My point of view, second draft, Writing

Write the Novel — How many drafts are enough?

Since January, I’ve blogged about writing a novel, starting with a global theme and working through the zero draft (an unfinished manuscript), which becomes the first draft when we finish it. And the second draft, which serves completely different functions from the first.

How many drafts are enough? Because we each write differently, and because for any writer finishing a entire first draft is an enormous accomplishment, my standard for the zero/first draft is, simply, finish it. I don’t care how, but get all the way to the end of the story.

My standard for beginning the second draft is one question, “Am I writing this for publication?”

There are only two answers: yes or no. I don’t think I’m a good enough writer, but maybe a miracle will happen and someone will want to publish it is not an answer. It is a daydream. The reason that the answer needs to be a firm yes or no is that the beginning of the second draft is a major crossroad. Say yes to publication and we go in one direction; say no and we go in a completely different direction.

Saying no to publication

We’re likely to say no to publication if

  • the material is highly personal or dangerous, and we’re not ready for the rest of the world to see it
  • the story is just the way we like it, and we don’t want to submit our characters and story to the meat grinder of editing and publishing
  • we don’t have the health, time, or finances to participate in the publishing/marketing that the book will need. Keep in mind that neither traditional publishing nor self-publishing is a free ride. Traditional publishing requires that we submit what the publisher wants, when they want it. There are less of those restraints in self-publishing, but a well published/well marketed self-published book (e-book or print) will cost the author $2,000 to $10,000 and take hundreds of hours to accomplish.

If we say no to publication, there are no limits to how many drafts is enough. Keep writing, keep revising as long as the story holds our interest.

Say yes to publication

If we say yes to publication, initially two, maybe three content drafts are enough. A content draft focus on character development, storyline, raising the stakes, maintaining continuity, etc. This is completely different from editing drafts.

After the second or third content draft, the book needs to go to at least five beta readers. Beta readers are people we know well enough to ask them to read our manuscript, but aren’t so close to them that all they’ll do is say how great it is. Finding five good beta readers is tough, but it’s the best way to find out what really needs honing. Beta readers are looking for minor plot tinkering, typos, grammar, and spelling mistakes. Readers have to make a commitment to getting the manuscript read and back to us in a timely fashion.

Taking comments from beta readers into consideration, another one to two content drafts will need to be done. Here are questions to ask ourselves after the beta readers are through.

What is this novel worth to us?

  • How much more work do we plan to do before we submit our book?
  • How will we know when our book is ready to submit?
  • Have we set a personal deadline for when this book is to be finished?

How strong is our voice?

  • Read sections we suspect are problematic aloud to examine our voice.
  • Is it strong and clear?
  • Are there places when it seems to disappear?
  • Are there places when it overshadows the story?

By this time, we will have done a total of three or four content drafts, half before beta readers and half afterwards. Then comes at least five editing passes

  • the first is attention to format, how the work is presented on the page
  • the second is a general clean-up
  • the third gets rid of book killers
  • the fourth gets down to the nitty-gritty of grammar and spelling, word by word
  • the fifth is the final, what-have-I-missed fine tooth combing

So the answer to how many drafts is enough — my personal opinion hat is firmly in place here — is three to four content drafts; at least five beta readers; and five editing drafts.

Then we’re ready to either go looking for a publisher or to take the self-publishing route.

Next week, Tuesday, November 25, we take off our writer’s hat and put on our editor’s had for Editing Pass 1 of 5 — Paying Attention to Format. Hope to see you then.


4 thoughts on “Write the Novel — How many drafts are enough?

  1. I keep extensive notes, using Scrivener. When I’m writing a series, the first thing I do when beginning the next book is to make a duplicate copy of the Scrivener file from the last book; strip out what I don’t need for the new book; and review/condense/edit/rearrange the things I will need.

    Some story lines die a natural death. There comes a point where I realize I’m forcing a story line to fit what’s now happening in the book, and usually abandon it at that point. The trick is going back and replacing or changing all references to it that have already been written.


  2. Corinne says:

    This is starting to remind me *a lot* of dissertation writing. Write. Edit. Edit again. And again. And again….


    • Unfortunately, yes, but the cool thing is, unlike dissertations, it’s okay to change the content on each draft. It’s so much more fun making things up as we go along. Bonus: no footnotes needed. 🙂


      • Corinne says:

        Alas, true. I do not get to make anything up. Or skip the footnotes. But I did change the content between drafts, as I learned which strings of analysis or research to pull, and which not. Else I would have never finished.

        Do you keep footnotes anyway, to keep a multi-book story consistent, or to remember what your character doesn’t know? Are there story lines you decide you don’t have time or space in your book to follow?


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