No one writes a perfect story, essay, or novel the first time around. That’s where revision comes in. The first draft contains everything you wanted to say. The final draft contains everything you needed to say—those things that are essential to the story.
The first draft is likely to have more abstractions, while the final draft should be brimming with significant detail.
The final draft should not contain every detail you find interesting or clever, every detail that came to you during your many inspired and challenging hours of writing. It should, instead, contain relevant details that add meaning. Purple flowered couch may be less meaningful, for example, than the broken pot beneath the window. The purple couch is merely a matter of taste, whereas the broken pot indicates that something has happened—a break-in, maybe, or a more general state of disrepair in the lives of the characters.
The final draft may be longer or shorter than the first draft, depending on your inclinations, but it should be more focused.
I usually edit out many thousands of words over the course of my revisions, but some writers create a skeletal first draft and flesh it out later. I tend to write an overblown first draft and pare it down over time. Whether you pare down or expand upon your first draft, in the end, your final draft should be more focused. The associations among the various parts of your narrative will be clearer, and the themes will have been strengthened by the actions and observations of the characters.
The first draft is your baby, the thing you can’t let go of. The final draft is your concession that a book must be interesting, it must be cognizant of an audience, and it must make the reader want to keep turning pages.
By “concession” I do not mean that you have sold your literary soul, only that you have found a way to combine your best vision and your hard-won narrative skills, in order to make a thing of beauty that is both meaningful and entertaining.
Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels and two story collections. Get her weekly writing and publishing tips, or sign up for an online writing class.