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November 30, 2010

What's the magic number when re-drafting?

How many drafts do you have to do before your manuscript will be 'right'?

Should writers really be spending as long polishing their work before submission as some would have us believe? Going through laboriously, line by line, and making our verbs wonderfully strong and emphatic and our metaphors sparkle? Or is this one of the great fallacies perpetuated among new writers?

Perhaps, instead, we should just write that first draft (a difficult enough task for many!) tidy up the spelling and grammar, incorporate the changes suggested by one or two trusted readers and then send it out?

To some extent, the answer depends on the individual, and where they currently are in their journey as a writer, remembering that each of us works differently.
I read a post a little while back originally written back in 2009 by a writer called Dean Wesley Smith, who has written and published under a number of pen names. It raised some interesting ideas about the whole writing/rewriting/redrafting process which are specifically targeted at beginning writers. His post on rewriting is part of a series attacking the so-called 'Sacred Cows of Publishing'.

You can go on over and read what he has to say if you're interested - but in summary, he challenges the idea that endless reworking is a good thing, and he states pretty emphatically that in many cases it's unnecessary and could be a complete waste of your time.

My own experience on this is pretty limited, but I can report that when I met with my agent for the first time, she pretty much confirmed the above ideas. Apparently, if you've achieved the 'dream' and you're on contract to a publisher, particularly for something with continuity issues like a multi-book series, they're likely to want to see stuff as soon as you've written it so they can see where you're heading, and how the work is traveling. That means you'd be sending off bits of polished first-draft. Maybe second. No time for multiple rounds of feedback from your crit partners. No time for agonizing over the perfect metaphor.

Remember here that professional staff editors at publishing houses are specifically paid to help with line editing, continuity editing, and overall structure, and will be going through any manuscript with a fine tooth comb. If any writer actually got everything right first time, all those editors'd be out of a job.

For some of us, the idea of actually sending work out into the world is very intimidating. If you never try, you can never fail. On the other hand, as professional writers are quick to point out, if you never submit anything, it's a dead certainty that you'll never sell anything! Just keep in mind that endless rewriting is (or can be) an insidious form of procrastination.

So for those of you who, like me, are still on the journey to publication, and are perhaps out there sweating over every word and every line, worrying whether your work is good enough to submit yet...take comfort in the fact that the only time you're ever going to have to agonize over your work this much is in the lead-up to getting an agent. After that, if the experts can be trusted, it's a whole new ball game!

Note added 2nd December: I didn't actually mention the way I work - which is very slowly. Unlike some of you out there who work super quickly, my first draft takes me a while, but it's fairly polished. Most of my later drafts are to take into account reader comments and add sections, clarify certain points, weave in a new sub-plot etc.


chicklit1028 said...

I have a friend that has been rewriting the first chapter of her novel for about three years now. That's definitely not healthy.

I think you're right that there's a balance to be found. I also think it depends on the talent/experience of the writer. You and your drafts get better with practice. So writing new stuff is more beneficial than rewriting old stuff hundreds and thousands of times. Or, that's my opinion.

Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting post!

Hart Johnson said...

I totally think it depends on the writer and the process. Also, probably, genre. I write a fairly fast first draft, but there are typically a fair number of holes or things I need to do to improve it, so I am HOPING where I've settled in is this: write it, fix the things that make me nuts, read and mark, big edit, get feedback from peers, polish: so it's the 5th draft but only one of those was a major rewrite (unless the peers spot a big problem). I can't really see it going much faster than that. I'm that far with the Cozy that is due the end of December and my agent currently has it for her feedback, so I guess the editor will get #6.

Kari Marie said...

Great post. I recently read that it should take a minimum of a year to revise before submitting.

As I finish my first novel and start to revise, this is something to consider. I think it's very easy to get caught in an endless revision cycle. It's safe there-no one has rejected your work yet, and if you are a perfectionist like me then endless revising only makes it better....

I agree with chicklit, it seems one would get more benefit from writing new work than spending endless hours on revising.

KLM said...

I do think that every writer develops a sort of blindness to what she's working on after a while. At some point, you need feedback, and that means putting things out there, taking a chance, getting knocked around and rejected and then trying to figure out why. It's just wishful thinking to believe that you can hone something to perfection. Even if it were possible, whatever your idea of perfection might be, there will be readers/agents who don't like it. It's one of the hardest things to accept about writing: some things are beyond our control. Universal appeal is one of those things.

L'Aussie said...

Hey Adina, great post. You're speaking to me here as I write a fairly fast first draft, full of parts needing further research etc but I feel you're talking more about structure etc. I tend to over edit, but why this is common in newbie writers is that we feel you need everything to be the best you can possibly make it to have any chance at all for an editor to take your 'years of sweat and tears...' Sure, there is an unhealthy stage as chicklit pointed out, but to me I don't want to send anything out that isn't my best effort.

Also been browsing your previous posts I missed. I loved the 'recharge' post. I agree. There comes a time even in my writing schedule when I feel I just have to get out for awhile, go running, walking or to a coffee shop. I always come back raring to go!

The Sisterhood said...

When it comes to knowing when to quit in writing a book, I think there are a few criteria to follow:
1) Have I drained all my critiquers of helpful advice and they have nothing more to add? They are, after all, the ones who really know our manuscript.
2) Can I stand reading about these characters one more time? Perhaps they're like company and begin to stink after so long. Then it's time to put them away.
3) Does it really matter all that much if I keep reading my manuscript to change a verb here or there? What's the point?
4) Do you have peace about what you've written? If so, don't keep going back and beating that dead horse. Poor thing! It needs to have its own measure of peace, too.

Anyway, those are a few things I keep in the back of my mind when doing revisions. You just have to know when to stop. Constant change won't necessarily make it better. It might just make it worse!

♥ Mary Mary

Deidra said...

You wrote this post at the perfect time! I just finished NaNoWriMo (I won!), and I'm beginning to turn my mind to editing. Thanks for the tips. The huge task of editing seems about 17% less daunting now. :)

Adina West said...

@chicklit1028: I absolutely agree - on both counts!
@Hart: You make a good point - some 'drafts' require less work than others. Sounds like you have a good system in place.
@Kari: Whoever told you it takes a year to revise a novel certainly doesn't speak for us all! I let my first draft percolate for a month or so, then spent about 5 months on several rounds of revisions before declaring it 'done' and sending it out.
@KLM & Mary Mary: I agree 100%.
@l'Aussie: I understand where you're coming from - and nobody's advocating sending out an unpolished manuscript - I suppose the key is knowing when you've reached that end point and not wasting more time going in circles over and over again...
@Deidra: Good luck - and congrats on finishing NaNo!

A Pen In Neverland: Angela Peña Dahle said...

Mine usually falls somewhere between 20+ drafts. Magical ain't it! Eh... well I have an award for ya anyhow. So if my drafts aren't magical enough, this award should be.

Adina West said...

Thanks so much Angela. :-)

Rachael Harrie said...

Great post Adina and for someone caught up in revisions like I am, very thought-provoking! Your comment "endless rewriting is (or can be) an insidious form of procrastination" rings really true to me - I hadn't thought about it like that, but I think you're spot on :)


kangaroobee said...

Yes great post Adina, and something I think about a lot. It's probably different for pbs but I have flogged at least two pbs and when I realised I quickly started new things. If you aren't moving forward with an ms or writing something new, you can end up on a mouse wheel going around and around. Learning to critique your own work as someone else would early on would probably prevent over-editing.

What is the average number of drafts for a novel anyway. For pbs apparently it's 60!

J.C. Martin said...

I agree. There is no magic number for revisions, although zero is definitely a bad idea. There is a Chinese idiom: "drawing a snake and adding legs", to describe messing up a work of art from too much tinkering about.

L'Aussie said...

Hey Adina, me again! You have an award on my blog! Please come by and pick up!

Adina West said...

@Rach: Good luck with the revisions, and I hope the end is in sight!
@Kangaroobee: No idea what the average is for novels, but I'm sure it drops commensurate with the writer's experience. Thank heaven you're working with a MUCH shorter manuscript for a picture book - I don't think my enthusiasm for a novel MS would ever survive 60 drafts...
@J.C.: I love that Chinese saying. So true!
@L'Aussie: Thank you. :-)

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