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Research for General Nonfiction Writers: The Rough Draft

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Your rough draft is the bridge between your research phase and your writing phase. During this step, you should finish up any research you need to do.

So if you’ve been following my posts, you’ve already completed the exploratory phase, gotten together lists of keywords and questions, collected sources, taken notes, and organized those notes.

Now it’s time to move on to the final phase of the research process. What does writing the rough draft have to do with research? Writing the draft will uncover holes in your information that need to be filled.

Rough draft

Different writers prefer different phases of the writing process. For me, hands down, the rough draft is the hardest part of any project. But it’s also the most rewarding. Once you’ve got this part behind you, the only thing left to do is shine and polish.

What a rough draft is

A rough draft is just the first version of your manuscript. You’re only trying to get down, in writing, what you want your book will say in roughly the order you want to present it.

What a rough draft isn't

A rough draft is never the final version of your manuscript. No one ever writes a perfect draft the first time (or the second). So the pressure is off. Feel free to write with abandon because no one needs to see this draft except for you.

The rough outline

In the last post, I talked about making a rough table of contents. I touched briefly on consulting a developmental editor. These editors are specialists at shaping the book as a whole—at the chapter and section levels. If you have the money, I recommend finding a good developmental editor at this point. They are invaluable if you aren’t sure how your information would best be arranged. The money you spent will be earned back in increased sales.

But if you’re confident you have the correct method, you can go ahead and shape your table of contents yourself.

Tweak the outline if necessary

As you go through your outline with the stacks of cards (arranged by keyword), brainstorm different ways you could arrange the information you have. Ask people you trust how it would make the most sense to them. Rearrange things. If it becomes obvious a stack of notecards you planned to put in Chapter 7 makes more sense in the context of Chapter 3, move them.

Organize note order within the keyword piles

If you’ve been following this series of posts, you’ve already organized the outline and arranged your notes. Now read through the notes and make sure your message is clear. Then clip or rubber band them together (if you’re not using digital notes).

It’s possible to organize the notes for one chapter and then write that chapter before moving on to the next one. But I recommend going through the notes and organizing them all before beginning to write anything. This saves time later. You won’t have to backtrack to insert any information you reconsider later on.

Here’s an example of a reconsidered note:  you place a notecard under a keyword you’ve placed in your third chapter. When organizing for that chapter, you realize that note really belongs in the second chapter. But if you’ve already written the second chapter, it will take you longer to go back, find where that information should be placed, and rewrite the section.

By organizing all the notes before you begin writing, you can more easily move cards to other places in your manuscript, eliminating the need to rewrite sections.

Writing the rough draft

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Once your notecards are organized in order, you are ready to begin writing. My advice, depending on the amount of information you may have, is to strive to complete one chapter per day. If you need longer than a day, that’s fine. But taking a break at the end of each chapter and getting a good night’s sleep before beginning the next one will keep the writing fresh.

Once you begin working, keep writing. Don’t overthink how to make a section sound better or more clear. You know what you are talking about. Right now, you are just getting the ideas down in prose that makes sense to you. The time for polish will come later.

Noting sources

Since you are using your notecards to guide you through your writing, you will find it easy to give credit as appropriate. If you’ve been following my posts on this topic, your source identification marker and page number should already be on each notecard. All you have to do at this point is refer to the source. If you are writing in an academic style, you can put in the appropriate source citation.

Be scrupulous about putting quotation marks around anything you quote directly and indicate from where and whom you found the quote. Keep in mind that if the quote is lengthy, you may need to obtain permission from the original writer or publisher. Your style manual will have guidance on that topic.

If you don’t have a style manual, I recommend you purchase a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style in the latest edition (the 17th at this writing) or subscribe to their online edition. It’s the most commonly used style manual for general nonfiction books.


While writing, it’s common to find problems with cards, writing order, or missing information. Don’t let any of these slow you down for more than an instant. Have systems to deal with each issue quickly. You will go back to the problem during clean-up.

  • Unneeded cards

If you find a card that doesn’t seem to fit in with what you are writing, now is not the time to ruminate. Simply lay the card aside. Make a note of it if you have any ideas about what to do with it, but don’t get sidetracked trying to find its home. If you think you don’t need it at all, note that, but don’t throw it away just yet.

  • Writing order

Maybe you are writing and suddenly realize this entire section would be more effective somewhere else. That’s okay! Keep writing and make a note in the margin (a different color ink would be great) or use the comment feature in your word processor. You can revisit this issue when you make your first revision.

  • Missing information

While writing, you realize you have no proof for a point you want to make. You’re going to have to do more research. Again, don’t stop writing. Make a note in the margin indicating what you need and keep going.

Fixing problems

Once you’ve completed a chapter, you can go back and fix the issues you had with it before moving on to the next chapter. Revisit those cards you laid aside, ponder over the notes in your margins, and fix things as you can.

Alternatively, you may want to wait to deal with any or all of these issues when you have the entire manuscript’s rough draft complete. The important thing is to make sure all these snags and loose ends are tidied up before you move on to revisions.

Let it rest

At this point, most writing manuals will tell you to set the draft aside for a while. This is excellent advice. You don’t want to give a rough draft to a copyeditor and expect them to make it perfect. If for no other reason, you want to give editors the best version you can because it will save you money.  Editors charge more if they have to do more.

Remember: rough drafts are called rough for a reason—they all need a lot of work. So put it aside for a day, a week, a month, or even longer if you can afford to. Time will help you see what you have written more clearly.


After some time has passed, begin the editing process.

Your editing

For at least the first pass, you should edit your own work. Read it out loud. Have your word processing software read it to you. Then go back and check for misspellings, typos, usage issues, and any other problem you can catch. 

Beta readers

Once you have made one (preferably two) revisions, I recommend you get several beta readers for your work. Have a question sheet for them to fill out when they are done. Be gracious and grateful to them for their feedback whether you agree with what they say or not, especially if they are volunteering. They are doing you a service.

Some people believe you should send your work to beta readers after you have a line and/or copy editor go over it. I don’t agree with this because beta readers are there to let you know if your manuscript works for a reader. They may say your organization is confusing and have suggestions for improving it. They can tell you when sections of your book are unclear.

In other words, they give you a reader’s perspective on what could make your book better. So I think it’s a good idea to get 3-4 beta readers and then revise the book according to their feedback before sending it off to line editors and copy editors.

Reedsy and Build a Book Buzz provide more information on beta readers.

Line and copy editors

After you’ve edited your manuscript and gotten it back from beta readers,  you’re ready to hire line editors and copyeditors. You may not need both. But you will definitely need a copy editor. What’s the difference between them?

Line editors go over your manuscript to make sure the text flows and makes sense. They may rearrange or eliminate paragraphs. They will tell you if you have written something offensive that needs to be fixed. This can be invaluable information. After all, you don’t want to be sued.

You can skip the line editing if you are confident in the clarity of your writing.

Copy editors will go over your work, word by word, to uncover fuzzy wording, usage issues, and to ensure consistent styling.  I think every writer, no matter how brilliant, should hire a copy editor for their manuscript. Why? Because there are too many issues that can ruin your manuscript’s credibility if they are not fixed before publication.

Copy editors will make sure your numbers are styled consistently. They will ensure you don’t forget to cite a source. If you have a bad habit of changing tenses in sentences, they will point them out.  They make sure you use the right word if you confuse the meaning of “allude” and “elude.” These are just a few of the pesky problems that scream “amateur” to a reader. Trust me, these issues will hurt your reputation and your sales.

Copy editors have been trained to find these types of mistakes. Without them, your credibility is in jeopardy. So hire the best one you can afford. Look for editors with either past publishing experience or training from a certificate program or both. Check references if you can. If you are writing in a specific field, like medicine, see if you can find an editor who specializes in your area.

That's it!

Once you’ve gotten the revisions done, you are officially done with the research. You are ready to move on to production and marketing.  

Suggestions for help with writing polish

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