One question many beginning writers have (I certainly did) is, ‘How many drafts do I need?’
It’s kind like wondering how much effort will it take to be successful in any avenue in life — from getting fit, to becoming a great writer, to traveling across the country — the answer is, ‘The number it takes to get it done right.’
For my first book, I eventually had what I called somewhere between 9-15 drafts (!). But that was a 120,000 word novel that took eight years.
These days, I tend to call the number five or six. More important than the number is what you accomplish with each one. Here are my (general) steps.
Drafts for a Writing Project:
The Pre-Draft. I’m a big fan of giving your ideas time to build and your characters time to come into the light. My novel Society & Civility had the shortest time from idea to starting the first draft, only a couple of months. On the other hand, I wrote the pilot of the series Spark of Madness this last year and I’ve been thinking about those characters for over ten years. The rule is, I start when I’m excited and I have a real feeling for who these characters are and what’s dynamic to me about their world.
First Draft. The hardest draft for me. There’s two parts of it. One is just taking off the ‘editor’ hat and just being the writer. In concert with that, I will only reread what I wrote the session before, super-lightly edit/copy-edit it and then continue forward writing the next section. That part’s pretty easy. I have a one page outline that describes some of the biggest plot points.
The harder, second part is that I think the more awesome and brave and daring and weird and beautiful and in love with the world you can be in the first draft, the better the end result will be. My sister and I enjoy making necklaces because, if the beads are already beautiful, it’s really doable to create a sensational finished project. The first draft is gathering together the right beads.
Second Draft. Now you can look at the whole of what you’ve written. Hopefully you’ve had a break of a couple of weeks or a couple of months since you wrote it. For me, most of it I will keep. But I also see clearer the bigger changes needed. A relationship that’s missing a beat may need an added scene. Maybe a character is important later and needs more time in the beginning.
Now is the right time to do the structural changes. In my screenplay Evonny Mitchell & the Unicorn Knights I originally had a year-long time frame and teen Evonny spent a lot of her story in high school on Earth. In service of shortening the length, I cut out most of Earth and focused on a few days in magical Paravance. For a film, it was the right choice to cut it down.
Third Draft. Having made the big changes, I now go back and polish. Read things aloud. Look at character arcs. Look at if I pushed myself to write as beautifully and meaningfully as possible. Heck, even do some research to check small details. This is basically the as-good-as-I-can-make-it-by-myself draft. When I’ve done all I know how to do, it’s time for the beta readers.
Fourth Draft. Finding beta readers is hard. I try to find three people who’s opinions I value, who have my best interests at heart, and who generally like what I write — and who will be honest with me. After getting their feedback, I start draft four. My own opinion is what matters most in the end, but I listen to what they liked, didn’t like, didn’t understand. Favorite characters and not-so-favorite ones.
Society & Civility offered the greatest challenge when all three beta readers loved the novel — except all three HATED this major twist in the middle. After a morning of grumbling and doubting myself, I decided to just try another way — kind of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure version of writing a novel. I had to rewrite most of the second half of the book, but it’s now my favorite novel I’ve written — and sooo much better because of the feedback I got.
Fifth Draft. After I incorporate in the changes I agreed with from my beta readers, I will usually let it rest for a while. Then I’ll return, reading with fresh eyes and making little changes. I’ll also do a read-through just to catch all the errors I see that the ‘Spellcheck’ never caught (for you screenwriters, use the ‘robot’ read-through feature on ‘Final Draft’ — it’s great for catching errors!). Hiring a copy editor can still be a great idea, but in either case, you want to have it as good as you can make it.
Sixth Draft etc Until Final Draft. You want to have the work be as good as you can make it, and every time you reread it you may make list of notes like I do ‘Page 16 — transmute — right word? Make better?’ But eventually, you’ll have made it as ‘better’ as you can. You’ve polished, thought through, looked at each word, researched each question. And then you need to grab a little of that boldness you had back in the First Draft — and you need to be brave enough to call it finished.
The most important thing about drafts is working through them, making progress. You can always do another draft — but only when you finish the current one. Each is just an experiment and you can always revert and find a new way forward.
And you always will have the sneaking suspicion that in six months, or a year, or five years, you could write this story better. And you could. But that time does not belong to this story.
You should write the story you are most excited about, your best idea today and you should finish it — all drafts. Then you should release it. And you will discover in that moment that you are a better writer than ever — and you will discover the next story meant for that better writer.
And you will begin again…