Sunday, December 20, 2009

How many drafts?

Socializing with other writers-- whether it be at writers' groups meetings, open mic style venues, or more intimate critique groups-- drives home, for me, the necessity of revision. I have a gut feeling that the more you progress along the writing path, the less likely you are to track closely your drafts.

I think every manuscript requires three drafts, minimum. Now, some journalistic-style or disciplined professional writers may do it in one or two, but these writers have decades of experience that allows them to pull this off. And I also think they form their ideas very completely in their head before they begin work.

I believe a work needs three drafts before you can share it. With anyone other than close friends whose sole purpose is to keep you motivated to complete the task at hand. In my current critique group, one member has brought us a first draft. Another, a second. Another has a manuscript that seems like a third draft, and the other member has a tight manuscript that bears the marks of one of those fifth or sixth drafts.

I could be wrong, but that's my evaluation.

The first draft has the signs of a good story, but it can be painful to read as you accompany the author on their quest to find and contain the plot. There's also those vague details that don't seem fleshed out. "Toiletries on the dresser" tells me nothing. There's a big difference between lye soap and red lipstick. Which would this character have? I respond to these scenes with the same question to the author:

How does this scene and how do these details advance the plot?

Because everything must advance the plot.

First drafts are supposed to ramble, steer off course, and employ those random solutions that pop out of nowhere. (Sarah's Key used many of these convenient plot devices.) That's why the first draft, in my mind, should not be revealed. It's the childhood of a manuscript.

The manuscript reaches an awkward adolescence upon the second draft. It's 90% of the product it will be in the end, but zits and hormones blemish the text. This is when some good friends can help you find your style and encourage you and tell you what works and what doesn't. Some people lock themselves away even at this stage, reading books by other writers and pouring over their words fixing this draft in solitude. This can also work.

But the third draft has addressed these small bumps and can withstand the input of others. Like a young adult, the manuscript has its own feet, its own flavor, a defined sense of purpose. But it still gets confused.

Now, I have a friend whom I adore, and she's working on a third draft. She has already proclaimed that when she finishes this draft, she will ask someone to proofread, do one set of changes/line-by-line and never look at it again/make changes unless a publisher asks her to.

That's healthy, I guess. Not to dwell and move on. Write more and better projects. But to proclaim so boldly that she's done seems dangerous to me. What if she looks at it two years from now and thinks, after a pile of rejections, that she could fix it with another round of edits? Is that not allowed?

To me, the process never ends. Until that book is in my hands, the possibility for change is there.


  1. Well, this gets me to wondering once again if I write far too many drafts. I rewrote my Barney Christmas story everyday for more than two weeks before settling on a storyline. Then I tinkered with it several times before I had the Mrs Proof it Friday night. I have a separate file for each version, I save every plot piece for future reference. I counted 21 files. Maybe I am obsessive?

  2. Angel, I had a student tell me this term that her designs were "finished" so they needed no further revisions. (I guess the bad typography was a design element, especially the backwards apostrophes!) We had nearly the same conversation as your last 2-3 paragraphs.