Book tips: How many drafts should I write?

A fellow nonfiction author recently shared that he’d written 18 drafts of his book. That’s probably too many. But how many is the right number?

I’ll answer that question, but first, let’s talk about what a draft is. You have a chapter written. You go through and make a change. You save it under a the name “Chapter v2. Then you make another change. You rename it “Chapter v3” and save it again. Repeat ten times total. Have you written ten drafts, or just two?

This is why the question of “how many drafts” is an odd question — because we can’t even agree on what a draft is. Instead, I’d recommend that you think about milestones.

A milestone is a goal. So let’s talk about writing goals and how to reach them.

Goal 1: The plan

Setting out to write a book without a plan will result in a huge amount of wasted effort. Just as you will never get anywhere if you just drive around aimlessly, you are unlikely to stumble on a book if you just write without a plan.

When is the plan done? When you have a list of chapters with a short description of each one, including what sort of interviews you hope to include in it. For example, here’s part of the plan for my own upcoming book:

Part II: Researching and writing

Most people have trouble with writing because they start with writing. Instead, they should start with research. This section explains how to prepare for and then actually write the manuscript. With stories from [names redacted for privacy].

Chapters

    1. Writing Chapter 1. Chapter 1 is the scare-the-crap-out-of-you chapter. Fear and greed as Chapter 1 motivators. Start with a story. Expressing ideas and making waves.
    2. Case studies and stories. Chapters are made out of stories, facts, and arguments. How research smooths the process. Finding interview candidates. What to say to interviewees now that will save you hours of trouble later. The case study interview.
    3. Research and facts. How to find facts that bolster your argument. Surveys and other data.
    4. The fat outline. The simple technique that allows you to organize a chapter before writing it.
    5. Writing tools. How to wrangle drafts. Scrivener, Evernote, Word, and Google Docs. Interview transcripts. Tips to avoid inadvertent plagiarism.
    6. The chapter writer’s mindset. Start with a story. Where and when to write. Writing techniques.
    7. Collaboration and editing. How to write with a coauthor. Why three coauthors is a prescription for suffering and pain. The role of the editor. Draft review processes.

This organization is subject to change — every book I’ve ever worked on has a different table of contents from what was in the plan. But you need to start from somewhere, and a plan like this is an excellent start.

Goal 2: Fat outline

Now let’s start on chapter-level goals. Once the plan is in place, you need to write a chapter. Or more accurately, you need to start by assembling a chapter.

For any given chapter, you reach this goal by creating a file that includes everything you hope to put in the chapter. That includes snippets of text, passages, stories, links to material from elsewhere, and case studies.

Is this a “draft?” Not really. No one would read it and say “Ah, that’s a chapter.” It’s rougher than a rough draft, but the key is, it’s complete. It has everything in it that belongs in the chapter, and it’s meatier than an outline. That’s why I call it a fat outline. For more on fat outlines, see this.

Goal 3: Reviewable draft

You’ve got all the pieces. So find a quiet spot and write the chapter.

Yes, your writing will have rough spots, holes, and repetition. You may end up rearranging and rewriting lots of bits and pieces. But after a bunch of work, you’ll have a draft that’s good enough to review.

How many drafts will it take to get to that? That depends on your process. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is, did you get the chapter to a point where an intelligent person can review it and give you feedback?

That person might be your coauthor, a developmental editor, the putative author (if you’re a ghostwriter), or a patient friend. But once it’s done, you can pat yourself on the back and know you accomplished something.

Goal 4: Revised draft

Once you hear back from your editors or reviewers or coauthors, you can create a more polished draft. The idea, as you write it, is that this draft is ready to go into the finished manuscript.

It might take more than one try to get to this point. If it’s taking four or five, something’s wrong — take a step back and figure out what.

Goal 5: Complete manuscript

The path to the completed manuscript is rarely straight. Along the way you may rewrite chapters based on new ideas, rearrange chapters, even take chapters apart and rearrange the bits into new chapters.

Do those rewrites count as drafts? Doesn’t matter. What matters is that revisions at this point move the content forward to the point where it is, at least from an outside perspective, a book.

Goal 6: Copy edit-ready manuscript

Start with the manuscript from Goal 5 and rewrite it (lightly, I hope) from beginning to end.

The goal of this draft is to fix problems, smooth over rough spots, create consistency, and drive for something as close to perfect as you can get.

This rewrite often begins with a checklist. As you’ve created chapters, you will have noticed problems, like repetition or overuse of em dashes or a predilection for passive voice. You may have gotten feedback from the people about whom you did case studies. Or you may have new data to include. Here’s a typical Goal 6 checklist:

  • Find places to incorporate new theme that we discovered in Chapter 2 throughout the book.
  • Standardize terminology (for example, consumer/customer/user)
  • Anonymize case studies from companies unwilling to be mentioned.
  • Resolve inconsistency in emphasis in Chapters 4 and 7.
  • Incorporate latest survey data.
  • Remove all references to “later this year” and other constructs that tie writing to a particular date.

Your list will be completely different. But you should have a list like this. And your goal in this draft is to make all of these final-draft changes in one pass.

And once that’s done, you heave a sigh of relief, drink a glass of champagne, and send it to the copy editor. If you have case studies, this is also when you get the subjects to verify you got their facts straight.

Goal 7: Page-layout ready draft

Again, your goal is to do this in one pass, although it’s not uncommon to make changes throughout the manuscript based on various kinds of feedback at this stage.

Address all the copy edits.

Address all the feedback from case study subjects. (A few will not have gotten back to you, but if you’re lucky, it will be no more than one or two.)

Address legal comments.

Write the acknowledgments.

Then turn that sucker in to your publisher or page layout person and wait to see pages.

Goal 8: Final pages

Inevitably, you’ll find errors and need to fix factual issues that you didn’t notice until the laid out pages came back for review. If you’ve done your work properly before this, though, the number of such changes should be limited.

So make those changes, get the final laid out pages back, and then approve it for printing. And you’re done. Now wait a while, since books don’t appear instantly. But you’ll have no more drafts to write.

What does this mean for your writing process?

If you focus on goals and not drafts, you’ll get to a completed book more efficiently. Here are a few principles to follow:

  • Don’t go back and rewrite earlier chapters based on later chapters. Do that all at once in Goal 5 if you possibly can. Or you’ll drive yourself insane.
  • Don’t rewrite the same passage or chapter again and again. You’ll lose perspective. And at that point, you won’t be sure if you’re making it better or worse on each draft.
  • Ask editors and reviewers to look at chapters or bigger chunks, not bits and pieces as you go along.
  • When a passage or chapter goes well, use that (both content and process) as a template for future bits of writing.
  • Don’t put off consistency checks until after the copy edit. Create a checklist for the Goal 5 draft.
  • Progress means nailing things down. A plan is progress. So is a fat outline. So is a rough draft. So is a more finished draft. So is a complete manuscript. You should always be working on nailing things down further. And these milestones will help you to see how you’re getting closer to the end.

A chaotic process will demoralize you and result in muddy, overwritten, inconsistent content. Don’t count drafts; don’t rewrite endlessly. Aim for these milestones and you’ll end up with a beautiful book and your sanity, both of which are necessary for your future happiness.

One response to “Book tips: How many drafts should I write?

  1. What a masterful, helpful, life and sanity-saving map. You keep taking up residence in my head, catching my overwriting “style” that too often results in: “muddy, overwritten, inconsistent content.” Someday, soon, I’ll have something together enough to petition for one of your famous 30-minute back-of-the-woodshed talks. Thanks for what you do!

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