How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: Don’t.

by krstaten


So I found this article as a suggested post while perusing Facebook recently, and immediately felt pretty tentative about it.

The ideas behind it seem pretty sound: You’re going to have a “messy draft” that is disorganized and doesn’t fully complete its ideas. Then, a “method draft” in which, supposedly, you do not re-write (we’ll get to that in a second) but instead simply revise the ideas that are already there and get them in order, adding to and taking away from certain bits as necessary. And then, the “polished draft,” the final draft that should have everything finalized.

Now there are some parts of that blog that I agree with, but let’s get one thing straight: You do not want your third draft to be your final draft in most cases. No matter how well you plan and prepare, you’re going to have to do a lot of revising and, yes, probably rewriting.

Every author I’ve spoken with has done a major overhaul from the first draft to the second, and sometimes from the second draft to the third. The second draft isn’t just where you add or take away; it’s often where you recognize entire elements of your story that don’t work. You’ll completely eliminate a subplot, or add one. You’ll change, eliminate, or add major characters. You’ll completely reorganize the order in which things happen.

You’ll re-write the damn book.

I’m not exaggerating–I’ve heard plenty of authors say that their second draft only kept about 25% of their first draft, if that. And sometime their third or fourth draft will only keep half of that. This may not always be the case, but it incredibly often is. When you get to that second draft, you’re working effectively with a new first draft. It’s not going to be more polished, more well-organized, etc. than your first draft; it’s just probably going to have more solid foundations.

When you get to that “method draft,” where you’ve got everything organized the way you want, and you’re just now working on adding and taking away elements as you go along? You’re still not going to be on a polished draft afterwards. You’ll want to try out what works. Writing is an experiment–one of my favorite bits of writing advice (heard through Neil Gaiman, quoting Gene Wolfe) is as follows: “You never learn how to write a novel,” he said. “You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.”

What does that mean for you? It means every time you write, you’re likely going to have to write several drafts to figure out what works all over again. You’re going to have to figure out what works for THIS BOOK, and it won’t be necessarily what works for the last one.

I do agree with one part of the advice given in that post above, though: Know which part of the book’s development you’re in. You need to know what your book needs done to it right now in order to get it done, and if you’re fussing over punctuation placement when what you really need to be doing is rerouting a secondary character’s entire story arc, you’re going to be doing a lot of wasted work.

So my best advice on how to write your book in as few drafts as possible? Don’t. Disregard any writing advice that focuses on shortcuts rather than saying what needs to be said. Write your book in as many drafts as that book requires, and remember that it is not formulaic–you’ll be learning to write this book as you write it, and same with the next one and the one after that.