The Rule of Three: On Drafts

Before I start getting into today’s topic, I figure I’ll make a disclaimer you might have heard already: Writing tips are not universal. What works for one writer (in this case, me) might not work for another writer (i.e. you).

But as I’ve been rereading/editing my first draft of my novel this past month, I can’t help but recall the last time I edited a work that I wrote. It was the first time I edited a work of fiction that I wrote and cared about, and the first time I took that editing process seriously. So today I want to talk about that first editing experience and offer to tell you what I’ve learned since then.

I wrote a short story for my final Creative Writing course last year between January and April. I thought the first draft was pretty good, but it needed some reworking. So I wrote another draft in which I cut scenes out and added entirely new ones. But I wasn’t satisfied with that draft either. So I wrote a third draft, rearranging scenes, deleting them, adding them…

And I STILL wasn’t happy with it! So I started a fourth draft…

By the end, I had seven drafts of the story. They were all somewhat similar to one another, although some were better than others. But the seventh draft was drastically different from the first.

Unfortunately, with those seven drafts in front of me I found myself facing a couple of problems: (1) I needed to pick the one that I liked best, except I loved them all like my children because I worked so hard to create them, and (2) by then I’d reread and edited the story so many times over the course of four months that I hated my story.

Okay, “hate” is a strong word. I didn’t hate it. I loved it very much. But I was so tired of rereading it and editing it that I just wanted it to be over with.

As writers — or artists, or songwriters, or whatever job title that implies you’re a creator of things — we’ll never be fully satisfied with our work. Ever. I love my novel, even in the rough and messy draft it’s in right now. But it has flaws. And even as I edit it I know it will never be “perfect.” At least not to me. Who knows? Maybe one day when it’s published, some reader out there will think it’s perfect. But I will never believe that, even if that reader finds a way to tell me they think it’s perfect.

No matter how much you add to it, or how much you cut from it, your manuscript will never be flawless. There will always be something you think makes it imperfect.

So beware the itch to edit your story to death in the hopes of achieving perfection. This is the mistake I made with my short story for my undergrad class. And the worst part? I spent months writing those seven drafts, only to stick with the third one I wrote because I liked it best. Those other four drafts were time wasted that I could have spent writing something new.

My personal rule for my new novel is this: Stick to two drafts, or three at the most.

Draft One should be the roughest and the fastest. Get all the words down no matter how messy it is, no matter how riddled with typos it is. Just get the gist of the story on paper so that you have something to work with. You can’t edit a blank page, as the saying goes.

Draft Two will rarely be the finished product. I think the writers who can pump out a finished product in two drafts are the more experienced ones who have been writing and editing their work for years. This draft should be the polished version of Draft One (i.e. adding scenes you thought of later, cutting scenes you didn’t like writing in the first place, etc.) that you give to your Beta Readers. If you choose to have Betas, of course.

Draft Three is it. This is when you take the constructive feedback of your Betas and apply the changes you see fit. Keep the adding and cutting and rearranging to a minimum. Fix typos. Then send it off to agents or publishers.

If you go beyond a third draft, you risk exhausting the story. You’ll reread it so many times that you’ll start to lose your passion for it — and thus, the story’s quality will suffer.

Just remember the old adage: The third time’s the charm.

Happy writing, happy editing!


3 thoughts on “The Rule of Three: On Drafts

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