Three Tips for Polishing Your Rough Draft

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By: Katie Powner

As an adjective, the word rough means “having an uneven or irregular surface; not smooth or level.” Boards can be rough. The seas can be rough. But how can stories be rough if they don’t have a surface?

Well, they do. The surface of a story is the plot. Everything that happens, that you can see in your mind’s eye as you read, creates the surface. Tom entered the kitchen. Sarah drove to the store. Evan kicked his neighbor in the shin.

I believe it’s what’s underneath the surface that makes a story truly shine—What exactly did Sarah need from the store? Why did Evan kick his neighbor?—but that’s a topic for another day. Today I want to talk about polishing the surface. Turning a rough draft into a smooth story.

When you’re reading a published novel and come upon a typo or other error, it pulls you out of the story. Why? Because it’s like finding a rough spot on an otherwise smooth surface. Your sock snags on it as you walk by. That’s why it’s important to eliminate as many typographical or grammatical errors as possible. But that alone is not enough to polish the roughness out of your manuscript. Here are three tips for turning your “uneven or irregular surface” into something smooth and level.

  1. Streamline your dialogue.

Turn those do nots and will nots into don’ts and won’ts. Eliminate most, if not all, greetings and small talk (things like: hello, how are you, what have you been up to, good to see you again). Do two characters say the same thing in different ways? Pick one and cut the other.

  1. Search for weasel words.

Every writer has them. The words we use way too often. Just, really, and probably are common weasels, but any word can count if it’s repeated enough. One time I used smile, or other forms of the word, so many times my face started to hurt. Another time it was cringe. The Ctrl+F function in Word is your weasel-hunting friend. Use it!

  1. Rearrange the furniture.

In most rooms, the ability to walk through with relative ease is a positive feature. If you find yourself tripping over the coffee table every time you walk through the living room, it’s probably in the wrong place. The same goes for your plot, AKA your story’s surface. If you’re reading through your rough draft and trip over a scene, it’s probably in the wrong place. Don’t be afraid to move it. Perhaps the coffee table would be better off located on the other side of the room…which means you might have to move the couch as well. Sorry, not sorry.

Some people address their rough draft’s deeper issues, such as character arc problems or underdeveloped themes, first. But some people like to smooth out the surface of the rough draft first in order to see the deeper issues more easily. Whichever way you do it, these three tips will help you turn that “uneven or irregular surface” into something smooth and level. Happy polishing!

How do you turn a rough draft into a smooth story? Check out these three tips for polishing your manuscript. @katie_powner #ACFWBlogs #writetip #critiques #ACFWCommunity Click To Tweet

Katie Powner lives in rural Montana and is a mom to the third power (biological, adoptive, and foster). She loves Jesus, red shoes, and candy. Her debut novel, The Sowing Season, released last year, and her second book, A Flicker of Light, released Oct. 5. Learn more at

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