How Many Drafts?

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Kygo’s remix of Take On Me)

I should say from the get-go that all the research I’ve done, all the books I’ve read on writing, say the same thing: it changes based on the author and the project. Some authors may write 200 perfect words a day, finish their first draft in a year, and it will be publisher-ready. Some may write dozens of drafts, each taking less than a month. There is no right way to do this.

If you, like me, are dismayed by a lack of consensus for advice, get used to it. The writing field is full of people who think they know best, all of whom write in drastically different ways. And in a way, that kind of makes sense – if they all did the exact same thing, we’d have no variety in our books.

If you want a place to start, I suggest you take the same path as me. It goes like this:

  1. First Draft
  2. Wait at least two months
  3. Second Draft
  4. Wait at least two weeks
  5. Third draft

The first draft should be a sprint. You don’t talk to anyone about what you’re writing, don’t ask for feedback or critiques; you don’t even look back over your own chapters and start editing a little bit. You shit that project out as quickly as possible, because the first draft is about momentum. Especially if you’re writing something longer, you can quickly lose it if you get bogged down in editing. I swear this was the single biggest thing holding me back from writing in the beginning, so if you can resist the temptation, you’ll be well off.

The waiting period is to allow that steaming-hot mess of a first draft to cool off. You need time to gain perspective, to allow yourself to see it from a third-party point of view. I swear if you touch it before that first waiting period is over, your edits will not be nearly as clear or helpful.

If the first draft was a sprint, the second draft is a marathon. You need to re-read over the whole thing and determine – what are you trying to do with the project, and are you achieving that goal? The answer will almost invariably be “Yes, but not as well as I could be.” That’s fine. In addition to making continuity changes related to events of the project, character temperaments (never, never, have a character make a decision they wouldn’t make just to forward the plot), and other elements, you’ll be looking for the flow of your novel that takes it from beginning to end. There will be chapters that perfectly match the flow you intend. Great; leave them in for draft 3. Then there will be chapters that jut out, slow or even halt the flow. Kill them. It doesn’t matter if they contain your favorite bit of dialogue, or your most impressive side character – kill them. They will stop your reader faster than anything.

The second waiting period is more of a formality than anything. Some people can go right from draft 2 to draft 3. For me, I get so invested again in draft 2 that I need a little break first.

In draft 3, you’ll be cleaning up and making everything look pretty. All the little spelling, grammar, and word choice errors, all the bad descriptors and the horrible adverbs – these are the targets of your last draft. Your story is looking good, nothing is blocking the flow, but you still can smooth things out just a little bit more. This one should be almost as slow as the second draft and to me it’s the worst one, but it’s absolutely necessary to make your project publisher-ready.

A last thing to note – you can have beta readers look over your work only when you’ve finished the second draft. That first draft can easily be killed by one accidentally harsh comment from a beta reader. The second draft is about you getting your story in the order you want – readers’ opinions might distract you from the goals you have for your project. But any reader can ignore the little word choice errors (or, if they’re homies, they can circle them for you) and see if your tale overall is compelling and engaging.

I’ll definitely have another article on beta readers soon – what makes for a good one and a bad one. For now, just get started on that first draft. If you intend to write novels, you’ll need practice shitting out 100,000 words in two months.

Yours, rested and slightly saner,

-R.R. Buck


5 thoughts on “How Many Drafts?

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