drafting · re-drafting · WIP

How Many Drafts Does it Take?


Of course, everybody’s different. For some writers, it runs into triple figures, while others don’t draft at all.

I remember learning about the writing process at high school. Now I know you’re stopping me right there: these days, we’re supposed to ignore everything we learnt in high school about writing. Nobody wants to read those intricate character descriptions they insisted we cram into the first chapter, and why should my characters speak perfect grammar when nobody in real life does? And swear?! Golly gee. Not in my classroom.

But this one lesson has been popping up in my head lately, even though it didn’t end well for me. We had an entire afternoon of English, so our teacher led us through a mock nine-draft-process.

She bade us spend ten minutes or so thinking, doodling, and daydreaming (draft one). She instructed us to convert those thoughts into notes (draft two), and develop a storyline (draft three).

[At this point, my adult self tells me, our subconscious already knew the form or genre of our stories: I remember Leonie couldn’t focus clearly because her best friend Simone had just stolen her boyfriend, so hers was probably a drama (or a crime novel if she was planning what it looked like she was planning); while Kaj was so used to being alone with his thoughts he’d just created a whole new world and peopled, gnomed and elved it full of vivid characters in an epic High Fantasy.]

We weren’t to start on the story proper until draft four, and we made major refinements in five and six. The final three drafts were all minor refinements as far as the story itself was concerned.

One thing that did not happen, was any mention of inciting incidents and turning points. I don’t know if such ideas are capable of life in a school curriculum now, but they weren’t back then.

I created a world of sweet furry animals where lots of nice things happened and everybody had a boring time ever after. I’m sure it would have become a satire, but I probably didn’t want to share that with my teacher (you can see why in the first paragraph of my ‘about’ page. By the time this lesson came about, she had me out of my shiny new sports car on the Great Alpine Road of creativity, and lined up in a clapped-out old lemon on the Stuart Highway of accountancy).

But the point is, I now find myself following the process she taught us that hot summer afternoon. Turns out it was the best thing she ever did for me, and it helps me to answer the question: how many drafts will it take me to write my book?

My first draft of my current work-in-progress took place over time, as events and conversations triggered something in my brain, making me think in new ways and develop the bones of a story.

My second was the scribbling out of a storyline, probably after a key piece fell in place; and my third was my storyboarding of the entire manuscript.
My fourth was what I’ve been calling my first draft. It was the writing of the story; the conversations, and descriptions, the building of the world. It had a beginning, middle, and end. It had structure and form and grew by thousands of words at a time.

My fifth (or second, in my strange way of counting), is where I’m fixing, improving and filling in gaps. I’m making the story more interesting, giving the characters more depth, making the world more vibrant. I feel like I’m shifting from black and white to colour, or sketch to oil painting. It’s no longer about word count for me.

So what will my sixth draft be? I imagine it will still involve changes to sequence, structure and characters and will still deepen and colour; but I expect I will be thinking more about word choice. I’ll try to sit in my reader’s shoes more, and focus on realism. After all, just because my story involves non-human ‘unreal’ characters, their responses to events and motivation for actions still need to be real.

[I’m realising this draft will be my toughest and will require my best discipline. But I said that about my fourth and fifth too.]

My seventh and eighth will hopefully be much easier. I’ll probably need to print these, and make notes on the pages while re-reading. I hope only the less-important issues will be left and I can make relatively minor changes.

My ninth should be my final product. The one you can test-read if you like. It will be the one that I want an agent or publisher to see (and love!).

In school that day, our teacher ‘edited’ us at draft six, and she told me my story was a flatline of dullness (much like the Stuart Highway if she could only see the irony). If we’d left it at that, I would have forgotten the lesson (after all, the pool was beckoning in the sticky summer heat). Instead, I took her advice to the extreme, killing off all my characters in an effort to ‘show her’, and having a bit of a teenage sulk.

And that embarrassing memory has stuck with me ever since, and her nine-draft lesson lives on.

So thanks Ms M. They say it’s the negative experiences that teach us the most, and maybe that was your intention all along.

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