“When asked about rewriting, Ernest Hemingway said that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Vladimir Nabokov wrote that spontaneous eloquence seemed like a miracle and that he rewrote every word he ever published, and often several times. And Mark Strand, former poet laureate, says that each of his poems sometimes goes through forty to fifty drafts before it is finished.”—Susan M. Tiberghien

Let’s be honest, when we started writing we had no idea that there were so many steps involved. When we read, we don’t really think about how many revisions an author has gone through, we just think they are amazing or terrible, and then we are wracked with nerves about which category we might fall into.

So, what is the process, and how many drafts should you be writing?

Every writer, and every editor, will tell you something different. Some may say 2 drafts, and some may say 50, and that’s because each writer and each story is unique. Everyone has their own twitches and methods that bring them to their magic number, but the only thing that you really need to remember is that there needs to be more than one (don’t publish that first draft!).

“Writing a first draft is like groping one’s way into a dark room, or overhearing a faint conversation, or telling a joke whose punchline you’ve forgotten. As someone said, one writes mainly to rewrite, for writing and revising are how one’s mind comes to inhabit the material fully.”—Ted Solotaroff

If you’re a pantser without a solid grasp of genre conventions, character arcs, or story and scene structure, you will likely find yourself with more drafts than you would if you were a knowledgeable plotter. When your first draft is stream-of-consciousness writing, you may later find complicated plot holes, and need major restructuring. There are drafts to remove adverbs and the passive voice, there are drafts to fix pacing, improve cadence, add subplots, remove characters . . . many changes can be done all at once, or you can separate them into stages. If you need sensitivity readers, or multiple rounds of beta readers (perhaps the first round awakened you to major rewrites), there will be more drafts.

With that in mind, we also need to beware of the never-ending revision cycle. The drafting needs to end sometime, or else you will never publish. There are a million ways to write every sentence, to approach a subject, or to structure a scene, so every time you look at your manuscript you (or someone else) will see something to fix. You need to know your feedback and editing levels, and have a list of specific issues that you want to avoid. Once you have hit the marks that you need to for that particular manuscript, you need to stop. Not every manuscript, or even every writer, will require each level of feedback and revision, but it is important to know the order that they would come in, and what each level means. The list below shows major steps that you may choose to take with your manuscript (though not each stage will be considered a draft), and you can start to see where multiple drafts might pop up.

  • Outline (Preparation for first draft)
  • Critique partner and/or writing groups (Ongoing feedback while in the process of writing the first draft)
  • Alpha Reader (Feedback on the first complete, unedited draft)
  • Beta Readers (Could be one round, or multiple rounds)
  • Editorial Assessment (Big picture, plot, characters, marketability)
  • Developmental Edit (Paragraph/line level stylistic choices, organization, plot, characters)
  • Copyedit (Line-by-line grammar, punctuation, spelling, readability)
  • Formatting (Put into book format)
  • ARC readers (Test readers that will give you early reviews, may also come after proofreading)
  • Proofread (Meticulous spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting errors check)

Don’t despair. There is a certain kind of magic in finding that moment when your words shine just the way you want, and that doesn’t always include all of these steps. Whether you follow the Story Grid, Save the Cat!, or intuition, only your story can tell you once it’s whole. Don’t look for a special number. Look for clarity. And if you want to de-mystify the process further, go ahead and subscribe to this blog, and keep an eye out for some free checklists on my resources page.

Now, stop procrastinating, and go write.

Do you have a question you would like answered in the next blog? Get in touch!