How many drafts?

On a variety of blogs lately, writers have been talking about drafts, and I’ve been taking note. I’ve enjoyed reading other writers’ processes, and learning where I can. My process is a little different from the others I’ve read.

I begin with an idea and an opening scene, which sets up the core problem for the main character. As the idea develops while I’m working on other things, I jot down more ideas—a scene later in the story, a line of dialogue, a supportive character, a subplot, an interesting name, setting details. After a while I have a few pages of these bits and pieces, and I can feel the story growing warm and alive. That’s when I begin writing. I know it’s the right time because I wake up in the morning looking forward to working on the story.

By about page fifteen I have added something else, a detail not on my original list, which will mean correcting an earlier statement. This happens all the way through, with sometimes larger changes and scenes inserted to bring the various threads into alignment. Is each change a new draft? By the end of writing out the story for the first time, which could be Draft 23, I’ve made numerous changes, added at least half a dozen scenes to flesh out information I hinted at, and changed the murderer at least twice. Each change shifts the story, tightens the plot, clarifies and sharpens. What I end with feels close to what I had imagined, but in execution it can seem quite different with a fullness I didn’t imagine.

And then comes what I consider the real work—reading through the entire ms again, before printing it out, to ensure that other details (motivations, physical appearance, timing of revelations) are consistent throughout. This is when I find it necessary to add another two or three scenes to reinforce the logic of the entire mystery, and the story begins to feel complete. After that, I print out the whole thing, which by now should be the word length I wanted, about eighty thousand words, and read it again, this time with pen in hand to polish and tinker with words. I may do this twice. I know I’m finished when I find less and less to change or improve, and can read through pages without scratching out or inserting anything.

Perhaps I have only two drafts—online and printed, or four, two online and two printed. Or perhaps I have about 25 online drafts and two printed. However they are counted, the drafts pile up slowly until the finished narrative feels new to me, partly a surprise and partly a relief that it actually holds together.

How many drafts do you produce? How do you count them?

6 thoughts on “How many drafts?

  1. After writing over 60 books with 53 of those published, I have the first draft that I send out to my beta readers/CPs. When that comes back, I take into consideration their comments and then I do another draft that goes to my editor. However, each time I sit down to write, I start reading from where I began writing the day before and tinker with that as I read through to where I start that day. And when I started writing novels 30 years ago, I would go through four or five drafts before anyone even looked at it. I think it’s interesting how each writer has their own approach to weaving the end story together. Good pos5t!

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    1. I would guess, Paty, that after 60 books you certainly know how to get through a first draft efficiently and coherently. I don’t have nearly as many so I have a longer way to go. Thanks for sharing that.


  2. Interesting process, Susan. Like you, I never tire of hearing how authors work. Ann Patchett, for example, writes in one of her essays that she carries the story in her head for quite some time w/out jotting anything done, and resists the urge, because to do so would make whatever it is definite, and she doesn’t want that. Like you, my stories come to me in bits and pieces, but unlike you, I start writing before I have a clear idea of where the story’s going, and end up having to figure this out along the way, scene by scene. Eventually, I have my first draft, which is usually pretty awful. I have to keep reminding myself that as someone said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” In the second draft, I make changes according to suggestions from my critique group, and my own sense of what I need to fix. The third and more or less draft is for fine-tuning, again based on suggestions from from critiques and my own sense of needed changes. Thanks for your post!

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