Nobody writes their final novel on the first pass.
I’m not given to making dogmatic statements, but that’s one I’m willing to bet my manuscript on.
In fact, two of my favorite writing quotes refer to just that:
- I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles. - Shannon Hale
Or, more succinctly:
- The first draft of anything is shit. - Ernest Hemingway
Questions about writing drafts
- How many drafts should you do?
- How long should you spend on each?
- What should you focus on during each draft?
- How can you make the most efficient use of time?
- How can you avoid backtracking?
These are the kinds of questions that I’ve pondered since I first started writing and developing my writing process, and this article is an attempt to summarize what I’ve learned so far in answer to these questions.
How I approach drafting
The way I draft is an extension of the way I approach novel planning as a whole (which you can read about here) – which is to start with a simple concept and then add more and more detail until I have a fairly comprehensive outline.
With drafting that means starting with a rough outline and slowly fleshing it out and adding detail, tweaking and weaving until it is finished, polished prose.
I try to approach each draft with different priorities in mind so I can focus on tackling particular elements of story-telling at each stage while setting aside other aspects for later so I don’t get bogged down trying to do too much at once.
In the following sections I give details about the objective I assign to each draft, how I prepare for that draft (i.e. what I do in advance) and then the technique I use when actually writing it. I’ve also added a very rough guide to projected timescales and a bullet point summary of each stage.
The objective of Draft Zero is to put down a sturdy foundation for your First Draft to stand on. This draft is a stepping stone between planning and drafting, and isn’t actually prose, hence it being called Draft Zero, rather than First Draft.
I call this draft ‘blocking’.
Before doing the blocking, you should have planned your plot in detail, so you should have a good idea of premise, story beats, characters, locations and a summary outline of each proposed scene.
Then again, maybe you’re a pantser and you’re coming at it cold. Just thinking of you people gives me the sweats. But that’s fine – all are welcome here.
Blocking really isn’t the first draft, and to keep this clear in my mind I write the blocking in the present tense almost in the style of stage directions. It’s a straightforward description of what happens, one thing after another. Sort of like this:
Harry goes to the station where there are lots of people. He finds his way to the right platform and works out how to run into the pillar. He meets Ron on the train and they immediately get on great and buy lots of interesting sweets. They meet Hermione, who is obviously a teacher’s pet. Etc etc.
There is no descriptive language unless it’s important to the plot, and I don’t worry about sentence structure, nice wording or sometimes even (you may need to sit down for this) punctuation and grammar.
Timescale: 2 – 4 weeks
Summary of Draft Zero (Blocking)
- Present tense stage directions
- Minimalist, rough and ready
- 2-4 weeks
Objective - Scaffolding
The objective of the First Draft is to get it out of the way because otherwise you can’t write your Second Draft. The First Draft will teach you heaps about your plot (and its holes) and your characters. Once you’ve finished your first draft, you will be much better informed about where there are plot problems, where characters aren’t acting consistently or where physical or logical limitations need addressing.
Before I start my first draft, I will have completed my blocking, or Draft Zero. This means I won’t be staring at the screen wondering what’s going to happen in any given scene, as I already have the crib notes.
I approach the First Draft like a steam train. I take a deep breath, lift my hands over the keyboard and then type furiously until it’s done. No looking back, no rewriting sentences. Cliches, tense changes, repeated words, purple prose, bad grammar, misspellings – all are totally acceptable.
Because you will not keep a single word of your First Draft. Not a single word. If you think that sounds painful then you’d better brace yourself. New writers sometimes labour under the impression that getting the First Draft done is getting the hard bit out of the way. Wrong.
The First Draft is the first step up the mountain. It would be much better if we could skip the whole First Draft and go straight to the second, but alas, logic disallows it.
So, don’t waste time worrying over style, quality and word choice, because once you’ve completed your first draft you will understand your story so much better you will be cutting out entire chapters and scenes and all that agonising will be wasted.
Writing your First Draft is an exercise in discovery, and it will give you the framework on which to hang your novel.
This is a really fun draft as you can be free and loose and not worry about perfection. You can let your story carry you along, let your imagination run wild. Enjoy it.
Timescale: 1 – 2 Months
Summary of First Draft
- Steam train, no looking back
- Don’t worry about style, just shovel out words
- 1-2 months
Objective – Brickwork
The second draft is where your novel actually starts to take shape and starts resembling something like a novel. You’re putting in the bricks, if you will. You wouldn’t want to live in a house of bare bricks, but it is starting to look like a house.
It should be fairly obvious that before writing the Second Draft you will have finished your First Draft, as it would take some quantum physics style bending to do otherwise. In addition, I also do Character Viewpoint Synopses before starting draft two.
This means I look at the entire novel from the point of view of each of the major characters, thinking about what they are doing and thinking in (and in-between) each scene. I find that this not only helps my characters develop into layered human beings, but it also adds interesting twists and turns to the plot.
I would say the way I approach the Second Draft is what most people would think of as actually ‘writing the book’. Now is the time to write as if you mean it. That means looking at scene structure, balance, pace, sentence structure, vocabulary and style. It means editing as you go, trying to find fresh and interesting ways to describe the details of life and people.
It means trying to really bring the story to life. You should write your Second Draft as if you believe it’s going to be the Final Draft. Write what you want people to read.
It’s not of course, you’re probably less than halfway there. But shhhh, don’t tell yourself that.
While writing the Second Draft, you will probably come up with oodles more ideas and inspiration. If these ideas are timely and appropriate to the scene you are writing, then go ahead and put them in.
But if they relate to a sub-plot that threads all the way through, or something for a different scene, then don’t get distracted and start hopping about right now. Make a note of it for later.
This way you can maintain your forward momentum and not get trapped in a spiral of constantly trying to make it perfect with the result that you never get to the end. And, similarly if not as drastically as with the First Draft, a lot will change over this period of writing, so it’s better to wait until you have all the information – i.e. have finished your Second Draft, before becoming too much of a perfectionist about sections you’ve passed.
Timescale: 4 – 8 Months
Summary of Second Draft
- Complete character viewpoint synopses
- Structure, balance, pace
- Vocabulary and style
- Try to keep forward momentum
- 4-8 months
Objective – Plaster
Now we’re really getting somewhere.
To stretch the novel as house metaphor to its limits, now you are putting on the plaster, doorframes, windows, coving, skirting board and roof.
The house is starting to look like something you can live in. It’s still going to need some finishing touches, but when you’re doing the Third Draft, you can start to see things taking shape.
Before starting the Third Draft there is usually a lot of work to do.
Throughout the Second Draft you will probably have been coming up with more ideas and inspiration, as noted above. Before you start the Third Draft, it’s time to think all these notes through and add in notes, sections and prose to your Second Draft. It’s fine if this is in a slightly clunky way, you’ll address getting everything beautifully smoothed out when you do the next draft.
While in-between drafts you’ll be able to get a better overview perspective on sub-plots and how they develop, as well as foreshadowing and themes. It’s also a good time to do more in depth research, while you’ve got a bit of breathing space and don’t have a word count target hanging over your head.
Once more into the breach, my friends. Now you need to get serious about every single word. This time it’s fine to go back as many times as you want to perfect something. Hop around if you need to while focussing on polishing one sub-plot or a developing a particular theme that runs throughout the story. However – be wary of falling into the trap of rewriting the beginning over and over again, and neglecting the later parts of the book. If you notice you’re doing this, then ban yourself from editing the first third of the book until you’ve given the later chapters a good seeing to. You could even try working on the scenes or chapters backwards, starting from the end.
Now focus on: sub-plots, layered characters that come to life, nuanced relationships, symbolism, themes, textured description and foreshadowing every element of your climax.
At the same time, you should continually be improving the prose itself. Every single word. Use ProWritingAid to check for any clichés, dodgy metaphors or sentences that aren’t working hard enough. Remove any clunky sentences or overdone description. Weed out repetition, telling where you could be showing and lazy or unnecessary adverbs.
Timescale: 4 – 8 Months
Summary of Third Draft
- Incorporate notes
- Layered, believable characters
- Nuanced relationships
- Textured description
- Carry out research to add realism and detail
- Work your prose until it is lean, mean and gleams
Objective – Décor
Now you really are on the home straight. This draft is for putting on the finishing touches, tidying up any loose ends, and getting the manuscript prepped and primed for submission.
It is where you polish and varnish, add colour and bake some fresh cookies to make it smell like home.
Now is a great time to get feedback. This could be from a writing group, in person or online, or from a tame editing buddy (don’t waste time on getting feedback from family and friends unless they are also writers). You may even wish to pay for a professional editing service.
Ideally you will get all your feedback for the entire novel and have time to sit on it before applying anything, rather than just going for knee-jerk reactions and tugging your novel in too many different directions to match the opinions of lots of different people.
If that’s not possible, and you get your feedback in smaller chunks, such as chapters, then you’ll probably need to add another draft after this one, to read everything in faster succession after you’ve made your changes.
The type of feedback you get will depend on your particular foibles and flaws, so what you need to work on will be directly related to that.
Slow and steady, with a critical eye. Paying attention to detail.
I like to change the font and size of the text, as it tricks my brain into reading it afresh again, rather than just glazing over and staring at the same sentences for the hundredth time.
Use ProWritingAid to make every sentence so tight it’s ready to pop.
Another useful technique is also to read your work out loud, as it will often become obvious when words of sentences are clunky.
Dig out any tired phrases, consider every single element of punctuation.
Edit, edit, edit.
Then, one day – call it done.
Timescale: 3 – 6 months
Summary of Final Draft
- Get external feedback from humans and technology
- Find new ways to get fresh eyes
- Edit edit edit edit edit edit
I hope people find it useful to find out a bit more about how another writer works, and that this is a helpful framework for new writers who are finding their own feet.
If you found this useful, check out my step by step guide to writing a novel, which covers all the steps from initial idea up to submission to agents. You also might be interested in The Novel Factory, a program purpose built for novel writing, which is based on the techniques I’ve developed and described here.