17 February 2018


Offhand, I can't think of many words that have more different meanings than "draft" does. Drafts can refer to breezes, horses, beer, checks, athletics, military service, depth of water, and--yes--preliminary versions of a piece of writing. In other words, you can feel them, harness them, drink them, sign them, get caught by them . . . or write them.

I write a lot of drafts. Mine are usually short, since I write mostly short stories, and the first is often longer than the second, the second longer than the third, and so forth. (I tend to overwrite a bit.) I should mention, too, that my first draft is usually terrible. That doesn't bother me--nobody but me is going to see it anyway--and I think it's better to get as much as possible down on paper than to leave something important out.

I also like to write a first draft all the way through, without stopping to do a lot of analysis on the way. I've never been one of those people who "edit as they go." I don't even pay much attention to punctuation or spelling or grammar in those first drafts. They truly are rough.

A writer friend of mine insists that she doesn't have to deal with drafts--and not because she keeps the windows closed. She just makes every page as perfect as it can possibly be before going on to the next. Her reason for doing that is simple, she says: when she's written the final page of her book or story, she's finished; no corrections or subsequent drafts are needed. The reason I don't do that is simple, too: I might later decide to change something in the plot, or add another character, or take one out, or change the POV. If that happens, and if I've already tried to polish the first scenes and pages to a high gloss, that means I'll have to go back and re-edit what I've already edited. I'm not super-efficient and I'm sure not smart, but I'm smart enough not to want to do the same job twice. Besides, getting the whole thing down on paper, start to finish, gives me a warm and comfortable feeling about the project. It makes it something I know I can handle.

Writing a first draft all the way to the end in one swoop isn't as hard as it sounds, because I'm one of those writers who likes to map the story out mentally before I ever start putting words on paper. I think about the plot for a long time beforehand. Again, that doesn't keep me from later making changes, but it does allow me to have a blueprint to follow when I start writing, and having that structure in mind gives me--as I said--a sense of security. You might not do that or need that, but I do. Different strokes. (By the way, if you outline on paper and if your outline is long enough, sometimes that IS your first draft.)

I occasionally don't even have names finalized when I do a first draft. My hero/heroine might be H, my villain might be V, the hero's best friend might be BF. These are just place-holders, so I can come back later and fill in the names. Same thing goes for locations or situations that will require detailed research, or scenes that need a lot of description--I don't spend the time to do that in first drafts. I'm more concerned about plot points and the flow of the story. (Not that it matters, but I've found it's fairly easy for me to write beginnings and endings. It's the middles that are hard. Maybe that's why I write shorts instead of novels.)

Anne Lamott said, in her book Bird by Bird, ". . . The first draft is the down draft--you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft--you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed or even, God help us, healthy." She also said, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts."

Readers have often asked me how many drafts I write, of a short story, The answer is, it varies. It also depends on how you define "draft." If you go through a work-in-progress and change only one sentence, is that new version another draft? As for me, I don't usually do many extensive re-writes, but I do go back through the manuscript a few times after a third- or fourth-draft polishing and see if there's anything more that needs correcting or fine-tuning. But, as all writers know, you don't want to go over it too much. When you can read through what you've done several times and not find anything glaring, you're probably finished. If you persist too long, you'll get to the point where changes might make things worse instead of better.

How about you? Are you a draft-dodger, and just edit everything as you go? Or do you rehearse and shoot several takes before you print the film? If so, how many drafts does that usually involve? How do you decide how many drafts is too many? How detailed is your first draft? Do you ever outline beforehand, either mentally or on paper? Do you ever write the ending first?

I once heard that a novelist has to be a good storyteller and a short-story writer has to be a good craftsman. Maybe both have to be good draftsmen.

Now, I wonder if I need to do more editing on this column . . .


  1. I write a high-level outline usually before I start writing. I edit as I go. If I stop at any point, I'll reread the prior paragraph out loud (and edit it) to get back into the flow. By the time I finish a first draft, the first half is usually pretty clean. After I finish I'm reread and edit. I may let it sit a few days before reading it again or I may send it a trusted friend or two for their thoughts. Usually while they're reading I'll continue to have ideas for improvement and will keep tinkering. Ideally I should let a story sit after I think it's really done, before submitting, because inevitably I'll have another idea or two of how to improve a sentence or paragraph. In the end, what matters is that each person's process works for them.

    1. And I should have reread this comment before hitting post. The "I'm" in line six should be "I'll."

  2. John, you and I work very similarly, though not completely the same. I do a very down and dirty first draft. And, like you, I get that warm feeling when it's done. I also use placeholders and usually the first half, where I'm trying to set things up, is more done than the second half which, often, is just notes. I don't outline ahead of time, except for maybe a handful of scribbled notes. And I don't stop to fix things along the way, which is when computers came in it made life so much easier when you could do global changes. And anything can change at any time, it's just a process of whittling away until you get something that looks like what you're going for.

  3. Hi, John and everyone.

    I use the first draft to get a feel for the characters and how I envision the story going chronologically. I try to make this good and detailed, as close to final as I can, but it is seldom the only/final draft anyway.

    The final draft usually depends on where I plan to submit the story. I try to abide by that venue's specific guidelines or tastes as I know them. The final venue depends on how the shopping process goes. What's finally published is usually far different, but far better, than what I originally imagined.

  4. Great post, John — as always. I wish I was able to get a full draft written first, but I do indeed tinker along the way, figuring out what I'm doing as I write. It was interesting what you wrote about your friend who polishes along the way--and your counterpoint that you'd have trouble with that because what if you decided to change something later? What's funny is that's my own complaint about getting the whole draft down at once! If you have it all down before you've figured out the characters or the plot or the point of view or... well, those are the things I figure out while I'm plugging along bit by bit, pushing forward, looking back, revising here, drafting a little more. Slow and steady--though maybe sometimes slower and unsteadier than I'd like to be, I'll admit.

    Anyway, great post, much to think about, and enjoying the comments too!

  5. I'm always envious of you folks who know how you do what you do. This is one of the reasons I don't blog: I don't have any tricks of the trade to impart, because I don't have a "process," a method, a way of doing things. For me, every story is different. But I enjoy the insights offered by you, John, and others who have a much clearer sense of what they're up to than I have. Thanks for yet another interesting look behind the curtain!

  6. Good article, John.

    When I first started, a writer friend showed me his finished manuscript of an exellent mystery. I read and enjoyed it. His agent did not and suggested toning it down. The writer did and when I read the book after it was published, it was a shell of the first finished draft. Sometimes a writer can write the life - the spontaneity - out of a book.

    I write in drafts. Short stories and novels. I stop writing when the story/book works for me. The book is proof-read and edited by others for clarity.

    I follow the old saying: Get it written, then get it right.

  7. I generally draft as I go. Sometimes I look at the finished product and wonder where I went wrong and start over. Sometimes I write 12+ versions of the first paragraph, first page. I rarely outline - I write a quick sentence or two of where this sucker is supposed to go. And I always polish, polish, polish at the end, until I get sick of it and just send it out, because I'm one of those who could tinker with it FOREVER.

  8. I try to outline first, but always end up adding, deleting, or moving scenes as I write the whole first draft, which is a mess. Nothing in a first draft is sacred for me, and it's usually the third or fourth draft before I think I have everything in the right order. That's when I print stuff out for the first time.

    Right now, I'm about 3/4 through the second draft of my WIP, and I'm on OUTLINE "O." I've moved eight or ten scenes around and am adding about four to the previous draft that will strengthen a sub-plot...I think. I've also changed the names of three characters, the physical description of one of them, and am struggling to find a better name for a band that appears in the book because my first beta reader hated what I had.

    This is pretty normal.

  9. You sound a lot like me.

    The first really rough draft that no one else will see - I call this Draft 0.

    Polished enough for my critique group to read - Draft 1.

    Incorporation of critique comments - Draft 2.

    Final polish - Draft 3.

    Then it's ready for submission. And if it's accepted, there will probably be more edits, but I don't really count those as "drafts."


  10. Barb, I suspect that if my outline were as detailed as it sounds like yours is, I might feel confident enough to "edit as I go." I do need that outline (usually in my head) before I start writing, but mine does seem to change a lot during the first few drafts, so I save the detailed editing for later. As you said, each of us should do whatever works for him/her. Thanks for the thoughts!

    Paul, I agree that the first half of my earliest draft always turns out to be more "complete" than the second half--maybe the later parts of the story are harder for me to "pre-plan" and are more apt to change. But I do have to outline, all the way to the end, before starting.

    Hey Gerald! Like you, I try to tailor those later drafts to whatever market I'm targeting, but since my stories are usually aimed at the mystery magazines, that hasn't been a big worry. And yes, thank goodness, the final version often turns out to be surprisingly better than what I'd originally imagined. (At least to me.)

    Thanks, Art. You've hit upon one of my big problems--and yes, it is an inconsistency. I have to have that structure in place before I start, but that outline often changes when I start writing, and sometimes even after the first draft. I think it's just important to me to get something, even if it's bad, down on paper, all the way to the end, before I can think about a lot of detailed editing. I wish I could do that differently. My process is (1) think through the whole story, start to finish; (2) type it out in very rough form; (3) go back through to tighten and change and add detail where needed, (3) sift through it again, still fine-tuning; and (4) send it off when finally satisfied.

  11. Josh, I might know how I do it, but I wish I knew how to do it better! From the stories of yours that I've read (and I've read a lot of them), I think your process, whatever it is for a particular project, works great.

    O'Neil, I almost always write TOO MUCH. I was probably exaggerating when I said all my drafts get shorter as I go, because my first draft can be pretty spare at times, but my third draft truly is almost always shorter than my second. When I get down to the point of going through and adding detail, I seem to do too much of that at first and have to tighten a lot the next time through. I find I'm just saying more than needs to be said, and have to cut it back a bit. Readers are smart enough that the writer doesn't have to try to explain everything to them. (I'm realizing I probably should've tightened this comment, as well.)

    Eve, I too write my opening paragraphs over and over and over before I'm finally satisfied. (Wasn't it Hemingway who said he did that also?) And I too love to keep polishing and keep refining, and finally have to decide that enough is enough.

    Steve, I agree--I rarely print anything out anymore, until the later drafts. (Ain't computers great?) My WIPs are always in a state of constant change, which--again--would make it hard (or at least more time-consuming) for me to try to edit as I go.

  12. Hey Mary! I like calling the first one Draft 0. Someone I talked to about all this (Nevada Barr, I think) told me she lives in fear that she'll be hit by a truck and someone might later find one of her recent "first drafts" and assume she'd lost her mind. I feel the same way: my first drafts are pitiful. I just treat them as a starting point. And, contrary to what a lot of folks think, I believe planning the story before writing it does NOT take away from the fun of the writing process. Again, each writer'll have a different take on this. Glad your system works for you!

  13. I edit as I go, but since I write my endings before the middle, I always end up going over things a few times to polish them. I did 19 drafts on the first short story I had published.
    Novels are a little different. I've had 14 published, and thus some people think I find them easy to write. I don't. They're hell. Unlike you, John, I'm a tight writer, so I get the bare story down first, and then go back to fill in description and all the things I missed. So calling it a first draft? Too simplistic. I've probably been over it 20 times before reaching that stage, if that makes sense.

  14. Hi Melodie! That DOES make sense. In fact I'm a tight writer as well, usually. In the first draft, though, I sometimes find that it's sort of an information dump (not meaningful info, just things that are in my head at the time).

    Glad to see that there are other folks who sometimes write the ending first. I once heard that an advantage, there, is that it keeps you from putting anything into the story that DOESN'T lead logically to the ending.

  15. I write short & have trouble reaching the lower end of a word count. That's why I love flash fiction. Cicero said, "Brevity is the soul of wit."

    I wrote the ending first of a story I just sent out. I never tried that before, but it seems to have worked for this story anyway.

  16. Liz, I like writing very short, too. The second story I sold to AHMM, years ago, was barely a thousand words, and I wrote it in nothing but dialogue, which was my intention--and I still remember how much fun I had writing it. (I was afraid to try that on the very first story I sent to them, though.) And I still love writing those little less-than-750-word stories for BJ's Flash Bang Mysteries.

    Good luck on the one you just sent out!

  17. I find that my writing process has gone wonky this past year. After losing some key markets—markets for which I often wrote, proofread, and submitted without much advance planning or second drafts—I'm now trying all manner of different approaches. I have four stories I'm actively working on right now. The two nearest completion I wrote in white-hot bursts of inspiration, then had to return to, to write key scenes that were missing or existed only as [put scene here]. One I plotted in advance before drafting, but I find that it lacks heart and has too much telling and not enough showing, indicating I may be in for several more drafts. The fourth, which I'm writing to invitation, had a rough plot before I started writing, but halfway through writing I've found that the plot doesn't work, so I've stopped adding words until I can figure out how to get from where I'm at to where I want to go.

  18. Thanks for the inside look, Michael. Sounds like most of your work now fits into the multi-draft system, which I find I use a lot more on the longer, rather than shorter, stories, Good luck with all four WIPs.

  19. It's interesting. I have never written fiction, but I have written some large number of academic papers (economics). And, for me, the primary value of the first draft is that it makes me realize when (almost all the time) I need to go back to the data and do more analysis. The second draft is when I realize I need to reconsider some of the theory (often because in the interim some &^%@#$$ has published something I need to deal with). The third draft cleans most of that up. The fourth draft (semi-final) gets submitted...

  20. Sounds like you have a system that works, Don. There are of course many differences between writing fiction and non-, but the process of multiple drafts applies to both. Thanks for chiming in, here!

  21. I like to let the story or maybe the main character at least play in my mind, where I can mull over the nuances of where this adventure takes me. By the time it's being written it almost feels like I'm just retelling a story as it happened. Great article, John.

  22. Good thoughts, Deborah--and thanks! The creation process is a lot of fun, no matter how we choose to do it. Keep up the great work!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>