down" draft. Ann Lamott calls this the "shitty first draft". It's not supposed to be good. It doesn't have to be complete. It just has to be on the page. You have to create something that you can work with later. 

Your goal is to figure out what happens and how it happens. Remember your why in the back of your brain, but focus on just telling yourself the story. And get it done.


You can leave this phase when you know everything there is to know about your story. You can leave this phase if you're feeling bored and frustrated and that you've gotten the gist of everything written. If you are ready to dive deeper than just the surface-level elements or plot-heavy pieces of your story, you can move on to phase two. 

Phase 2

Fleshing Out the Muscles + Heart Draft

The second draft, for me, is when the story grows. It grows in word count, for sure (and I expect this draft to double in size), but it also grows in terms of deepening meaning. The second draft is all about putting the muscles on the skeleton I've already created. It's about putting a why behind the how-centered action I've already written. And most importantly, it's about defining the story's heart: what the story's "really" about, why I'm writing it, and what its true intentions are.

This draft is essential because at some point, after phase one, you'll realize the book you've written is NOT the book you intended to write. The book you've written is NOT the perfect book. This is absolutely normal; don't panic. It can be very easy to drift away from your goals and intentions for the story in a shitty rough draft where your only real direction is getting it out and exploring the options. But it is at this step that you figure out WHAT the perfect, ideal, intended book looks like so you can write to it. This is where the story really evolves on an abstract story level.


heart phase

In this phase, I first determine the gap between what I've written and what I intend to write. I typically outline again, write summaries and blurbs of what the story is actually about, and focus on enhancing the major scenes. Most importantly, I'm revisiting my "why". I'm asking myself why I need to be writing this story, what I want it to accomplish. I'm asking why my readers would want to read this story. This is what I use to determine what I need to add to my story as I flesh it out. 

When I flesh it out, I dig deep into my characters to learn about their goals, motivations and desires. I look at the histories and dive into the relationships they have with others. I focus on the internal, psychological plot, the commentary that runs through their minds and try to write the story from the self. This creates emotional gravity for the story to continue. It creates causality for the external plot I've already written to unfold. It digs into the themes, the heart, of what this story is supposed to be. 


  • Attention on characters (muscles) and themes (heart)

  • Re-vision Mode

  • Deepening the story through layers

  • Diving deeper into character motivations and backstories

  • Finding this story's heart: Figuring out why you're writing this story at all and what the point of this story is

  • Putting muscles on the skeleton: Putting a "why" behind the "how"-centered action; internal causality for external events; emotional gravity

  • Macro-changes; Global scale


As soon as you finish your initial first draft, that messy, skeleton, shitty, rough draft, put it away. Give yourself some time away from it to recharge and reconsider your intentions. 

When you're ready to get working on it again, the first thing you should do is revisit your why. Remind yourself why this story is important to you, why you wanted to write it. Imagine if this story didn't exist in the world. Would you be upset? Why do you want people to read it? What themes do you wish to convey with this work?

Then, write a blurb of the perfect book that encompasses this why. You're still ignoring your skeleton draft right now. Don't write a blurb about what you have already written, but rather, what the perfect, finished product would look like. If the muse came down and wrote gold for this story, how would it appear? This is the heart of your story.

Now, take a look at your draft. How does it measure up to this perfect version? What needs to be changed/added/deleted/revised to make this draft compare to your perfect draft? 

And then, focus in on your characters and get crystal-clear on what their why is. What do they want? Why do they want it? What is their history? What are their relationships like? What goes on inside their heads? What are they scared of? What are they driven by? How does their why relate to the plot you've already created? How can you demonstrate your themes through your character's' internal thoughts while fusing it with the external actions? This is you creating the muscles that hang on the skeleton. (P.S. Learn all about your characters with this questionnaire!)

Finally, get writing. This may mean starting a new draft from scratch. It may mean fusing new material with old material. It may mean creating a new, extended outline. It may mean throwing out some of the plot. Here, your goal is to dive deeper into the story. Get to know it even more intimately. Expand upon what you've already created. Get to the truth. Follow the path to the heart.  


When you are ready to move on to phase three, you'll have a completed draft that begins to resemble a story. If you're like me, you'll have a draft that looks like a fatty-fatty-hamburger-patty. If you tend to be wordy at first, you probably deleted a good chunk of your writing and so you might have a... hot dog. (Or something.) You will have a beginning, middle, and end. You will have seen your characters and themes intimately on the page. You'll be ready to print your big old mess onto the page and mark it up by hand.

Phase 3

The Freckles Revision

Phase three is what you think of when you think of revising. The freckles revision is about polishing and connecting the dots. As soon as you get here, you are printing this crazy story on paper and marking things up with a red pen. Symbols get emphasized. Placement of events and structure becomes king. The minor details (little freckles here and there) that are clues to the subconscious (and hopefully clues to the story's theme/heart) become very valuable and earn their place on the page, or they get removed. In this phase, you could be doing things like rewriting and perfecting phrasing, transitioning between sections and paragraphs, reordering things, and making sure details are relevant and powerful. 

This is zooming way, way, way into your story and doing micro-revisions. Perhaps not micro-revisions in the sense that it's about comma placement and word choice and grammar laws, but on the little bits and pieces that make up your story, that make the story flow, that make it real, that tie it all together. While you can begin to fix a few sentence and grammatical errors as you come across them in this phase, the real attention is all on making the story make sense and be pretty. 

The "freckle" revision is focused on marking up the page, just as freckles mark your body. This phase is also called the freckle phase because it focuses on the small details, small little "freckles" that make up your work. And finally, if you've ever drawn freckle constellations on your body (i.e. connecting your freckles with a marker to make silly shapes), you'll see how this phase is all about connecting the itty-bitty, teeny-tiny dots your story is comprised of, just like you can connect the dots of your own freckles. 

(Am I the biggest weirdo for using this metaphor? Am I the only one who's super proud that the freckles on my right thigh connect to make a kite? Probably. But whatever. This is what we're working with right now). 


  • Attention on small details, symbols, flow

  • Re-vision + Some Editing Mode

  • Making things make sense AND look pretty

  • A printed-out, red pen mark-up

  • Zooming way way way into your story for micro-revisions

  • Seeing how things are working paragraph-by-paragraph, scene-by-scene, chapter-by-chapter


When you get to phase three, you first want to print out your manuscript onto hard paper so you can work by hand. There's something that shifts in your brain when you work by hand versus when you work on the computer, and this is the time to take advantage of that. On your first read through, simply read through the whole story and ONLY mark when things are working or are not working. Don't dive into all the changes yet. 

Next, you want to do a massive mark-up. You have free-reign to destroy your manuscript (in the best way). Reorder sentences, scenes, chapters. Change phrasings. Notice the small details, small freckle symbols and emphasize them throughout the story. Add things, change things – make it as awesome as you can. 

Go through this chronologically. If you have to flip back or flip forward and add things, that's fine. But make sure you're focusing on the overall flow of your story, how your reader will understand the story once it's finished. 

Before you put your changes back into your draft, make sure you AT LEAST save a copy of the original. You can retype everything in from scratch (which also gives you the advantage of doing a second phase of editing while typing everything in), but at least save one copy. Perhaps you change something now that you decide you didn't want to change later. You're going to want to have a copy of the original. Even if it's only to look back and see how far you've come and how much your story has evolved. 


After you've printed out and revised your story on paper even just once, it's going to look very very different than when you started this phase. This is a section of big, big changes that you can VISIBLY see on the page. You may only have to go through one major round of revisions, but you'll probably want to do a few of them. Repeat the steps of this phase (printing out a copy, marking it up, typing in the revisions) until you can no longer find things to revise. When you're feeling pretty confident about what this story is doing, move on to phase four. 

Phase 4

The Doctor Check-Up Edit

At this phase, you are nearing the end of your goal: a finished story you're proud of. But you want to make sure things are all working properly, everything is there that needs to be there, and that the story adds up to a successful story. 

Enter the doctor. This is where you want to train your brain's inner critic to diagnose things that aren't working so you can refocus your attention on those exclusive pieces and bring them up to par with the rest of the work. Draft phase four is all about preparing the story to enter the world as a successful story. 

Is my story doing what it's supposed to be doing on every level?

This is when ask questions like: Is the skeleton is fused with the muscles? Is the heart beating properly? Is there an extra finger that needs to be amputated? 

Okay, this metaphor is getting a littttttle bit weird, but you get my point. 

This doctor's check-up takes a look at EVERYTHING your story has. This is where comma placement and grammar become important, but this also a whole lot of other things. You want to again look at your story's why and make sure it's aligned with that. You want to make sure your plot is strong. You want to make sure your characters are believable. You want to make sure your descriptions are unique, without being over-the-top. You want to make sure you have enough backstory, but not too much backstory. You want to make sure dialogue is authentic. You might make big changes like redefining a character or altering a plot. And you might make small changes like tweaking dialogue or enhancing description for a bigger effect. 

This is where you want to use a checklist to make sure you take a good look at everything. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: You'll notice that this phase looks eerily similar to phase three, where you were also doing big and little markups. The difference between the two is small, but necessary.

In phase three, you revise based on feeling. You are a writer, and you have a strong intuitive sense of what's working and what needs to be changed. You want to revise based on these intuitions in phase three.

But in phase four, you want to double-check and make sure that you're not missing anything. Phase four is where you get organized. You don't just go at the manuscript with your red pen ready to make it pretty; but rather, you go to it with a clinical approach. You distance yourself from your manuscript in phase four in order to be critical and analytical as to what's working and what isn't.

If phase three is you birthing the story onto the page in passion and pain, then phase four is when you become the doctor recording the time, cutting the cord, cleaning it up, checking weight, height, health. OR, if phase three is you murdering your darlings with an ax out of passion, phase four is you becoming the lawyer and judge and detective who analyze the case looking at all evidence from an objective perspective.

(Mixed metaphor much?)


  • Zoom-out to examine everything; Zoom-in to fix small things

  • Examination + Editing Mode: Is everything working properly?

  • Attention on EVERY possible element of your story

  • Checklist Check-up


When you enter into this phase of editing, you want to come with a plan. You want to have a prescribed list of steps for yourself to check in order to make sure you look at everything you should look at. 

You should try to focus on bigger elements first and work your way down to smaller elements. What I mean is: Start with global issues (plot, character, structure, pacing, voice) and work your way down to teeny-tiny details (word choice, grammar conventions, consistency). 

You should focus on looking at one craft element at a time. This means when you're looking for character-related issues, ignore any issues that come up about plot or consistency or whatever else. Focus exclusively on being very intentional with each individual element.

You have two options:

  1. You can choose to edit the entire story or novel focusing on one craft element at a time. This means you can attack the entire book, starting at chapter 1 all the way through chapter 12, by looking only at characterization, then start from chapter 1 again, all the way through chapter 12, and read through looking only at plot.

  2. You can choose to edit each chapter individually by each craft element. This means you read chapter 6 once only looking for characterization. Then, before moving on to chapter 7, you reread chapter 6 only looking for plot.

Do whatever method works best for you. 

No matter how you decide to attack this gigantic task, remember the all-encompassing central question that should be guiding you: Is it necessary AND is it interesting? 

A Brief Checklist of What to Look For:


  • Motivations? Goals? Fears? Desires?

  • Character Arc?

  • Well-rounded?

  • Backstories? Relationships?

  • Consistency?

  • Secondary Characters? Antagonists?

  • Dialogue consistency and authenticity?

  • Stakes?

  • Logical behavior?


  • Beginning, middle, end?

  • Inciting incident? Conflict? Climax? Resolution?

  • Does your protagonist alternate between up and down movements?

  • Freytag's Pyramid? Hero's Journey? Attention to plot conventions for your genre?

  • Chapter level - Do things start where they should? Do things end where they should? Is there a beginning, middle, and end?

  • Scene level - Do things start where they should? Do things end where they should? Is there a beginning, middle, and end?


  • Does it shine through in beginning, middle, and end?

  • Does it relate to symbols?

  • Are there clear examples where it is shown rather than told? Can you enhance these?


  • Is the order of the plot logical?

  • Is the order of the chapters logical AND interesting?

  • Would it be better if some information was revealed earlier?

  • Does it flow?


  • Large-scale - slow chapters or quick chapters?

  • Small-scale - long sentences or short sentences?

  • Is it on par with what's happening in the plot?

  • Balance internalization with externalization?


  • Aligned with theme?

  • Consistent with voice?


  • Is the "where" relevant?

  • Is it descriptive enough?


  • Too much? Too little? Necessity?



  • What's your character's name again? What's this town called? Where are they hanging out? What season is it? What day is it? How old are they? What is the name of x, y, z thing? How long have they known each other? Didn't you say she was 30 five-pages ago, but now she's 28?


  • Punctuation and grammar rules?

  • Word-choice (Is there a better word? Is there a best word?)

  • Delete unnecessary evils (i.e. "very", "damn", "that", "-ly" words, "There is/They are" etc.)

  • Dialogue tags?

  • Passive voice?

  • Voice consistency?

This is also when you really really really really REALLY want to read out loud. This will give you a big insight into how everything is functioning. And it helps distance you from your work and experience it more like a reader will. 

As you start to edit more and more of your own work, you'll notice where you have to spend more time in your check-up and where you can kind of skip over. This is how you begin to understand your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. If you to spend a lot of time bringing the dialogue up to par with the rest of the story in every piece you edit, then you should realize dialogue is one of your weaknesses, and yyou should take the time to strengthen your dialogue writing skills. If you realize that your plots are always pretty neat and don't require much work as other craft elements, then you should realize creating plots is one of your strengths.  

You know you're done with this phase when:

You're going to spend a lot of time rereading your story again and again and again in this phase. As much as you try to distance yourself from your story, by the end of this phase, you'll be able to recite some passages verbatim. When you can't think of any new changes and your eyes are about to bug out of your head, it's time to move onto phase five, the final phase.

Phase 5

Tone It Up (With Others)

When you reach phase five, your story is now very, very complete. It has the anatomy of a story (a skeleton, muscles, a heart, freckles, and even a check-up from the doctor) and it has the potential to go off into the world. But first, it's got to get very, very strong.

When you "just can't" with your story anymore, it's time to get a fresh pair of eyes on it to see how your hard work paid off. Find yourself some good beta-readers (preferable some who ARE writers and who AREN'T writers) to take a look at your work. Step away from your manuscript – avoid it COMPLETELY if you can – and let your readers simply read. 

I have my handful of readers I ALWAYS turn to when I hit this point, and I would be completely lost without their advice. Having the time to step away from my work and not worry about it helps my mind reset. Having them explain my story back to me helps illuminate if I'm accomplishing what I'm intending to do. And hearing their critiques helps me realize what to fix and what to keep the same. 

Usually, my beta readers will guide me into figuring out which phase I need to circle back on. If the story is working very, very well, I'll just need to do some minor edits here and there, probably in the doctor phase four. If the story isn't working very well, I might have to circle back to phase two (the muscles and heart) to re-vision this work, or even phase one (the skeleton) to rewrite a new version from scratch. But my beta readers let me know how they receive the story so I know what to do next. They tell me what they like, what they don't like, and there's always some off-the-wall epiphany (good and bad) that I discover through my beta-readers' comments thrown in there, just for good measure. 

This phase is all about "toning up" the manuscript. It's most likely almost there, but it just needs a fresh pair of eyes to tell you which piece to "tone" to perfection. If all your beta readers hate your protagonist (in the bad way), you know to tone her up. If all your beta readers think that one scene with the swimming pool and the description of water was gorgeous, you know that that part is already well-toned.


  • Examination Mode – Full Analysis

  • Stepping AWAY from your work to get reset your head and "forget" your story

  • Giving your manuscript away to others so they can help you "tone it up"

  • Listening to how others receive your work so YOU can determine if it's functioning well or not

  • Compass pointing you where to go to work

  • Could be the last phase, could be a sign to circle back to a previous phase; If you do circle back, this is NOT a bad thing! Often, you may not even need to hit ALL the phases again.


Find some people willing to read your work and give you their HONEST opinion. You want to have people love your work, sure, but you want to know what's actually working and what actually isn't. Your parents and your significant other will love it no matter what, because they love you. If they can edit well also, then wonderful. If they're only going to give you praise, find other betas. 

Find people who ARE writers and who ARE NOT writers. You want someone who gets what you're doing in an artistic, creative, writerly way, but you also want people who read just for the sake of reading. Get a diverse group of beta readers. 

When you give them your manuscript, ask them to note places that they liked and places that they didn't like. If they have suggestions, fantastic! If they don't, that's okay too. But it's important to note BOTH where things are working and where things are not working so YOU can decide what to do about it.

You may also ask them to summarize the story and state its major themes and intentions. I especially like this piece, because this shows whether I've done my job or not. If they articulate everything you wanted back to you, then you know you've done well. If they can't tell you what your story is about (on a plot level or a theme level), it's probably confusing and you've got to refocus your energy on making those things clear. This is also where a LOT of epiphanies come into play for me. It's FASCINATING to see your story impact another human and have them relate it back to what they think about the world. And different themes (on a tangent of your major theme) may pop up for different people depending on what's going on with them. This is the coolest beans of them all. 

When they have your story, DON'T LOOK AT IT! Put yourself on lock-down mode away from this draft. You can work on something new. You can work on nothing at all. But you can't work on this story. Give your brain the rest it deserves. Give yourself some time to step away from your story. Let yourself take a break and recharge. 

When they tell you their responses, be a good listener. Don't interrupt them and tell them they're wrong. Don't interrupt them and justify your reasonings for doing x, y, and z. Let them explain your story with their interpretations, their praises, and their concerns without judgement or interruption. When your story goes out into the world, you will NOT be there to justify things to every single reader. Your story has to stand on its own. If you don't like what they're saying now, you at least have to be aware of it so you can fix it before it's out in the world and you don't have the opportunity to change anything. 

After they're completely finished, you can ask follow-up questions if you like. These may be about particular craft elements (i.e. "What did you think of the characters?") or they may be story-specific questions (i.e. "I wrote this story in present-tense, what did you think about that and how it played out for the piece?" Always ask open-ended, non-guided questions in order to get the best response.

Then, look at the commonalities amongst all your responses. If all your readers agreed that the love story doesn't get enough attention, you probably should give the love story some more attention. If only one of your readers thought that scene in the woods was stupid, it may or may not be stupid. The common responses from your beta-readers will guide you to where you need to focus your attention and continue to revise. 

Based on the responses, go back and rework on your story, at whatever phase is necessary, to make your story the best it can be


When your story is ready to go out into the world, you'll know it. There won't be anything left to revise. Your beta-readers will love your work. You'll have nothing left to do but format it appropriately, and send it off into the world. I always feel when I reach this point.

The End?

This is a long freaking process. But writing is a long, arduous thing. From initial idea to completed story, there's going to be a lot of evolution. You're working with a bunch of tiny moving elements that are constantly growing and evolving. These pieces depend on each other. While you're drafting and revising and editing, you have to pay attention to which pieces need the most attention, focusing on fusing everything together in a logical and interesting way, but it may not be as cut and dry as you might think. 

This described process is very fluid. While I initially work through phases one through five in a linear, chronological order, once I reach phase five, it can all jump around. I might complete my work at the first attempt at phase five. Or, I might start back over at phase one. Or I might return to phase two, then phase four, then whatever. The process DOES NOT have to be a chronological progression, and that's okay. I function best under a fluid process that allows me to feel my way through the work, making a big old mess and jumping around whenever I can. 

So if you need to, give yourself permission to work through your story in an organic way. Things will get messy and will probably stay messy for awhile (especially if you're jumping through different phases). But this is okay. Focus your attention on building your story, your baby, from skeleton to the muscles and heart to the freckles to the doctors visit to toning it up. It may not be as organized and linear as other methods, but this may just be the perspective needed to get you back on track and create the best story you can.

Happy Writing!

How do you move from first draft to finished story? What sort of process do you go through?